Tag Archives: Bono

With a Song in My Heart: Z is for…

“Zooropa” – U2, 1993.

Here we are on Day 26 with our final installment, and as expected it’s a tad bittersweet.  While I’ve relished the challenge of delving into my past as scored with specific pieces of music and testing my capacity for both memoir and music journalism, and could likely go on with several more, Z is as good a place as any to stop, before the formula grows stale and the stories tedious.  The question arises, naturally, of what to do next, after these ~25,000 words in 30 days have been relegated to the archive of projects past.  I might borrow a line from the subject of today’s entry and go away and dream it all up again.  We’ll see.  That’s a decision for May 1st.  Before I go on, though, I want to send a special shout out to Joanne Blaikie of Writeaway, who’s been a challenge partner and has provided a great deal of support and encouragement along the way.  The subject of Joanne’s A to Z challenge has been an encyclopedic journey through her fantasy trilogy Prophecy of Innocence and it’s been a delight to see the fruits of her wonderful imagination revealed one post at a time.

It is of writing, in fact, that the final post in my series speaks.  I’ve always written to a lot of U2, generally from The Unforgettable Fire onwards (their first three albums are a little too raw and distracting when you’re trying to sink into a moment).  The Edge’s trippy, dreamy guitar work in the Eno period has ever been a proper Pied Piper leading me into that headspace wellspring from whence the words come.  “Zooropa,” the title track from their 1993 album, is a headspace all its own.  About ten years ago, when I was hardcore first drafting what would become – after being extracted from the bloated behemoth of another work, reimagined, rethought, revised, abandoned for eight years while I sorted out my life, rescued from oblivion, chopped in three and re-revised again – my first novel (which, described that way, sounds like the procedure Vogons have to follow to rescue their grandmothers from the Ravenous Bugblatter Beast of Traal), I used “Zooropa” to wake myself up in the mornings I had set aside to work on it.  It is a great alarm song – rather than waking you with a start, the introduction crescendoes slowly from almost nothing, adding in a gentle piano arpeggio before the guitar asserts itself and Bono starts singing.  There’s a line in it too that is a terrific mantra for writers:  “I have no compass, and I have no map.  And I have no reasons, no reasons to get back.”  Even those of us who work from intricate outlines have to admit that the excitement in the writing process is losing ourselves in the story and finding out where it goes, the unexpected corners that are the reward for the blood-and-sweat agony of advancing the narrative ever further.  And once you start, you don’t want to stop, even if you’re not entirely sure where you’re going.  Uncertainty, as Bono suggests in “Zooropa,” can be a guiding light.

Zooropa the album was recorded during a break between legs of U2’s Zoo TV tour in 1992-93, a record-breaking, MTV-inspired extravaganza whose excesses came to characterize the band that U2 would become after leaving behind the occasionally insufferable earnestness of their 80’s work.  While traveling the world promoting Achtung Baby, U2 learned how to take the piss out of themselves and embrace the contradictions of rock stardom.  Energized by this new vibe, the band chose to funnel the outpouring of creativity into a new album rather than lounging about their mansions for four months waiting to go out on the road again.  The result was somewhat uneven, with achingly beautiful numbers like “Stay (Faraway, So Close!)” sitting uneasily next to throwaways like “Babyface” and the miscasting of Johnny Cash on lead vocals for “The Wanderer,” without the unifying theme so obvious on the previous LP.  We’ve probably each had an occasion where something sparks our idea generator and we rush to empty our braingasms through the nearest writing implement, only to look back on the result the next day and question the apparent temporary loss of sanity.  The blog challenge doesn’t give you that opportunity for reflection, you have to publish and move on to the next one, keep feeding the beast.  When I saw U2 perform live on their last tour, I don’t think they did a single song from Zooropa.  What was good enough to win the Best Alternative Album Grammy for 1993 apparently doesn’t rate a mention almost twenty years later.  I may look back on this series from the perch of a few years’ distance and wish I could rewrite every single one from scratch.  It isn’t ego, it’s the nature of the business, and we are always our own harshest critics.  One wonders sometimes why we choose such a masochistic vocation.  But it’s because we were born this way.  We have to do this.  “Choice” never enters into it.

The last line in “Zooropa” is “dream out loud.”  Back then it was the perfect message with which to kick off a daily explosion of new words.  What is writing, anyway, but dreaming out loud?  Transforming wild thoughts and secret longings through the greatest medium available to facilitate the connection of one person to a community of our common humanity.  Ever since the first English teacher handed me a pencil and a sheet of lined paper and asked me to tell her in a proper paragraph about what I did over the weekend, I’ve been afflicted with the compulsion to assemble words into opinions, parables, images, plots and plain old goofery, and share them with others.  It’s been almost thirty-five years of this now and I can’t kick the habit.  Success, or lack thereof, isn’t part of the equation.  Even if no one was reading this I’d probably still be doing it.  I suspect many of my readers who are themselves writers feel the same.  Recognition is icing.  The true reward is a story well told.  And for those times when we find ourselves mired in the muck, the right music can help us find the way out, better than a compass and a map.

So here’s to dreaming out loud, with songs in our hearts, yesterday, today and all the tomorrows to come.  Thanks for reading.

With a Song in My Heart: E is for…

“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.

Skyfall Countdown Day 6: Goldeneye

Desmond Llewelyn, checking out the new guy.

The years following Licence to Kill were depressing for James Bond fans.  Legal wrangling surrounding the ownership of parent studio MGM/UA, rumours that the rights were being sold to insert-hack-Hollywood-producer’s-name-here, and a general ebbing of talk of James Bond from the zeitgeist seemed to indicate that 007 was finished, finally gone the way of Derek Flint, Matt Helm and all the second-rate imitators he’d managed to spawn in his nearly 30-year screen career.  But then, as the tide of the recession of the early 1990’s receded, promising hints began to spring up like the fabled green shoots from the blanket of winter snow.  The lawsuits were settled, and Albert R. Broccoli’s Eon Productions remained firmly in charge.  A screenwriter, Michael France, had been hired to write a new Bond movie.  Questions then naturally arose about Timothy Dalton.  It had been five years since Licence to Kill – would audiences still want to see him as Bond?  Dalton ended the discussion by announcing in April of 1994 that he would not be coming back, and informal polls suggested there was one actor at the top of every fan’s list to take his place.  On June 7, 1994, eight years after his first brush with 007, the world’s press was introduced to the new James Bond:  Pierce Brosnan.

With their new star locked, the biggest challenge for the filmmakers was how to re-introduce James Bond to a world that had seen tumultuous changes since his last outing.  The Soviet Union, the Iron Curtain and the Cold War that had birthed Bond in the first place were all gone, and some critics were suggesting that 007 should disappear with them.  But rather than making a period piece, or wallowing in anachronistic nostalgia, it was decided to embrace this new climate with the following mantra:  “The world has changed; James Bond has not.”  Bond would always be Bond, but now this “sexist, misogynist dinosaur” would find himself confronting the new world with its new threats.  To that end a complete creative shakeup was required, both in front of and behind the camera – director John Glen, who had handled the previous five films, was not asked to return, and the reins were instead handed to Martin Campbell, the first real “outsider” Bond director who hadn’t come up through the Eon system.  And the story would see Bond’s world turned completely on its head, thrust into a realm of shadows as old adversaries became awkward allies and trusted friends, bitter enemies.

In the prologue, set during the height of the Cold War, Bond and Alec Trevelyan, 006 (Sean Bean) are assigned to infiltrate and destroy a Soviet chemical weapons facility.  The mission goes awry, 006 is killed and Bond makes a spectacular if implausible escape by diving after a falling plane, climbing on board and pulling it out of its dive.  Following the stylish opening credits in which silhouetted beauties smash apart Communist iconography (a sequence which apparently greatly upset several still-active Communist parties throughout the world) the story picks up nine years later where Russia is a shambles struggling to adopt capitalism and Bond is considered a relic by the new, female M (Judi Dench).  But he’s thrust back into the fray when an experimental helicopter that can withstand electromagnetic pulse damage is stolen and used to facilitate the theft of an old Soviet space-based weapon called Goldeneye, which, when detonated, will destroy everything that contains an electronic circuit.  Bond travels to Russia, where retired KGB agent Valentin Zukovsky (Robbie Coltrane) points him in the direction of the mysterious arms dealer known as Janus, who turns out to be none other than Bond’s old friend Trevelyan, who faked his death in order to abscond to the other side and carry out a long-simmering scheme of revenge against the United Kingdom for its betrayal of his family.  With the help of Goldeneye computer programmer Natalya Simonova (Izabella Scorupco) and CIA agent Jack Wade (Joe Don Baker), and while dodging the lethal advances of femme fatale Xenia Onatopp (Famke Janssen), Bond must chase down his former ally and stop him from unleashing the Goldeneye against London and igniting a worldwide financial collapse.

The filmmakers knew they were down to their last chance, that failure would mean the end of James Bond as a viable cinematic property.  With the screenplay they smartly chose to add depth to the basic machinations of the plot, pulling apart Bond’s character and using the movie itself to ask if Bond was still relevant in the modern world, as well as confronting some of the more absurd elements of Bond’s character directly.  Bond is belittled, first by his immediate superior, and ultimately by Trevelyan, who chastises him with the screenplay’s finest lines:  “One might as well ask if all the vodka martinis silence the screams of all the men you’ve killed, or if you find forgiveness in the arms of all those willing women, for all the dead ones you failed to protect.”  Is being James Bond good for the soul?  Alec Trevelyan by contrast, is James Bond pushed over the narrow divide, and the inspired casting of Sean Bean, who at one point was rumoured as a potential Bond himself, gives us an example of how destructive Bond’s lifestyle can be to a man’s moral center.  The rich cinematography by Phil Meheux provides a striking palette of shadows and darkness, in contrast to the brightly and somewhat flat-lit adventures of Bond’s past, to emphasize this murky uncertainty lingering over every action that Bond takes.

As well as Bean’s compelling “anti-Bond,” the cast boasts a solid bench of supporting performers who round out this new world with a wealth of memorable characters – the singular Dench, although underused here with only two brief scenes, establishes a new kind of relationship between Bond and his hitherto remote boss that hints at a deeper exploration to come.  Robbie Coltrane is an energetic delight, Boris Badenov accent and all, channelling Sydney Greenstreet as Valentin Zukovsky.  Joe Don Baker gets to have much more fun here as the nickname-happy Jack Wade than he did as his previous character Whitaker in The Living Daylights.  Izabella Scorupco is a perfect companion for Bond – she is spirited, competent, brave and unafraid to challenge Bond on his failings.  Famke Janssen has her over-the-top moments as the assassin who kills men by crushing them with her thighs, but she is clearly enjoying the hell out of her part.  Even Alan Cumming makes an impression as hapless wannabe supervillain computer nerd Boris.  Filling the roles with strong actors, rather than the cheaper bit players one would have seen in previous films, forces the lead to up his game.

Pierce Brosnan has since admitted that he thought he probably would have been too young in 1987 to play James Bond convincingly.  The years between then and this movie have filled in his face with more character, that slight world-weariness that 007 should always possess, even in his lighter moments.  His Bond is less outwardly morose than Dalton’s, but one gets the sense that the veneer of playfulness radiating from him is just that, and it is only skin deep.  But no one really wants to follow a sad sack around for two hours, and Brosnan gives Bond more than enough charm to endear him to us again, even with subtle, very Bond-ian touches like patting his face with a towel after tossing a thug down a set of stairs.  If there is a single reservation about his Bond it’s that in this movie he seems a bit physically slight, which was noted by more than a few critics and seemed to inspire him to bulk up significantly for his next go-around.

How fares Goldeneye where action is concerned?  Exceptionally well given the benchmark set by movies like James Cameron’s Bond pastiche True Lies, which came out the previous year.  The movie opens with a visually stunning bungee-jump leap from a dam and only gets better.  Apart from a couple of inoffensive gags in the tank chase in the middle of the film, mercifully abandoned is the tendency of the 80’s Bonds to stage action as slapstick, replaced with true suspense and the need for Bond to be inventive in how he extricates himself from danger, rather than just relying on whatever Q has given him (a missile-equipped car presented to Bond at the beginning of the movie goes almost entirely unused).  The final fight scene atop the Arecibo telescope, doubling for Trevelyan’s Cuban satellite base, is brutal, raw and the most even-handed matchup Bond has ever had to face, made all the more emotionally consequential since this isn’t just some random evil billionaire he’s tangling with, but a man he once called friend – and Bond must decide if it’s truly “for England, James.”

Peter Lamont, the series’ regular production designer since Ken Adam’s departure, does a remarkable job here with a bigger budget – until now his sets had always looked somewhat artificial, as though the paint had just dried seconds before the director called action.  Goldeneye is a “used universe” where even the walls have earned their history.  And creative use of London locations and outdoor soundstages makes for a believable St. Petersburg, Russia setting despite the actors and first unit never setting foot there during filming.  Daniel Kleinman, taking over for the late Maurice Binder as main titles designer, pays homage to Binder’s traditions while incorporating the themes of the story into his canvas of beautiful naked women swirling through a surreal landscape, accompanied by Tina Turner as a worthy successor to Shirley Bassey singing the theme song penned by U2’s Bono and The Edge.  One area where Goldeneye receives a lot of criticism, however, is in its musical score.  French composer Eric Serra, who works largely with synthesizers, was hired to bring a 90’s take on the usual John Barry bombast.  It was certainly different, although not, it seems, in a positive way.  After a test audience bemoaned the lack of the Bond theme, a different composer was brought in to re-score the tank chase, and this would be Serra’s only kick at Bond’s can.  The electronic sound is somewhat jarring, particularly if you’re watching Goldeneye as part of a Bond marathon, but it works in context, particularly when conveying the coldness of the Russian setting.  At least, it was better than Michel Legrand.

Goldeneye was a huge international smash, bringing James Bond back to the forefront of the public consciousness and proving that there would always be an appetite for more, so long as it was done right.  In addition, it showed that 007 could compete against the Die Hards and the Speeds of the world that had attempted to fill the gap he’d left open for six long years.  As Goldeneye’s end credits rolled and “JAMES BOND WILL RETURN” drifted by, fans could catch their breath and be assured this time that he would, in increasingly spectacular style.

Tomorrow:  James Bond vs. Rupert Murdoch.

Varying degrees of greatness

The City of Calgary, wallowing in its greatness.

At the Stampede last week, Prime Minister Stephen Harper got up in front of his adopted hometown crowd and proclaimed Calgary the greatest city in Canada.  This being the political climate where no off-the-cuff comment goes un-deconstructed en masse (and Harper being the veteran politician who says nothing that hasn’t been poll-tested), cries of favouritism erupted from his opposition.  In my best mood on my best day I’m hard-pressed to say anything positive about the guy, but this is one instance in which critics just make themselves look silly by raising a public ruckus.  The man is standing in front of a crowd in Calgary – he’s hardly going to tell them that “well, you guys are pretty awesome but Whitehorse totally rocks my socks.”  Does anyone believe that when Bono drops the name of the city U2 is playing in he’s doing it out of a genuine conviction that his time spent in this metropolis has been the most rewarding of his life, or do they recognize that it’s merely an applause line?  I’ve been to Calgary once, for a weekend, and what I saw of it seemed very nice, as did its people, but I’m not sure that it would qualify for this ambiguous concept of greatness anymore than any other Canadian city, town or backwater burg it’s been my fortune to pass through.  The problem isn’t a lacking on Calgary’s part, it’s more a general unease about how to qualify something as great.

“Great” is a word we’ve tossed around so often that it’s become meaningless.  “What a great movie.”  “She’s such a great girl.”  “These are the greatest cookies I’ve ever tasted.”  Yet despite its overuse, the concept of greatness is one that we value greatly.  I remember reading a book in Philosophy 101 called God, the Devil and the Perfect Pizza.  I may get the details wrong – I wasn’t quite the seasoned thinker I am now (snicker) when I first ploughed through it and was distracted by the gorgeous blonde in the very short black miniskirt seated two rows ahead of me.  But the concept was basically a more plain-spoken rehash of the ontological argument that one could prove the existence of God through logic, if one accepted the premise that God was the greatest conceivable being, and that existence being a necessary component of greatness (the idea that a God who did not exist would not, in fact, be the greatest conceivable being), God must therefore exist.  Where the book has fun with this is twisting the argument around to prove by a similar method, the existence of the Devil (hypothesized as the worst conceivable being) and the greatest conceivable pizza.  I don’t think I ever quite grokked the logical twists that validated this line of thinking – I suppose if you’re religious and looking to disprove an atheist it could come in handy.  But the idea of the greatest conceivable anything stuck with me.  “Greatness,” like beauty, is so totally subjective – one man will vomit up in disgust the meal the gourmand thinks is the greatest thing he’s ever eaten – that who I picture as the greatest conceivable being will differ completely from yours, and the next guy’s, and the next guy’s after him.  (Mine might look like that blonde.  I swear, her toned legs in that black mini were a wonder to behold.)

We see this daily in the critical sphere:  endless top ten lists recounting beloved movies, music, literature, artwork, key lime pies.  Quality can be agreed on universally to a point – certainly few can put forth defensible arguments that Plan 9 from Outer Space is a better movie than 2001: A Space Odyssey.  But beyond that point lies the uncanny valley where opinion takes over and cements the final determination, as individual as the person offering it.  It’s also why people usually react badly to self-proclaimed greatness, like when folks who haven’t ventured over their county line announce that America is the greatest country in the world.  Opinions about one’s own greatness are the least valued, especially when one cannot walk the walk, as it were.  Muhammad Ali’s boasts are the stuff of sports legend, but he could back it up in the ring.  How though, do you determine the relative greatness of a more abstract concept like a city, especially if you’re predisposed to bias because you live there (or represent it in the House of Commons)?  Do you base it on hard statistics, like crime, transportation, wealth, homelessness and pollution, or on the equally abstract idea of character?  How do you say with certainty that one city’s character is better than another’s?  The people are nicer, there are more interesting restaurants, the tourist attractions are less cheesy, you can always find a place to park?  Woody Allen once observed that the primary cultural advantage of Los Angeles was the ability to turn right on a red.  It seems that any judgment on the relative greatness of anything is fated to be equally pithy, given that ultimately, the criteria used to make this determination are so esoteric as to defy classification.

Or, in English, there is no such thing as “the greatest.”  There are things that are great and things that are even greater than those first great things.  But “greatest” is forever elusive.  And that is probably great in itself, because it will force us to continue to aim for it.  Declaring oneself the greatest is admitting that not only can you go no further, you don’t even want to try.  You’re entirely satisfied.  You’re done.  And lack of ambition, of aspiration, of the dream of progress, is not a quality associated with greatness in any way.

Besides, everyone knows that the greatest city in Canada is <404 error file not found>

Don’t worry Coldplay, I still love you

Fun-loving guys, not that you’d know it from the humorless Anton Corbijn photograph.

What’s with the Coldplay hate?  Google “Coldplay criticism” and you’ll find oodles of articles and blog posts slagging the successful English pop quartet for any number of ills including but not limited to vapid lyrics, uninspired melodies, unabashed sentimentality, and that most lethal of sins in the music world, being popular.  I suppose the pile-on of sour grapes might be understandable if Coldplay were a bunch of pretentious, unapologetic douches (a la Chris Brown), but that certainly isn’t the sense you get from them in interviews, or more importantly, in performance – no walking off the stage in a huff of profanity mid-set because there were brown M&M’s in the candy bowl.  No one, even their most ardent supporters, will claim that Coldplay are edgy, envelope-pushing avant-garders, but I’m not convinced that’s what they’ve ever wanted to be.  They are not tortured Van Goghs forcing music out through their pores in relentless emo wrist-cutting agony.  Throughout their career, they have never failed to lose sight of the goal that most musicians, ostensibly, set out to achieve – to entertain.  Last summer I wrote about seeing Hugh Jackman’s show and how his sheer love of his job elevates the act of performance into an unforgettable experience; Paul McCartney at 70 is the same, and so are Coldplay.  After every few songs, frontman Chris Martin will pause to ask the crowd, and not insincerely, “Everybody okay?”  You get the sense that if but one person were to answer in the negative, Coldplay would take it personally.  He and the band recognize, unlike many embittered bands that have gone before, that they are there because of the people smiling back at them, and they owe it to every ticket buyer to give it their all.

Martin himself is an unlikely rock star – a thin, thoughtful, fairly good-looking English kid with a decent but not exceptional voice vaulted almost against his will into the stratospheric realm occupied by the likes of Bono.  Like U2’s leader, he struggles to reconcile his absurd success and wealth with the plight of the less fortunate through activism, stumbling to follow in the footsteps of the one who forged the path and continues to cast an ever-imposing shadow over both men:  John Lennon.  Lennon went through his period of evolution too, once he got the silly love songs out of his system and turned his focus first inward, then outward at the craziness of a war-obsessed world, finding a way to unite both that remains unmatched.  As a songwriter, Martin’s focus has always been on his feelings, and his lyrics have struggled to articulate the complexity of relationships, sometimes, as even he will admit, with rhymes that don’t quite gel.  Any good storyteller knows the key to creating resonance is to focus on the emotions that we all share, and Coldplay would not connect with so many fans were Martin not on to something with the words he sings.  But even Dylan wouldn’t have gone anywhere had he not been able to put the words to memorable tunes, and this is where Coldplay truly shines.  Taking a cue, perhaps, from Phil Spector and the kitchen sink approach of the Wall of Sound, Coldplay have, in their best songs, crafted melodies that are symphonic in their scope, using piano and string craftily without overdoing it, without tipping into syrup.  They think and act big.  “Viva la Vida” became their biggest hit because of its cinematic feel – to extend the movie metaphor, it was like a polished Cecil B. DeMille epic sprung on an era accustomed to smirking, Dogma 95, stripped-down, low-budget garage angst.  And in subject, Martin veered away from the plight of the heart, tiptoeing into the Shakespearean realm of the lament of fallen kings.  Overwrought?  The potential was there certainly, but it never materialized.  Coldplay were smart enough not to make the whole album sound like that, which made “Viva la Vida” that much more special.

Their latest album, Mylo Xyloto, continues their collaboration with U2’s veteran producer Brian Eno, who is succeeding in pushing the band to go big without, as U2 sometimes does, forgetting what made them what they are in the first place.  Coldplay will always be Coldplay, and there is something comforting in that, like the favourite sweater you love pulling on after the work week is done.  Hipster music critics forever trying to elevate thoroughly mediocre bands to undeserved pedestals (The Strokes, anyone?) detest guys like Berryman, Buckland, Champion and Martin because they defy the expectation that real music must always come from a place of pain, and that true musicians are somehow better than the rest of us mortals – that they are more plugged in to the soul and how to express it through song.  Where Coldplay get it right is recognizing that amidst all the existential suffering, the soul wants to be happy.  It wants a reason to smile.  Why not then indulge that – make music that makes the listener feel as good as the performer?  If I want to be depressed and think that the world is an empty, meaningless, cynical place, I’ll put on the Lou Reed record.  I’ve always been more about the hope that things are better than I think they are, and for that purpose, Coldplay is ideal.  When Chris Martin asks “Everybody okay?”, he’s letting us know that he and his bandmates truly do care that we are.  I think that’s something to celebrate, not sneer at.

Awesome Albums 1: Urban Hymns

As I suspect it was for most, my first exposure to The Verve was through the heavily-rotated music video for “Bittersweet Symphony” in the summer of 1997 – the weirdly compelling sight of this skinny, morose guy resembling an anime rendering of Mick Jagger, shambling down the streets of London’s East End and bumping into people, while wailing a surprisingly lush existential rock lament.  “Bittersweet Symphony,” as audiophiles know, is built from a sample of an old orchestral cover of the Rolling Stones song “The Last Time.”  Due to the peculiar ins-and-outs of sampling rights, and the greed of the Stones’ former manager Allen Klein, The Verve were forced to relinquish all royalties from their biggest hit, and forfeit writing credits to Jagger and Richards.  But “Bittersweet” got people to buy the album – and enough people bought Urban Hymns to compensate The Verve for the bitter pill forced upon them by Klein.  Just as well too – listening to the entirety of the album, if you just picked it up on the strength of the lead track, is like finding an unexpected caramel centre inside your piece of chocolate.  You would expect that the remainder of the tracks couldn’t possibly live up to the heights reached by “Bittersweet” – that they do is one of the most enduring surprises in store.

A lot of great art has arisen from unhappiness and The Verve are no exception.  The English quartet (Richard Ashcroft, Nick McCabe, Simon Jones and Pete Salisbury) best known for their long psychedelic jams had already broken up once following the release of their previous album A Northern Soul.  In fact, most of the tracks on what would become Urban Hymns were written by singer Ashcroft for a potential solo album.  But the gang were persuaded to put their differences aside and give it one more go.  Lead guitarist McCabe’s unique, trippy style elevates some of Ashcroft’s more pedestrian lyrical inclinations to create songs that are deeply emotional but dreamy at the same time.  The album finds a decent balance between introspection and all-out rock:  songs like “Sonnet,” “The Drugs Don’t Work” and “One Day” lean toward the tender, while “The Rolling People” and “Come On” let loose with primal fury; the latter even features a wild Ashcroft screaming a cathartic release of profanity as the album draws to a close.  Those who grew up with the long-haired shoegazing iteration of The Verve will hear a tribute to their roots on the sole track bearing McCabe’s name in the writing credits, the aptly-titled wandering vibes of “Neon Wilderness.”  And the album’s middle section features a powerhouse trifecta that is as good as anything the Stones themselves ever cranked out:  “Space and Time,” “Weeping Willow” and “Lucky Man,” the latter of which no less a rock statesman than Bono once listed as one of the six songs from the last twenty years he wished he’d written.  It is by no means a perfect album; Ashcroft veers toward the treacle, some of his couplets are quite awkward, and he can occasionally come off like Captain Obvious in his emotional pronouncements.  But where he stumbles, McCabe and the others are there to pick up the slack, and the whole thing still manages to cook.

Ultimately, Urban Hymns contains enough treasure to be spread across three great albums, let alone this one solid, shining achievement – we listeners are lucky men ourselves that The Verve held together long enough to pull it off.  Nick McCabe walked away in the middle of their subsequent tour, and it would not be until 2007 when tempers cooled enough between Ashcroft and the other three to try being The Verve again.  The resulting effort, Forth, was a passable work, but only a glimmer of former greatness – whatever eclectic mix of ego and talent that had crystallized on the previous album wasn’t quite there this time, nor did it seem to be for the band, which promptly broke up again.  In latter years The Verve have been written off as a one-hit wonder.  But one would not dare set “Bittersweet Symphony” alongside the likes of “Disco Duck” or “Convoy” – The Verve have earned enough credibility with their signature song alone to merit a lasting berth in the echelons of rock.  Fifteen years and a few regrettable commercial uses later (Nike and Vauxhall ads and the closing credits of Cruel Intentions), “Bittersweet” remains poignant, moving and powerful, a radio staple, and if nothing else, a beautiful song – one far more sweet than bitter.