If you’re like me, when the fine managers of Where Y’at call you to ask you to take a stab at some reviews of older U2 albums repackaged in vinyl, you jump at the chance to listen to some of the band's best work and groundbreaking releases on warm, pristine vinyls. Beginning in the 80s, the Dublin quintet found mainstream success, but by the 90s they were on the precipice of being the biggest rock band on Earth. Much of that success was helped even further by the gargantuan sound of their masterpiece Achtung Baby. Even if you’ve listened to this record before, hearing all the instruments streaming through a record player makes the album sound even more authentic and massive.
Early on the record, we get a mindbender of an opener in the shape of “Zoo Station,” which quickly tells the listener that the Edge, Bono, Larry and Clayton are trying to push their limits and compose something new and challenging. The next two tracks, though, are even more staggering. “Even Better than the Real Thing” glosses over a futuristic soundscape with Bono whisking in and out much like the character of the Fly that he adopted for this album's tour. Next up, however, we have what I consider to be one of the band's single best songs of all time. “One” is a heart-tugging song full of regret, and there’s so much soul and honesty to it that you can’t help but get sucked into the glorious, unbridled passion of it all. Even if I hear that track a million times, it will never lose its depth and edge, which is probably why so many people feel so passionately about it.
It’s hard to remember how many great songs the band smashed into the record when you’re singing along with most of them and the moment is ultimately treasured. On the second side of the record, we’re treated to a jingly, glistening guitar work as part of “Until the End of the World,” which is another song where the music is more upbeat, while the lyrics are anything but. Either way, the song works. You find that over and over on Achtung Baby. You may forget just hao many hits are on this classic—until the next track. Well-known songs like “Who’s Gonna Ride Your Wild Horses” intermingle with more obscure, but still memorable songs like “The Fly,” all nestle in tightly enough to make one extremely solid, ambitious rock album, which as a concept is pretty hit or miss these days. (U2 themselves haven’t sounded this cohesive and anthemic in years.) Having said that, the band is still incredibly popular, and they still churn out these songs from a time on Earth when they were perhaps more popular than Christ the Creator himself.
On the back of the massive success of songs like “Mysterious Ways” and all the other songs listed on Achtung Baby, the band was able to traverse the world for nearly two years, performing for massive audiences and receiving solid reviews of the accompanying Zoo TV tour. To date it’s still hailed as one of the best, most innovative tour packages ever presented. The only real rest the band had was a six-month break, but like hardworking Irelanders, the band chose to take the time to make an even further thinking album and release it during the tour. That album, Zooropa, which happens to be the next record we received as part of the vinyl package, is yet another album that completely abandons the sound the band had grown into during the 1980s.
Zooropa opens with the title track, ominously led by a distant, growing piano. The track soon lands in darker, more experimental areas. If they redefined themselves with Achtung Baby, they were trying to go even further on the limb with this release. Bono’s voice is still awesome, but the great rhythm section. courtesy of Larry Mullen and Adam Clayton, are the biggest take away. Listening on vinyl also adds a more intimate aspect to the record overall, which is never a bad thing.
One of the best, most original tracks on the record comes to us with “Numb,” on track three. The vocals, sung by guitarist The Edge, are delivered in a short, straightforward manner, but that’s part of what makes the song such a standout.This album is by no means regarded as a classic U2 album, but it’s not awful either. Songs like “Numb” help it to stay interesting and thought-provoking, even if this reviewer wishes the album hit that mark more often than it does.
On tracks three to five through, you see the band get pretty close to their former greatness. “Numb” (as we just discussed) is great, and so is the next track “Lemon.” It has an upbeat, whimsy attitude to it, and while fans of old likely didn’t love the song, it is a perfect demonstration of bandmembers forcing themselves to try something new, even if they don’t hit a grand slam. That’s artistic nature 101 for you. You can’t always be incredible; sometimes you just have to step outside of your comfort zone and create and learn from it. Finally, at track number five, we’re introduced to a sound that works well for new and old fans alike. “Stay (Faraway, So Close)” is a solidly mid-paced track that reminds the listener of just how good this band can be. All the instrumentation is wonderful, and the vocals add even more weight to a more solemn song than we’d previously heard on the record.
In the end, the record is decent, but not great. The band has even stated as much. Multiple songs near the end don’t quite hit the mark, even though they might be intriguing to a music fan. When a band has as many well-known hits as this foursome does, it’s nearly impossible to always be top-notch, which brings us full circle and back to the monuments of the amazing tracks the band is known for.
The final vinyl in this review is the band's greatest hits collection, The Best of 1980-1990. From the opening guitar section of “Pride (In the Name of Love),” you’re instantly transported back to the time when Bono and company were adding up their resume to apply to be the biggest band in the world. The song is transcendent and powerful, and it’s honesty still stands out even after all these decades. The song is also a call to arms during turbulent times for people who need something positive to believe in.
Following that, we get the thumpy guitar richocet of “News Year Day,” with its deep symbolism of a moment of power against aggressors and deniers of justice. By song three though, we get what’s more than likely the band's powerful best-known song. “With or Without You” has nearly always been a perfect song, but hearing it on vinyl adds another personal, warm, intoxicating layer to it.
The track is classic for its slow build, but in those early moments, the vocals, forlorn and full of unease, emerge as the bedrock that makes the song a classic. I’ve probably heard this song a thousand times, but it still pulls me into a newfound love. The song is full of give and take, much like the relationship that is portrayed throughout the song. That’s a huge part of the song's success. Everyone can relate to it, and everyone is moved by it.
Typically, an album review is more of a summary of the high notes, but when dealing with a greatest hits collection as good as this, that feat becomes hugely difficult. This point brings us to the next selection chosen for this compilation, “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For.” The song night not be as great as some of the others represented here, but it’s a mainstay in the bands catalog, with everything from the signature guitar sound, the string drums, and, of course, the soaring, optimistic style of the vocals.
The ever-present optimism in the previous song is quickly gone when the forceful, somber drums of “Sunday Bloody Sunday” come pummeling through the speakers. The song finds the band in its most punk spirit, though the music is nowhere near what is classified as punk music. It’s a violent reaction to a crazy, horrible event, but it’s also poignant with a take-no-prisoners attitude. It serves the song excellently, to say the least. Over the course of the next selections, we’re treated to more classics, such as the slow winding “Bad,” as well as “The Unforgettable Fire,” and the upbeat and romantic “Sweetest Thing.” All of those are undeniably good, but they don’t quite match the earlier tracks in terms of being downright classics. Nestled in between those previously mentioned songs, though, are two classics every U2 fan will recognize.
“Where the Streets Have No Name” reverberate with that gorgeous, cutting guitar part and, of course, the vocals. It’s a track of hopefulness during a hopeless time, like being lost with someone you care about, except that in this instance, you have the song by your side. Next up we have the high energy “I Will Follow.” That track yet again kicks it into high gear with a brilliant guitar arrangement, but the immediacy of the song is propelled by all the elements that band has under its arms. It’s sorta fun, but it’s also not a happy song at all. It’s urgency is compounded by the momentum of the vocals, which until the bridge don’t hesitate and become more forceful until the song takes the fast way back around.
Over and over again through this record, we’re reminded of the power and capabilities of these four guys from Dublin. And while they haven’t always hit it out of the park, their tenacity and fervor, along with an acute sense of what works for them (most of the time anyway), stand as a testament to just how good of a band U2 is.