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The Major Lift

By Erik Hage

A few days ago, I found myself in the high desert of New Mexico thinking about U2. I was actually there to think about the novelist Cormac McCarthy, who gets so much literary purchase out of that landscape (and about whom I am writing a book). But if there’s a soundtrack that goes through your head as you gaze on miles of vast desert dotted with piñon scrub and yellow grass—dramatic, snow-capped peaks looming in the distance—it’s U2. The sheer scope and grandeur of the band’s sweeping vision seems a perfect match for such vistas. The band’s thematic preoccupations are the big ones—God, Peace, Love, Death—and so much of their music is anthemic in proportion. Think of how the humble, burning groove of “One” takes in all of humanity while slowly and deliberately mounting into an epic.

Then consider the dimensions of their career. The Beatles went from skiffling teenagers to demise in a decade, while the Rolling Stones have been a Rolling Stones tribute band for most of my life. R.E.M., similarly long-lived and often nipping at U2’s heels, nearly flatlined while trying to walk in the Irishmen’s shoes. In fact, if you had to stick one band’s music in a culture-defining capsule, it would be U2’s. So here they are, 33 years after conception, still big and powerful and generating vital new material. (And still so intense—when Bono sang about a “Beautiful Day,” you knew he didn’t mean a birds-chirping, glad-to-be-alive, kinda day. He meant sky-cracking-open, epiphany-landing-on-you-like-a-grand-piano kind of day.)

That said, it’s a tenuous high-wire game the band play, and those large gestures always risk tipping into self-parody. During the new millennium I’ve actually hidden out from new U2 records—trying to resist such mass-driven, obvious pleasures. But there’s always that moment when the music finally finds me and wins me over, again. This time it was the band playing “Breathe,” from the new LP, No Line on the Horizon, on David Letterman. It was a leather-tough performance, the Edge ripping power chords and the tendons on Bono’s neck standing out. By the time Bono proclaimed, in chest-pounding fashion, “I’m running down the road like loose electricity,” I was converted; by the time he charged toward the audience with his chin out, daring them to let loose while Edge’s guitar pealed a delay-drenched solo, I had spent my own money on the album.

And the album is a success—if risky, as U2 have decided to tackle that last frontier, the intimate. “Cedars of Lebanon” is muttered atop a welling and gurgling sonic bed. The stirring “White as Snow” has a textural ambience that makes me think of Sigur Ros, but Bono sings in a pining folk-ballad air. “Fez-Being Born” rises on crowd chatter and droney techno blends until finally rallying into a “big,” if not epic, U2 song. “Unknown Caller” is more familiar, driven by Edge’s unmistakable guitar chime and Bono’s para-Christian proselytizing, while “Magnificent” has a slinky, pulsing dance throb—the kind they haven’t indulged since Zooropa and Pop in the 1990s. Admittedly, the hands of producers Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois are heavy, so much so that they receive co-writing credit. (“Moment of Surrender” has the whiff of Eno’s recent work with Coldplay.) But this is an arresting, if not outright excellent album—and worth far more of your time than 2004’s How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb—even if the recent lead single, “Get on Your Boots,” resonates the same cheese as 2004’s “Vertigo.” But that failure aside, there is much here that seeps in over repeated listening, and this is an album that rewards such scrutiny.

Bono once compared fellow Irishman Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks to a drug (in a good way), yet Morrison himself has spent a good portion of his career casting aspersions on those who would canonize the celebrated 1968 song cycle. The LP actually never sold well in its time, a situation that forced a still-young Van Morrison to hedge his more daring artistic impulses with something more commercially appealing. (The result, Moondance, made him a rich person.) And because Astral Weeks has accumulated so much mythology, it’s easy to forget that Morrison was a one-hit wonder (“Brown Eyed Girl”) in his early 20s, when producer Lew Merenstein brought in a group of fine jazz musicians to flesh out the spare, often Belfast-based compositions Morrison had written.

Part of Morrison’s ire over the years may have come from his inability to recapture that lightning-in-a-bottle magic. But for whatever reason, Morrison, at 64, has decided to re-create the album live in recent concerts, using some of the original musicians. The ugly truth is that the Astral Weeks material has never worked particularly well live; concerts around the time of the album’s original release were disastrous, the songs’ subtleties were drowned out in the live the cacophony of the late 1960s. Taken at face value, Astral Weeks: Live at the Hollywood Bowl is a decent effort that lacks the sheer magic of the original. Morrison has become a different kind of singer since his golden period, that voice deepened into oaken, sometimes garbled hues. Nevertheless, these are some strong performances, and the excellent arrangements and musicianship add a bit of that Astral Weeks stardust. “Madame George” is the true test of mettle (like the “To be . . .” soliloquy in Hamlet) and the version here, bolstered by a rousing string section, is great. Morrison also tacks on his unparalleled vocal journey “Listen to the Lion” (from 1972’s wonderful Saint Dominic’s Preview), but it’s one of his weaker live takes on it, and “Common One,” the title track from his misunderstood and unjustly maligned 1980 album. Some of that Astral Weeks spirit is certainly in these other two tracks as well, and they illustrate the fact that Morrison has been a restless artistic spirit during his whole career, always pushing the outer edge of the pale, a spirit this slight return has hopefully not dampened.

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