U2: Achtung, Baby (1991)

u2-achtung-babyU2
Achtung, Baby; 1991
Island Records

My Rating: 10/10

In the four years between THE JOSHUA TREE and ACHTUNG, BABY, the world around U2 radically changed in a hundred different ways. Corrupt political regimes were falling all over the world, disparate cultures were beginning to converge in a universalist mish-mash, and the old guard of rock and roll was forgotten in favor of fresher, more idealistic sounds. U2 certainly faced the possibility of their own extinction – if it could happen to others, it could certainly happen to them. But like fellow alterna-rock heroes R.E.M., U2 somehow managed to not only find its own place in the music revolution, but to ride said revolution to the top of the charts with another classic album. In fact, ACHTUNG, BABY not only achieves classic status, but manages to capture the international zeitgeist of the early-90’s like no other record, combining sounds as disparate as garage rock, euro-pop, and world electronica into a completely cohesive and romantic aural experience. The collision of worlds – in this case post-modern relativism with a definite hunger for spiritual experience – is once again U2’s thematic recipe for success. ACHTUNG, BABY is doubtless one of the band’s top 3 albums, and in the opinion of this humble reviewer, probably their best.

1. Zoo Station (4/5)
2. Even Better Than The Real Thing (5/5)
3. One (5/5)
4. Until the End of the World (5/5)
5. Who’s Gonna Ride Your Wild Horses (5/5)
6. So Cruel (5/5)
7. The Fly (5/5)
8. Mysterious Ways (5/5)
9. Tryin’ To Throw Your Arms Around the World (5/5)
10. Ultra Violet (Light my Way) (5/5)
11. Acrobat (4/5)
12. Love Is Blindness (4/5)

U2: War (1983)

U2’s first great album, WAR began the long u2 tradition of writing five or six mind-numbingly great songs and adding in a few stinkers to round it out. The reason this one gets such a high mark is that there are two absolutely classic cuts (“Sunday Bloody Sunday”, “New Year’s Day”) as well as at least four great album cuts (“Seconds,” “Like A Song…,” “Drowning Man,” “Two Hearts Beat As One”). Still, the album as a whole undoubtedly lives up to its name. From the stark production to the explosive drums to the barbed-wire guitar, U2 and Steve Lillywhite crafted a masterfully anthemic group of tracks, all rounded out by Bono’s Celtic war-cry. However, WAR’s longevity is owing far more to its underlying spiritual themes than any political trappings. When Bono declares “I won’t wear it on my sleeve!” he ties together punk and Christian sensibilities, forging a way ahead for an entirely new breed of rock and roll. It’s true – back then, no one else was writing music like this. No wonder U2 became the biggest rock band in the world.
TRACKS:
1. Sunday Bloody Sunday (5/5)
2. Seconds (5/5)
3. New Year’s Day (5/5)
4. Like a Song… (5/5)
5. Drowning Man (5/5)
6. Refugee (2.5/5)
7. Two Hearts Beat As One (5/5)
8. Red Light (3.5/5)
9. Surrender (4/5)
10. “40” (3.5/5)

U2_War_album_coverU2
War; 1983
Island Records

My Rating: 9/10

U2’s first great album, WAR began the long u2 tradition of writing five or six mind-numbingly great songs and adding in a few stinkers to round it out. The reason this one gets such a high mark is that there are two absolutely classic cuts (“Sunday Bloody Sunday”, “New Year’s Day”) as well as at least four great album cuts (“Seconds,” “Like A Song…,” “Drowning Man,” “Two Hearts Beat As One”). Still, the album as a whole undoubtedly lives up to its name. From the stark production to the explosive drums to the barbed-wire guitar, U2 and Steve Lillywhite crafted a masterfully anthemic group of tracks, all rounded out by Bono’s Celtic war-cry. However, WAR’s longevity is owing far more to its underlying spiritual themes than any political trappings. When Bono declares “I won’t wear it on my sleeve!” he ties together punk and Christian sensibilities, forging a way ahead for an entirely new breed of rock and roll. It’s true – back then, no one else was writing music like this. No wonder U2 became the biggest rock band in the world.

TRACKS:

1. Sunday Bloody Sunday (5/5)
2. Seconds (5/5)
3. New Year’s Day (5/5)
4. Like a Song… (5/5)
5. Drowning Man (5/5)
6. Refugee (2.5/5)
7. Two Hearts Beat As One (5/5)
8. Red Light (3.5/5)
9. Surrender (4/5)
10. “40” (3.5/5)

Wilco: Wilco (the album) (2009)

wilco_album_390Wilco
Wilco (the album)
Nonesuch; 2009

My Rating: 7/10

It took me a while to get there, but I now consider Wilco’s previous record, SKY BLUE SKY, to rank in the top 3 Wilco albums. SBS initially came off as a bit lazy and disinterested, but after a while I came to see it as Tweedy’s own equivalent to Bob Dylan’s TIME OUT OF MIND, in that it was a clear break from the past in favor of a new and rejuvenating direction. SKY BLUE SKY really is a great record, the sound of a band taking a different approach in the studio and succeeding on all fronts.

That being said, I like WILCO THE ALBUM, especially as it continues in the understated vein of SKY BLUE SKY. Tweedy seems to have completely given up on trying to break our hearts, opting instead to simply sing from his own and let come what may. Pretense seems to be completely gone from his music, and nowhere is that more evident than in the album’s incidental trappings. Bands concerned with continuing to feed some kind of cooler-than-thou image wouldn’t put a two-hump camel on their album cover and don some seriously hideous nudie suits for the album photo shoots. And basketball orange just isn’t the color of pretense, it’s the color of cheese and fire and summertime. Did I mention that these guys named their SEVENTH full-length record after their band, and actually wrote a song about their band being your best friend? The only band that could make this kind of thing pretentious is Pavement, and Wilco ain’t Pavement.

The record opens with “Wilco (the song),” which rivals “Can’t Stand It” for the most upbeat opening track on a Wilco record. Nels Cline delivers a Pixies-esque guitar lead, lending a slight edge to the otherwise good-time groove of the record. The sweet-natured tribute to the fans sends a clear message: this is an album that really doesn’t have much of an agenda. Fair enough!

“Deeper Down” follows, one of a few fairly experimental tracks on the record, featuring a start-and-stop progression. The lyrics appear to be a meditation on mystery, focused on the unsearchable and unattainable both within and without. The lyric progresses happily from “the insult of a kiss” to the “comfort of a kiss,” a signal to some renewed optimism on Tweedy’s part. One can’t help but wonder if this song reflects Tweedy’s own journey as a songwriter. There are many indications that Tweedy, like other artists, has experienced difficulty with the creative process in the past, but his later work, especially the last two albums, suggest that he has reached a certain comfort with his music-making. This appears to be the center that holds “Deeper Down” together. In fact, the start-and-stop structure of the song reflects the old SELAH literary device used in the Psalms, which most scriptural scholars would say probably means “pause and meditate on these words.”

“One Wing” – as in “One wing will never fly” – starts to introduce some sadness to the music, reflecting the dejection of one party after the end of a relationship. Tweedy’s metaphors here are spot on – “We belonged to a bird who cast his shadow on the world” – and while the song does veer off into a bit too much of a groove towards the end, the overall mood provides needed balance to an album that has, thus far, seemed lighter than air.

“Bull Black Nova” comes off like a hybrid of A GHOST IS BORN’s “Spiders (Kidsmoke)” and SKY BLUE SKY’s “Impossible Germany.” The lyric and music complement each other perfectly, reaching a paranoid climax along the theme of an apparently accidental killing. While the death is easy to discern through the numerous references to blood, it’s the sense of being watched that slips just under the radar. A Nova itself is a stellar object, and suns and stars populate the lyrics, as if they were the eyes of God Himself. “Nova” is a definite highlight of the record, one that I expect will feature prominently in the band’s sets for years to come.

Featuring an enjoyable duet with a tragically under-used Leslie Feist, “You and I” lightens the mid-album mood, being the breeziest pop song Tweedy has ever written. In contrast with “One Wing”, track 5 is an optimistic testimony to the mystery of relationship. It vaguely recalls “I’d Rather Dance With You” from fellow Feist-collaborators Kings of Convenience, as the couple agree that “I don’t need to know everything about you.” It’s a winner, but as previously mentioned, with a talent like Feist on board, it’s a shame this one doesn’t reach greater heights.

“You Never Know” continues the shift toward the sunny side of life, infecting your subconscious like something you might have roller-skated to back in grade school. It’s got Big Star, George Harrison, and midwest-bred written all over it, and might be the rootsiest thing Tweedy has written since BEING THERE. Could the positioning in the center of the album suggest a certain centrality to its message?

“Country Disappeared” pulls the plug on the mid-album breeze, drawing big correlations between wars in the third-world and the overwhelming presence of the media in our own. Ultimately a patriotic song (“I won’t take no/I won’t let you go”), it does seem a bit untimely given the election of a presidential candidate for whom Tweedy actively campaigned. Still, it is multi-layered, no mere protest song, and features one of Tweedy’s most soulful vocal performances.

“Solitaire” might be otherwise titled “Song for a Repentant Loner.” Reflecting the message of Simon & Garfunkel’s “I Am a Rock” without any of that track’s distracting moralisms, it’s really a nice, simple song featuring understated but fitting instrumentation and excellent dual-tracked vocals. Again, it fits well with the overall theme of the album, and after a few listens, proves itself one of Tweedy’s best compositions, something that might have found its home on SKY BLUE SKY as well.

“I’ll Fight” is the album’s most urgent song, reflecting a deep spiritual dilemma in Tweedy. Whereas only a few albums ago he lackadaisically sang about a “War on War,” “I’ll Fight” is full of vigor and conviction. Strong religious imagery is employed, the narrating voice identifying in several ways with the suffering of Christ. It comes off something like Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken,” and is truly a step-forward for Tweedy, exploring the beauty of a life laid down for another versus the emptiness of a life lived without purpose.

“Sonny Feeling” recalls some of BEING THERE’s finer moments; BIG STAR is stamped all over this thing. It’s a life-flashing-before-your-eyes song, with Sonny having to choose between leaving home and seeing the world or staying in her hometown amongst all the “cruel kids.” Coming on the heels of “I’ll Fight’s” study in contrasts, it illuminates something still slightly out of reach with Tweedy, a certain nameless discomfort that keeps popping its head up like a whack-a-mole.

“Everlasting Everything,” a pretty minor-key piano ballad closes out the record in grand fashion, with Tweedy lamenting that “Nothing could mean anything at all.” It’s an exceedingly sad song, where everything that was good and bad is “Gone like a circus, gone like a troubadour.” In the end, Tweedy’s only consolation is to “be glad Everlasting love is all you had.” It’s a fitting close to a record that finds itself stuck somewhere in the middle between a hunger for deep knowledge and the need to take life as it comes. Like “One Wing,” my only contention with the track is that the band doesn’t do more with it.

Overall, this record feels like a summary statement of the band’s first twelve years. I’d call it a mature “AM.” There’s plenty of good material here, in fact it’s pretty consistently good throughout. Tweedy’s lyrics are quite multi-dimensional and genuinely shine within the simple (for Wilco!) production. However, there’s nothing off-the-wall great here, no “Impossible Germany” or “Shot in the Arm” or “Misunderstood” or “Poor Places.” While they’ve thankfully avoided repeating an avant-garde disaster like “Less Than You Think” for two albums now, they could stand to linger a little bit more here and there. It just seems a bit hurried, that’s all.

So with this, a mature AM, here’s to the band delivering a mature BEING THERE next time around.

TRACKS:
1. Wilco (the song) (4.5/5)
2. Deeper Down (3.5/5)
3. One Wing (3/5)
4. Bull Black Nova (4.5/5)
5. You and I (4/5)
6. You Never Know (4.5/5)
7. Country Disappeared (4/5)
8. Solitaire (4.5/5)
9. I’ll Fight (3.5/5)
10. Sonny Feeling (3/5)
11. Everlasting Everything (4/5)