I became a fan of U2 in 1985. Just back from a Little League game, locked onto the TV set, I watched Bono win over a crowd of 70,000 people by jumping off the stage to slow-dance with one of them. Rewatching the Live Aid performance from a 26-year remove, it’s obvious how calculated the antics were, how deliberately the band “rose to the occasion.” Yet the gestures, canned and symbolic as they are, are still effective. The young rock god exhorts, and thousands roar in response. I know what I’m about to see, but it still moves me. When it comes to U2, you’re either attracted to the act or repulsed by the earnest calculation. Over the years, I’ve been both. I recently listened to all of the band’s studio albums anew—as well as errant singles and side projects—and organized them into the following five qualitative categories.
Platinum: The Masterpieces
The Joshua Tree (1987)
It’s weird to think there was a time when “Where the Streets Have No Name” didn’t exist. Clayton’s bass takes melodic lead, Edge limns the frame and rings the bell, and before you know it you’re sprinting on the sidewalk until the bottom drops out and you stop, scanning the intersection like you suddenly understand something. Surely this has been happening since the beginning of time—the song just gave it form, a fact of feeling. The opposite can be said of “With or Without You,” U2’s answer to “Every Breath You Take”: a single note sustains, bending, changing, returning, vulnerable and spooky, sounding like nothing you’ve ever heard (and it's likely you haven’t: Apparently only three “Infinite Guitars” exist in the world, and Daniel Lanois and the Edge have two of them). Other sounds and textures cycle in, gather, peak, and crash, but that tone still haunts, driving Bono to open the windows and deliver a knee-buckling note of his own: “I can’t live …” It’s an album without slouches, and like a mid-’60s Beatles barrage, it delivers on its outsized ambitions.
The Unforgettable Fire (1984)
U2 recorded the album at Slane Castle in Ireland, in a huge parlor and a library. I might be buying into some mytho-romantic blarney, but I swear that I can hear those spaces, with the music both scattering into echoes against the ceiling and whispering among the stacks. At some point the Edge’s amp was placed outside—I have no idea why, or how that would even show up on a record, but can’t you just hear his line on “Bad” disappearing over the fields, “hoo-hooing” at the moon? Watch the end of this video for “Pride,” culled from footage shot at Slane, and see Bono use his entire body to push out the chorus; listen to “Wire” thump and storm and go go go; listen to how the reverb on “The Unforgettable Fire” grows from an effect into an environment; listen to how “Elvis Presley and America” sounds both strenuous and improvisatory, hermetic and infinite, how Bono plays his voice like a woodwind and the normally ramrod Mullen swirls; and how on “Bad” Bono rides Mullen’s rise, the two of them arriving and then dispersing with natural force. …
Achtung Baby (1991)
When I first heard “The Fly” on the radio, with its filthy riff and lullaby falsetto, its hyperprocessed unpredictability, its three songs happening at once, it was almost too good to be true. U2 wasn’t merely aping the European underground; they were tweaking, intermixing, and making it their own, putting themselves atop, rather than behind, the advancing alternative wave. Half the record sounded just as progressive—on “Zoo Station,” I swear Mullen is pounding garbage cans inside of a garbage can—while the other half was so confidently crafted that you couldn’t argue with it (though I’d still like to move “Who’s Gonna Ride Your Wild Horses” to another record—hopefully where it’s surrounded by songs even more infatuated with Crazy Horse). None of the sounds on “So Cruel”—a balladic sister to “The Fly”—hang together, which is its ugly beautiful point, sold by Bono’s delicate, rheumy vocals. On “One,” the band’s best song, save, perhaps, for “Without or Without You,” his performance is just as good, commanding then insecure, broken and then determined. It still slays me when his voice unintentionally slips into an Irish brogue on “We got to carry each other,” and honestly, few phrases have ever meant more to me.
Gold: The Greats
An album with energy and ambition to spare, Boy is punk via Led Zeppelin, New Wave as played by a marching band. Everything’s here already, from Bono’s sing-to-the-rafters hubris (“I’m starting a landslide in my ego”) to Edge’s echo/reverb addiction. But it’s also genuinely youthful and frisky, and exhibits a taste for atmosphere and texture that predates Eno’s arrival. It’s an era when Clayton and Mullen were allowed to drive the car, when rhythm in general was paramount, when Bono’s voice was just another instrument in the mix. Also: It really rocks. Boy is faster, leaner, and more skip-in-place kinetic than anything they’ve recorded since.
Records don’t get more urgent than this, thematically or musically. You’re familiar with the Edge’s crisp, chicky-chicky chord progression on “Sunday Bloody Sunday,” familiar with Mullen’s strict marshalling of the parade and Bono’s rabble-rousing, but how about Clayton’s jackhammered swing, the thing that makes a dead-serious song surprisingly sensual? Bono is overheated throughout, of course, but most of these songs are actually duets: Three albums in, Edge’s harmonies are still crucial to the band’s sound. “New Year’s Day” functions as a standalone, with a storybook opening (“All is quiet on New Year’s Day”) before expanding into widescreen declarations (“I will begin again”). The tribalism of the opening track extends into “The Refugee” and “Surrender,” and after tearing through worldly injustices and hypocricies, the return of God on “40” is a welcome balm. Bono’s lead is tentative, plaintive, convincing. Yet no matter how sweetly sung, “How long to sing this song?” yanks us right back to the opening cry of “Sunday Bloody Sunday.”
The opening track, “Zooropa” doesn’t just introduce you to the idea of chaos: It makes you physically unsteady. There’s a woozy, shimmering guitar and furiously zithery electronic drone, an aggressively unpredictable bottom end and a melodic break that sounds like the whole song has been slapped 10 feet sideways. But it’s “Lemon” that truly takes you by surprise. On U2’s groove-pop masterpiece, Bono sings in panting falsetto, the Edge and Eno chant-narrate the history of technology as a history of sex, Mullen double-times on the high-hat while Clayton auditions for Kool and the Gang; and for seven solid minutes everyone dances. Zooropa is my favorite U2 record, but I can’t with a good conscience call it Platinum when one-fifth of it doesn’t belong. “Babyface” is undercooked and tedious; “Stay (Faraway, So Close),” a fine, full-bodied ballad for Wim Wenders’ misbegotten sequel to Wings of Desire, would be better served in a different context. Otherwise, Zooropa is perfectly imperfect, going absolutely everywhere, trying everything, and exulting in dissonance. In the scattershot second side alone, the band conflates house, metal, and ’60s girl-group R&B, blows out a mic, denies God, and has Johnny Cash sing over a drum machine. What more could I possibly need?
Silver: Flawed but Fascinating
This record starts like a house on fire with “Gloria” driving and rumbling, then working into a spiritual frenzy. “I Fall Down” is swaggering worship. On “I Threw a Brick Through a Window” and “Rejoice,” Mullen makes tom-toms of your chest, and “Fire” skips over into reggae without embarrassment. October goes toe-to-toe with Boy for the first half. But then it falls apart in the second with aimless, oversung duds like “Stranger in a Strange Land” and “Scarlet.” Still, it’s a blast to hear the Edge evolve, working the fringes as well as center stage, learning to accent the air rather than fill it.
Original Soundtracks 1 (1995)
Worried that fans wouldn’t accept a record this abstract, U2 released this album under an assumed (and strategically generic) name, Passengers. But instead of the Eno hijacking that it’s purported to be, Original Soundtracks feels like the natural follow-up to Zooropa. Rather than songs invaded by sounds, these are soundscapes shaped into songs. They threaten formlessness but never overstay. They’re experiments that still manage to be lovely and melodic (particularly on “Slug,” “Your Blue Room,” and “Beach Sequence”). I wish there were a few more “event” songs like “Miss Sarajevo,” that all these digressions would build to something. But it’s marvelous how utilitarian and withdrawn Bono’s lyrics are, how his voice acts as an accompanying instrument rather than a lead. If that’s what happens when Eno is given free rein in the studio, I wish the band would submit to a Volume 2.
Bronze: Points for Trying
Rattle and Hum (1988)
Mostly filled with bad ideas: from needless, self-serving Beatles and Dylan covers to misbegotten originals like “Angel of Harlem” and “When Love Comes to Town” that try on African-American idioms like costumes and offer up lyrics that tweenishly name-check titans of jazz. Yet intermingled with these unwelcome reminders of the Phil Joanou film are some terrific pop songs, most of them orphans of The Joshua Tree sessions. “Desire” and “Love Rescue Me” succeed as country and blues songs while still sounding like U2, while “Hawkmoon 269” and “Heartland” ought to sound better than they do—without Flood and co. at the mixing board, everything sounds flat and undifferentiated. But even if every preceding song were an abomination, I’d still praise Rattle & Hum for ending with “All I Want Is You,” which sounds like love at its most aching and naïve.
Nellee Hooper, who produced the first two Bjork albums and U2’s spectacularly shallow Batman Forever single, “Hold Me, Thrill Me, Kiss Me, Kill Me,” was supposed to preside over Pop, but after some contentious sessions, Flood took over. Then, with the Popmart tour approaching and fixed on the calendar, the band raced to finish a record that never truly came together. It furthers certain experiments, especially on the self-lacerating hard-jungle of “Mofo” and the mournful, deconstructed protest song “Wake Up Dead Man.” Lyrically “Miami” and “The Playboy Mansion” are total jokes (“Some place are just like your auntie/ But there’s no place like … Miami”)—sheepish and frivolous.
No Line on the Horizon (2009)
The album earns a bronze based on the first 30 seconds of the title track alone: a thick, undifferentiated wall-of-noise attack limned by a snakey syth. The rest of the song is just OK, but already it’s the best thing they’ve done this century. I appreciate that “Fez—Being Born” is the most Eno-esque they’ve sounded since the Passengers record, that it doesn’t even try to be a song. (Oh, and hello there, Larry and Adam: So nice to hear from you again.) U2 seem interested again in sound for the sake of sound, in texture as meaning. The production doesn’t simply exist to maximize unsophisticated feeling. It sounds less like middle-aged men angling to remain popular and more like middle-aged men uncertain of what to do with themselves—a vast improvement.
No Prize: These Happened
All That You Can't Leave Behind (2000)
There’s been an inverse relationship between the quality of Bono’s songwriting and the privileging of his vocals in the mix. As he’s tended toward clichés and simplistic couplets, it’s become impossible to hear anything but his voice at full blast. Mullen and Clayton, at first the motor of the band, have faded into aural invisibility. (They weren’t even invited to the Spider-Man party, which is just as well.) The Edge’s histrionics are still very present, but he’s become too dependable, too tasteful. These are fine-sounding albums, with a few forgivable pop songs (“Walk On,” “Vertigo,” “Rise Above 1”) and one great ballad (“One Step Closer”), but it’s all fundamentally depthless. The sound exists to sell the hook. And there’s no question of what you’re supposed to feel: Gone are the ambiguities, undone are the snarls of Achtung Baby and Zooropa. It makes complete sense that Bono and the Edge are now writing songs for cartoon characters played by Broadway actors: Better these empty vessels than theirs.