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
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.
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.