New Musical Express, February 1997
Kitsch Of Distinction
RATING: 8 (out of ten)
"These days, I hear a lot of rock ... but where's the roll?" Keith Richards, 1995
YEAH, RIGHT. Chance would have been a fine thing. Pop? Pah! U2 were always a rock band. For all the bollocks they spouted about being a folk band, a blues band, a gospel band, a Gonzo Cod Doo Dah Band, they couldn't even truly be a rock-n-roll band, as they showed on 'Rattle & Hum' - they were too stiff, too sexless (for all Bono's leather keks and Jim Morrison schtick), too earnest to recognize the ridiculousness and fun and funk of it all. They didn't have the 'roll' part of the equation, as Sir Keef memorably defined it. But rock bands made in the '80s can't survive in the '90s without swotting up on some chapters from the pop survival book. The ones called 'Reinvention', or 'Staying In Fashion'. And particularly 'There's Always Been A Drum'n'Bass/Trip-Hop/Bergkamp Piss Pie Remix Element To Our Music'. The '80s breed of dinosaurs can't just lie on their sunbeds by the pool on Sunset and hope that their stray farts will fill Wembley. Besides, most of them come from post-punk stock, and they still care about things like 'credibility', 'integrity' and 'respect' in circles other than Mojo magazine. Ambition bites the nails of success, or something. And if Everything But The Girl can do it, so can you.
If U2 were one of the bands who defined the '80s, especially the latter half - stadium conscience rock, the Live Aid aristocracy, po-faced liberal austerity, authenticity chic, nuclear paranoia, American cultural hegemony, etc - then they are only too aware that they can only reflect aspects of the '90s - post-Cold War internationalism, eclecticism and dance crossover culture, irony, post-Thatch apathy, media saturation - from a humbly detached perspective. They wouldn't dare set themselves up as spokesmen for a generation any more. So, yeah, we'll let them in the end-of-millennium party. Not least because 'Pop' is a very fine record which proves they've still got a great deal to bring to it, as a revitalised, recycled, repackaged modern rock'n'roll band. So how could this happen? I mean, just how toe-chewingly awful were U2 in the '80s? Let us count the ways: the flag-waving rebel/icon posturing; the impeccably safe, vaguely hypocritical say-nothing platitude politics; the men-of-the-people pretensions; the authenticity-on-loan of 'Rattle & Hum'; the rubbish poetry; the endless empty rhetoric, empty gesturing and empty pomp and circumstance of the stadium rock anthem style they epitomised.
Smashing blokes, though, and when they concentrated on writing basic love songs (see 'The Unforgettable Fire', 'With Or Without You', 'All I Want Is You') they could breach the hardest of hearts. So, moderately awful then. Where did it all go right? No, it wasn't 'irony' that did it. It wasn't dance music, and it wasn't a pair of wraparound shades. It was around the turn of the decade, when they realized they were staring into a huge steaming abyss of naffness. U2 were officially uncool, and there was no point in pretending they could still be the band of the age, since they were so shackled to the '80s in their audience's minds. So it wasn't worth worrying about. Instead, they relaxed, loosened their belts and watched the world go by. More importantly, they relaxed sufficiently to allow a certain funk into their music, they dug into rich seams of genuine rock-n-roll sleaziness and even allowed themselves a taste of camp sexuality. Meanwhile, as by-products, a sense of drama and emotion emerged from the ashes of melodrama and bombast. And, don't choke on your Nicaraguan coffee, they had a laugh.
They were still trying too hard. But, for the most part, it worked. There was still a lot of pseudy bollocks and casual hypocrisy inherent in the Zoo TV and Zooropa shows ('Everything You Know Is Wrong'... shaaaadaaap!), but for all the snotty sniffing of the PC police (because we're too thick to deal with a bit of fascist imagery), they still managed to reconcile stadium rock with its contradictions and play with their own 'oeuvre' without, for once, looking like pretentious art-rock arseholes. But irony, postmodernism and kitsch are all too often the last refuge of morally bankrupt style whores. It's bourgeois slacker apathy in smart-arse hipster's second-hand clothing, and even though we needed a spoonful after the decade that U2 epitomised, it soon became an overdose. When the ultimate cultural achievement is a vacuous collage of coolness like Pulp Fiction, you know it's time for a reality check, our kid.
Fortunately, U2 have just about learnt to surf the Zeitgeist by now, if by hip design or natural devotion, and they've made a record which is as postmodern as it is heartfelt, as sexy as it is soulful, as hedonistic as it is political, as light as it is dark, and as humble as it is huge-sounding. You could argue all night about their motives, but whether they've had an honest conversion to dance music as the future of rock-n-roll or just jumped on the bandwagon and bought a ticket in the first-class section hoping some ideas will rub off, the result is some bloody marvellous music. You know 'Discotheque' by now. And in case you weren't aware, it's ... A DRUGS SONG! "You know you're chewing bubblegum/You know what that is but you still want some/You just can't get enough of that lovie dovie stuff". You know, love is the drug, music is the drug, E is the drug, but how the fuck are you going to satisfy your craving when it's all half-cut with cultural and sensual junk food? Not that we're listening until about the tenth hearing, because the crotch-hammering, hard-headed voodoo beats, techno-riffs and nasty urban noise are far too addictive.
Now, this is rock'n'roll dragged grooving and screeching into the '90s. And it's big, loud, euphoric music without ever being overblown. Who'd have thought it? Well, maybe Flood and Howie B, perchance, who are producer and assistant here. But the soundscapes owe as much to the new horizons of The Edge's post-nuclear guitar squall as a few repetitive beats. The likes of The Prodigy or Underworld might have thought of 'Mofo', but it would still do them proud. It's a white-knuckle, techno rock, car-chase through the apocalyptic streets of the nihilistic rock-n-roll night (note that sentence's similarity to old-style U2 lyric - clever wording, cheers) and it is fantastic. Meanwhile, Bono is growling angry rhymes about searching for his mother or something. And we don't mind! Because he doesn't sound like a wanker any more! But, while U2 are successfully discovering brave new worlds for themselves, there's still much of the old U2 here... only different.
Three tracks in the middle of the album have choruses destined to be sung in stadiums across the US mid-West, with arms stretched aloft. But somehow you won't feel like holding a lighter on the end of them. They're not the anthems of old, full of hollow hopeful truisms, because the themes are more searching, bleaker, asking us instead of telling us, evoking a feeling of yearning instead of yawning. 'Staring At The Sun' talks of being "afraid of what you'd find if you took a look inside", with a real sense of despair, now the old simple answers have been proved wrong. There's even a hint of apology for previous false messiahs, "'cos those who can't do often have to... preach". 'Last Night On Earth' then seems to suggest that, because "the future is so predictable, the past is too uncomfortable", we might as well party like it's 1999, because we aren't going to find catharsis anywhere else. 'Gone' continues in a similar philosophical vein: "Goodbye, you can keep this suit of lights/I'll be up with the sun, and not coming down/And I'm already gone". Jesus. Cheer up, it might never happen.
Well it probably already has, according to the final track, 'Wake Up Dead Man', appealing to the good Lord to come and have a go if he thinks he's real enough, or are we destined to wallow in this shit forever more? Like much of this record, the voice is startlingly fragile, desperate. And the politics, if you want to use such a scary word, are personal. Like on 'Please', a beautifully melancholic but also frantic appeal to a self-destructive, self-abused lover, or the midnight blue crooner 'If You Wear That Velvet Dress'. And the effect is more gut-wrenching and heart-stroking than you thought U2 could ever be. There's still patches of the postmodernist reference-juggling of 'Zooropa', most notably on 'The Playboy Mansion', but for all the namechecking of Michael Jackson, OJ and Big Mac, there's heart here, as a picture is painted of a man with his nose pressed against the ubiquitous shop window of the modern society, knowing he may never be allowed in.
The musical backing is stylish and rarely just stylized, dabbling in trip-hop and screeching riffno one minute, country blues, lounge and soul the next. Even 'Miami', a stream-of-consciousness sub-Tricky experiment, just about works. So, U2 in 'Still Relevant In 1997' shock? Oh yes. And maybe this record is 'Pop' after all. In the sense that it's seized the day by the short and curlies and spread its sleazy, insane, infectious juice all over their sound. They've successfully bastardised their own huge bastard vision of what rock-n-roll can look and sound like, and they've gone from "A red guitar, three chords and the truth" to techno modernism without any lingering shame. They still have the hunger, the passion and the compassion without having to make a big pointless point about it, and they've found new meaning without the 'We mean it, man' pious pomposity. Most importantly, after all these years, you can just about believe in U2. Now how ironic is that?
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