War (1983): U2 Is Gay!
We don't express it like that. That's what we think, though. U2 is for girls. Little sisters try to convince us U2 is important: "Did you know that 'New Year's Day' is about Soviet domination of Eastern Europe and blah blah blah." We know what's really going on. What they really mean is that Bono is sooooooooo cute! "New Year's Day" is kind of catchy, though. And the drums at the opening of "Sunday Bloody Sunday." "Men at Work," now, THAT's a cool band.
The Unforgettable Fire (1984): The World's Biggest Underground Band
"And did you know," the little sisters go on, "that 'In the Name Love' is about Martin Luther King!" Yeah, yeah. They're still just drooling over Bono. Still, "Pride (In the Name of Love)" does have one of the great intros of any rock song ever. It never sounds quite right live, though. And then there's "Bad," Bono staking his claim to "rock's greatest screamer." (He's no Daltrey, but he has his moments.) In the meantime, we toil through adolescence, the radio always on in the background. The soundtrack of our lives takes shape.
The Joshua Tree (1987): World Domination
"With or Without You" is one of those songs that you know that, years later, you'll remember where you were when you first heard it. The Solipsist is a freshman at Syracuse University. Just returning to the dorm room and flipping on the radio. The song is actually ending. Still, the pulsing, yearning bass line, Edge's playful guitar weaving in and out. Hooked.
U2 is coming to town! No point even trying to tickets, right? Still, what the hell, the Carrier Dome's on the way. Might as well just check out the box office. No line! Are there still tickets? There are!
You take your best friend to the show, and she manages to lose her ticket in the bathroom (thankfully, after you've passed through the gate, so no harm done). Everyone slightly buzzed. Once the show starts, no one sits down for the next two hours--except, strangely, for the people behind US. They sit like they're at the philharmonic. They don't complain about us standing and blocking their view, so, no biggie. Still, it's odd.
Achtung Baby (1991): Reinvention
For months, ahead of the album's release, the rumors buzz: U2 has gone disco! They're making a dance album! In fact, Achtung Baby is nothing so much as a middle finger to the critics who mock U2 for their earnestness. "Fine," the album seems to say, "You think we're fake? You think we're nothing but a social-protest group whose act has gotten stale? You think we've gone commercial? Well, here you go. We're U2. We can do anything we want. And when we sell out, it's gonna be the greatest fuckin' sell-out in the history of rock and roll!"
You either love it or you hate it. The first release from the album, "The Fly," strikes some as "overproduced." If this is the new direction--this techno-pop electronica--we're not sure how we feel about it. Soon enough, though, we hear the rest of the album. As "One" comes to an end, the DJ rhapsodizes, "Well, there's a song you could listen to about 900,000 times!" He's right.
The soundtrack of our lives gains a new depth.
Pop (1997): Well, It Was Fun while It Lasted
After tolerating Zooropa (1993), which at least has its moments, you pick up what seems to be U2's swan song. Pop is. . . well, it's pretty awful. While U2 can probably WRITE pop songs, one wonders why they would want to. Are they being ironic? At a music awards show, U2 performs. Bono comes out in some kind of hooded sweatshirt and rasps his way through "If God Will Send His Angels."
It's time to put away childish things: comic books, living at home, and, apparently, U2. You are a grown up. You're married. Musically, you've embraced the sublimity of Elvis Costello, and you've wrapped yourself in the smug superiority that comes with being able to throw out casual references to Tom Waits and Leonard Cohen. U2--you can be nostalgic about them. "Boy, I remember seeing them at Syracuse back when they were good!" You hope they'll just pack it in and wait for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction.
All That You Can't Leave Behind (2000): Resurrection
So U2's coming out with a new album? Why?
You resolve not to buy it. Why bother? Still, from the first shimmery chords of "Beautiful Day," you sense there's something different about this one. It's not until you first hear "Walk On," though, that you give in and decide to buy it. They're back.
The album is both a return to their roots and a creative leap forward. "Stuck in a Moment You Can't Get Out of"--what a horrible, unwieldy title. Still, it's not quite like any other rock song you've ever heard: The melody--between "You've got to get yourself together/You've got" and "stuck in a moment and now you can't get out of it"--does something strange and inexplicable, going down when it SHOULD go up--or something (you wish you had the musical vocabulary to explain this better). But it works!
And then 9/11, and music seems briefly more relevant---everything is briefly more relevant after 9/11. And you put your finger on it: The songs are sad; they're dark; yet they all seem to contain a glimmer of hope--a little bit of joy beneath the minor keys. Things are bad, but your band is still there. Life goes on, and the soundtrack of your life goes on, too.
How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb (2004): Deification
Bush somehow wins a second term. U2 seems more relevant, more necessary, than it has in a long time. "With a mouth full of teeth / You ate all your friends / And you broke every heart thinking every heart mends," Bono sings, a suitable indictment of the current American regime. He continues, "Where you live should not decide / Whether you live or whether you die." So, "St. Bono," as he's called by the snarky media, continues his quest to cure the world's ills. Now, however, he's more than a protest singer: He's meeting with presidents and popes; he's traveling the world with Jeffrey Sachs to discuss ways to cure world poverty; he's guest editing magazines and writing op-eds to highlight the needs of those whom society overlooks. (A satirical headline in "The Onion": "Rest of U2 Perfectly Fine with Africans Starving.") Bono is rumored to be in the running for the Nobel Peace Prize (as Bob Dylan is rumored to be up for the Nobel in Literature. It will be interesting to see who wins one first).
No Line on the Horizon (2009): Where to?
Following their strategy from Achtung Baby U2 releases "Get on Your Boots"--a decidedly mediocre song as the first single from the latest album. Also like Achtung Baby, though, the album has plenty of goodies tucked into it. But it hardly matters at this point.
Who is the greatest band in the history of rock and roll? Of course, the Beatles are sui generis, but after that, the picture gets a little cloudy. Most would say there is a fairly fixed pantheon of bands that deserve to be in the conversation. Beyond the Beatles, you usually have Led Zeppelin (obviously), The Who (well, OK), and the Rolling Stones.
(Digression: Personally, the Solipsist thinks the Stones are a overrated. They've undoubtedly had some great songs, but they haven't done anything really important since the early 80's--if then. End of digression.)
But what about U2? They've been at it for thirty years, now, and show no signs of letting up. They've stuck together. If they do engage in ego-related spats, they keep it all under the radar, the Edge, Adam, and Larry apparently perfectly fine with deferring to Bono as their face and voice. And most importantly, they are still creating, still evolving, still looking for something new to say musically.
The Solipsist takes comfort in this. For our generation, for better or for worse--for better AND for worse--U2 has provided and continues to provide the soundtrack of our lives. It's good to think that the soundtrack will continue to be composed as we travel at least a little further down the road.