July 05, 2008

Shameless Revisionism: @U2 Essays, 2001-2005

Okay, well, I don't know what to say about this edition of Shameless Revisionism other than "it seemed like a good idea at the time." No slight to the dedicated and happy fans of @U2, because they like what they do and they do it well, but these days I frankly don't think I should have expended so much fanboy-energy in this way. I think my mistake here was to pour energy into appreciating another band (who are, yes, a long-standing corporate monster of Teh All-Powerful Music Biz) when I could have expended the effort in a more constructive way for, say, my own bands at the time. It didn't happen that way, though, and so I'm left with a small and mildly embarrassing portfolio of work for @U2. Well, the concert reviews were pretty good, but while re-reading the rest of my U2 stuff I was struck by how often I seemed to be projecting myself and my misplaced enthusiasms about The Way Things Should Be in Art and Life onto this band and their work.

Short version of how it all came about: @U2 is one of the best and most informative U2 fan sites on the web, and periodically they solicit contributions from readers. I was working for UCSB at the time, bored on campus in an office cube and between bands (Fall/Winter 2001-2002 was the gray area after the Mojo Wire and before Honey White), so I sent in my senior thesis (comparing Bladerunner and Zoo TV) for bonafides, and @U2 head honcho Matt McGee posted my Elevation Tour review in November 2001. I wrote sporadic @U2 articles through the next album and tour, but again found that I work opposite to how a journalist should work. I wasn't interested in traveling all over the place to see multiple expensive U2 concerts, and could only come up with so many critical-analytical pieces of observational wankery about the band's recordings, and the Vertigo tour review became my last piece for @U2.

So, my thanks to Matt and his crew for all the nice things they said about my writing, and it was fun to meet some of them at the Vertigo show three years ago. May they all enjoy the new album this year, even if it does actually suck. As for me, unfortunately it wouldn't be the last time I got too emotionally involved in things I shouldn't have; if you think this stuff is silly, just wait for my weepy political screeds from 2004. As before, click on a link to read the whole column:

Elevation 2001: My Nose Is Still Bleeding (Nov. 13, 2001)
Bryn and I spend a day driving around L.A. before the city's third Elevation show, visiting the studio where No Doubt made their big album (I was scoping out places to learn engineering), and were pretty tired and disappointed when we found out that our expensive tickets were literally against the back wall of the arena. I wasn't therefore in the best mood to write a review of the concert, and turned in this bitchy little thing.

Eighty-five dollars for last row upper-deck seats. A two hour drive in traffic from Santa Barbara. Rain, and lots of it. Thirty dollar T-shirts. Ten dollar beer. A cavernous arena, Los Angeles' Staples Center, and the muddiest, mushiest sound mix that I have ever heard at any major concert. Instead of PJ Harvey we got No Doubt, local heroes dwarfed by the venue and the stature of the headliners. U2, one of the most exciting and dynamic live rock bands, delivering one of their most predictable and impotent setlists ever, a jukebox of crowd-pleasing '80s hits and almost no surprises and twists. If U2 are looking to be empathetic to the United States in our time of crisis, they're doing it in an unfortunately unpalatable way, at least to this spoiled California kid.
What's Wrong With Vague? (Jan. 30, 2002)
This one might be the worst of the lot as far as my U2 stuff goes. You know you're too emotionally invested in a band you'll never meet when you're defending them against legitimate gripes from a critic you'll also never meet. I'm still surprised that Matt ran this one; its only redeeming quality might be that it served as a template for my "Top Ten Lyrics" article later that year.
A recent front page article on MSN's Slate.com sought to balance the stifling accolades the band has received this past year with some mild criticism at the expense of U2's lyrics and "political" credibility. Slate's criticism is levied at the idea that U2 and, in particular, Bono is able to fool fans into thinking their vague songs and lyrics have profound social and political meaning and laugh all the way to the bank. It's my opinion that this does happen quite a bit in U2's '80s work, but it's nowhere near as conniving and calculated as this article would like us to believe, and if so, no more than any other pretentious and egomaniacal artist. For U2, these are age-old criticisms and generalizations and not all of them are true; many of Bono's lyrics on U2's '90s work are very personal pieces with universal appeal.
U2's Top Ten Lyrics (Sep. 3, 2002)
@U2 ran a series called "Top Tens" in conjunction with the '90s best-of album the band released in 2002. Naturally I was arrogant enough to consider myself qualified to pass summary judgement on something like lyrics, so I took the assignment and ran with it. It's not terrible, but not exactly any more unique or insightful than other hyper-passionate fanboy bleatings.
U2's lyrics are so often second fiddle to the manner in which they are delivered that making a list of their "best" scrawlings is almost wholly dependent on assessing the quality of Bono's performance. In many cases, especially on much of their '80s material, the actual words and phrases are so awful and cliched as to elicit embarassment at the least, and jealous hatred from sniping pseudo-poets (who don't get as much attention for their self-conscious "art") at most. More often than not, Bono's stage presence, and seemingly total conviction in what he's bellowing out, helps even his worst lyrics over the hump.
The Fly is Dead, Long Live The Fly (Oct. 16, 2002)
Despite protestations to the contrary, I think I took it a little too personally when my favorite U2 song didn't end up on the Best of 1990-2000 album here in the States. At least I was self-aware enough to acknowledge that it might not be healthy behavior.
The volume of fan response to even the possibility of its exclusion was surprising, even without the "is it, isn't it" teasing of the U2.com official track list. I didn't mind either way--as I told some friends, I already had the single on CD, cassette, vinyl, and video, just like a good fanatical freak should. After all, what song needs validation from the band when it's helped power two of their best tours? What diehard needs this kind of validation from their band just so they can feel like "their song" wasn't excluded from what amounts to a cash-cow release for casual fans?
U2004 Pontifications (Jan. 2, 2004)
I missed a deadline to contribute to the "Looking in Our Crystal Balls: U2 Predictions for 2004" feature that @U2 ran at the end of 2003. By then, though, I'd started the Dubious Ventures blog, so I just ran it here. It's the first time where I actually seem to have a sense of humor when it comes to U2.
2004 is looking to be one of the meanest, nastiest twelve months in history. Any self-righteous theologically political rock band will have sensed this intrinsically some time ago, and will have either run screaming and wailing into the comforting arms of nostalgia, or instead will have decided on blundering gamely inside the gaping maw of mass media to suffer gross misinterpretation and crushing overexposure before being mercifully cut off from all supporting record conglomerate cash flow, leaving the field to the bland ravings of hyper-hip art rockers, loopy hip-hoppers, and libidinal pop tarts.
Rich Irish Dorks (Nov. 27, 2004)
I made deadline this time, and got my tepid take of How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb front-loaded on a group review of the new album. Both have not aged well- "Bomb" sounds even more stilted than it did four years ago, and my reivew is a little too bet-hedgey. Oh well.
How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb seems to be the album U2 have made in the mold they imagine most of the world perceives them to be. Elaborating on that point involves all kinds of silly nit-picking that's ultimately irrelevant if, in fact, this is the album they wanted to record at this unique point in their unique career. I mean, it's their record, right? I can say all sorts of things that are superficially judgemental, such as Atomic Bomb is head and shoulders above the good half of All That You Can't Leave Behind, or that it's not as good as Achtung Baby, or it's "mainstream", "too safe", or "slickly clean", and hey, even if I did just say that or even if I believe it, which I do, that doesn't matter. The fact is that U2 has decades under their belt, a few knockout albums back there, a killer live show, and has yet to become complete crap, and for some reason, for better or worse, that quashes any arguments as to the quality of this disc. They're up against themselves again, and I'm happy they made a good record in spite of that.
Vertigo 2005: Whiplash In The Peanut Gallery (Apr. 16, 2005)
I came out of this show with a good review, but I think it's the last logistical nightmare of expensive travel I'll endure for U2's sake. I'd spent the last six months making plenty of trips up to the Bay Area to record a Honey White album, and while it was fun to hang out with some @U2-ers and see the band pull off a good show, Emily seemed to have much more fun hanging out with my sister and her friends while I was at the show.
One of the dirty little secrets gnawing on a few of us @U2 staffers is that we don't get to go to as many shows as we'd like. I'd been to one PopMart show (San Diego) and one Elevation gig (LA 1, 3rd leg), and was all ready to have my token Vertigo experience be overwhelming, for good or ill, reprising my role as the bitterly kvetching peanut gallery freak. One constant remained from Elevation: muddy arena acoustics. Sure, U2 succeeded in pulling off their patented hat-trick of making a huge place feel as cozy as a club, but the sound that reached me, six rows from the back, was pretty slushy, though it must have been awesomely crisp and punchy for the first hundred feet or so. Other than that, I don't know if this show was "better" or "worse" than the others I've seen, but I definitely enjoyed this one much more, for all the little superficial reasons that people cite when they choose to pass passionately severe judgment upon necessarily subjective things like art or music or nerve-damagingly tight vinyl pants.
Next week's Shameless Revisionism promises to be another mixed bag. There will be some more rambling music pieces, a shameful political observation, and some refreshing gonzo and wartime observations from (respectively) two of my most awesome special guest stars, Adam Hill and Nick Clemente.

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