“Even Better Than the Real Thing” – U2, 1992.
I can kick this post off by reassuring readers that it won’t be quite as heavy as yesterday’s. Instead we’ll just offer a few paragraphs about one of my favorite bands, one with whom I have savored and at times rued a two-decade-long love/huh? relationship. (You’ll also note that I appear to be constitutionally prohibited from in-depth appreciation of bands from my own side of the Atlantic.) U2 first came to my attention in the mid-early-80’s when they were transitioning away raw, angry Irish proto-punk into more mature, textured material that wasn’t all allegorical retellings of the Troubles. I can say that now that my vocabulary has developed substantially; back then it was only a matter of taking the slightest interest in the Unforgettable Fire poster on my cousin Brad’s bedroom wall. Even when their legendary Joshua Tree album dropped a few years later they didn’t really register for me. They seemed too serious, too dire, too preachy. What is interesting to me now, as a devoted fan, is going back and realizing just how many of Bono’s lyrics are intended to be about God, but that like the best pieces of art (or religious texts, as it were), you can interpret them to mean, or be about, whatever or whomever you want.
What do U2’s songs mean to me? Well, let’s go back and talk a bit about how I finally got into them.
1997 for U2 brought the release of Pop, what is probably their most polarizing album, setting aside the art-for-art’s-sake Passengers misfire. (Given the aforementioned Christian focus of Bono’s lyrics you could assign a double meaning to the title of this one as well: Pop – Poppa – Father – God.) The lead single was “Discotheque,” a foray into 90’s club music, featuring an appropriately cheesy video which had Bono and company donning the garb of the Village People and performing an easily mimicked hip-thrusting dance. My playlist had grown stale and I was hungering for something fresh, and this fit the bill. For once, those dour Irish dudes seemed like they were having some fun, and I could get into this. The trouble was the rest of the album wasn’t so great. Aside from one beautiful standout (“Gone,” which should have been a single but wasn’t for whatever reason), it remains a hard-to-listen-to mishmash of misbegotten experiments and half-finished ideas. But no matter, the fish had bitten into the hook and I began to mine their back catalogue. That’s when I found Achtung Baby.
I’ll happily argue with anyone who doesn’t think it remains their best album by a mile. Almost like a greatest hits collection, there isn’t a single song on there that can’t stand up to years of replays. In rock journalist Bill Flanagan’s terrific book U2 At The End of The World, the band talks about how the album took much of its inspiration from Nighttown in James Joyce’s Ulysses, and as such follows a wanderer who, seduced by more hip-thrusting rhythms, descends into an orgiastic abyss, confronts his soul and winds up spent and wrecked in the damp gutter as the dawn finally begins to break. Backed at every harrowing step, of course, by some simply marvelous tunes. Now I don’t remember enough of what I read of Ulysses (i.e. almost nothing) to draw all the connections for you, but listening to Achtung Baby uninterrupted, start to finish, does feel like an odyssey of sorts, and you do find yourself feeling a bit worn as the closing track “Love is Blindness” fades away, but the journey’s been worth it.
So it’s ’97, I’m spinning Achtung Baby and “Even Better Than the Real Thing” nonstop, and driving my friends bonkers by being the worst version of a U2 n00b (U200b?) you can imagine, prattling on as if I’d discovered them. “Did you guys know that Bono’s real name is Paul Hewson? Did you guys know that the first time Axl Rose heard ‘One’ it made him cry? Did you guys know that they used to be called Feedback? Did you guys know…” and so on and so forth. Looking back on it even I would have told myself to shut up. But when you’ve found something that fills a void you weren’t sure was even there, your first instinct is to share the news far and wide, and be incredulous that not everyone else mirrors your admittedly insufferable enthusiasm.
U2 have released six albums and a couple of compilations since Achtung Baby, and what keeps me buying the new ones even though none have lived up to its standard, is the idea that U2 remain seekers and questioners. They subscribe to the concept that faith unchallenged is not true faith, and are ever reinventing themselves and their sound to pursue the glaringly contradictory aim of a brutally necessary yet realistically unachievable goal: solving What It’s All About. However, this approach can test the patience of those fans who only want to hear the old Joshua Tree classics reinterpreted with some new guitar licks (i.e., The Rolling Stones Career Plan, patent pending.) When you’re trying for that elusive objective as well, your heart is more forgiving of the missteps no matter how awkward or brash – especially since theirs tend to sound much better. U2 have been called pretentious, phony, egotistical, preachy, hypocritical and even clueless, but they’ve never been accused of being boring. Their ability to surprise is like that of life itself – built in the DNA. Though they may never again equal the achievement that is Achtung Baby, their choice to not rest on those laurels is an admirable one. Go away and dream it all up again, as Bono once said. What is even better than the real thing? Knowing that the questions, and the choice to pursue those questions, are sometimes more valuable than the answers.