U2 became a global sensation in the 80s, and their output in that decade, as we chronicled in Part 1 of their anthology, was up there with any other musical act during that time. For the artists that topped the charts in the 80s, carrying their success into the 90s proved to be a huge challenge, and something few succeeded at. Nearly all the big acts tried to keep it going, sometimes with a new sound, new look, or even line-up changes. Musical tastes were changing, though, and soon the top 40 charts splintered into pop/hip-hop and alternative rock. U2 was one of the only acts to make the transition, keep their fan base, and still top the charts – at least for a while. Though they never reached the commercial heights of “The Joshua Tree”, they went on to have several albums break the 10 million mark in sales and their tours continue, to this day, to be some of the hottest tickets in rock. Here’s a look at the second half of their catalog, up through the present.
Achtung Baby (1991) – Mike G
As I may have written about before, 1990 was a delineating year in my musical tastes where I moved past top 40-radio and got more into album-oriented rock. I wish I could recall if I was excited or wary of U2’s new material, but as soon as I heard their first single “The Fly”, I went out and bought the album. On that song as well as the album- leading song “Zoo Station”, The Edge’s distorted guitars signaled that the band was offering a “new sound”. It was advertised as “industrial”, but in reality the overall sound of the album wasn’t that radical – it was still definitively U2, with more notable production sound from Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois. The album hit #1 on the Billboard chart and garnered nearly universal praise from critics. The success came at a good time for the band, as they got some criticism for Rattle and Hum, and supposedly the early recording sessions for Achtung Baby in Berlin were marred by infighting, to the point where the band considered breaking up. I know I said “War” was probably my favorite, but after listening to this a few times in the past month, this album is right up there – top three for sure. It’s an album I can listen to no matter what mood I’m in, and even though some of the tracks (“Mysterious Ways” and “One” come to mind) suffered from overplay, I still enjoy the album start to finish. (Yes, in a prior blog last year I did cite “One” as a song I did not care for, but I’ve come around on it recently). My favorite tracks are “Until The End Of The World”, “So Cruel”, and “Even Better Than The Real Thing”. Bono’s lyrics and vocals are exceptional here, and the music from the band is as strong as ever. DJ and I finally got to see U2 live on their Zoo TV tour to support this album. It was at Foxboro MA in the old stadium and it was a memorable show for the both the spectacle of it and the great live performance from the band. I wore my Zoo TV T-shirt for years until it was literally falling apart.
Bonus: As a sign of the band’s clout and expanding focus on social/environmental causes, Achtung Baby was one of the first CDs released in two eco-friendlier formats: the classic jewel case, but without the notorious “long box”, or the cardboard fold-out Digipak (which is the one I have).
DJ: The first U2 album I bought and solely based on the first single “The Fly”, it was different and I bit. This album became seminal for me and is one of my island discs. Almost every song is great. My two favorites: the bitter “So Cruel” and “Ultraviolet” are amazing cuts. I admit “One” has been overplayed to the nth degree but it’s a great song. The show was great and I feel lucky to see them at their height.
Zooropa (1993) – DJ
Achtung Baby may be one of my desert island albums but Zooropa could be there too. It has been compared to Acthung Baby as a B-side version or junior version but it’s not even close. It’s a fantastic album that stands on it’s own. It’s more experimental and you can see it heading towards 1997’s Pop album, with more danceable fare like “Daddy’s Gonna Pay For Your Crash Car”, a song that my roommate played incessantly back in the day. It’s a great track. I watched some of the Zooropa tour and their performance of this is quite fun with Bono as Mephisto. Another very different track and one of the singles is “Numb”. A track with The Edge on lead and Bono in the background. The Edge also has sole writing credit. Another single was “Lemon”, a song I did not care for at the time, but have fallen in love with as time has gone on. Bono is in full falsetto. Probably their best single is the Frank Sinatra/Wim Wenders inspired “Stay (Faraway, So Close)”, a more traditional track. Two of the least know tracks on the album, “Dirty Day” and “The First Time” are two of my personal favorites with the latter being the better of the two. “Dirty Day” has such bitter lyrics as it talks about a relationship of an estranged father and son. Bono in great vocal form and The Edge with the backing makes for a beautiful accompaniment. Not sure there is a U2 album where Bono uses his falsetto as much as he does on Zooropa. If there is one song I can do without, it’s clearly the last one, and I am glad it’s last, is “The Wanderer” with Johnny Cash. It’s not a bad song, and I like Johnny Cash but it just doesn’t seem right almost like they needed one more song.
Bonus: “Hold Me, Thrill Me, Kiss Me, Kill” was a track that was cut from this album. Why? It would have fit perfectly. It’s one of the bigger post Achtung Baby hits. I love this track. They were able to include it on the Batman Forever Soundtrack though, putting a shining bow on a stinking turd.
MG: This is an album that took me a while to fully appreciate, but after listening to it frequently in recent years it’s become one of my favorites. I agree that it’s a solid listen front to back (but also agree that “The Wanderer” is the weakest track). One of my favorites is “Babyface”, even though it sounds like it might be about a guy obsessing over a porn star? This album comes closest to a concept album from the band, but the songs still stand alone individually.
Pop (1997) – Mike G
Pop is the one U2 album I can’t put my finger on. I did not buy it when it came out in 1997 – I don’t even recall being aware of the band having a new release. Over time I heard a few singles from the album and eventually picked-up the CD at a flea market for a few bucks. When I first heard the full album I liked it, but on subsequent listens I started finding issues. I always appreciated the contributions of all four band members, and I simply couldn’t hear Adam Clayton and Larry Mullen Jr.’s work on some songs. When they were making the album, Mullen did have a back injury, which made it easy to switch to programmed drums. Reportedly the band struggled to get their sound right and rushed to finish the album in time for their 1997 tour. It’s no wonder, then, why songs like “Miami” and “The Playboy Mansion” feel incomplete, as if the producers added a coat of production paint and called it done, with the final result being sonically bland. The band was disappointed with the album and even vowed to go back and rerecord some of the songs to get them to what they wanted. Ironically, this album had the most singles (6) but was one of their worst-selling releases. I do like several tracks on here, such as “Last Night On Earth”, which features a good marriage of the new production noises/sampling and the band’s music. “Do You Feel Loved” and “Staring At The Sun” sound more like the U2 of old. One song I really dislike is “Mofo”, which is supposedly about Bono losing his mother but you’d never know it because you can’t make out a word of his distorted lyrics. The album is a mixed bag, for sure, and ultimately feels more like a Bono/Edge side project.
Bonus: Several of the singles were remixed/reworked for release for radio play and differ significantly from the album versions. These versions can be found on their 2002 Greatest Hits compilation: The Best of 1990-2000.
DJ: Pop barely hit my radar and I believe I called them done. “Discotheque” was a decent track and so is “Staring At The Sun” which I did not know was from this album. The rest of the album was just ok, it really doesn’t work for me, a mixing of electronica with the U2 sound. I think sometimes U2 relies on their producers way too much and this is a great example.
All That You Can’t Leave Behind (2000) – DJ
After what I declared was a U2 misstep with Pop, I pronounced U2’s career in a coma state and I was about to pull the plug. My friends will attest to this. But after the release of All That You Can’t Leave Behind I had to admit I was wrong. They roared back from their electronic experience to produce what is arguably their most radio-friendly hit-filled album since The Joshua Tree. I was actually surprised to see this in Rolling Stone’s top 500 albums of all time. It’s a decent album, my biggest issue with it is the last few songs. “Peace on Earth”, “Grace” and “New York” are tough to get through. I get that at this point U2 is getting older and Bono is trying to be thoughtful, but these three songs come off schmaltzy and the lyrics preachy. I also agree with Larry Mullin that “Wild Honey” is not one of their best either. Now the rest of the album is excellent. “Beautiful Day” is a decent song that got a “One” type of playing, everyone used it, especially sporting events. “Kite”, which I love, I thought had an INXS sound to it, specifically their softer songs. I recently found out in the documentary Mystify that Bono and Michael Hutchence were good friends and maybe his death contributed to some of this album. I found out later that “Stuck in a Moment You Can’t Get Out Of” was actually about him. This is the best slow track on the album. These are the lyrics that Bono is best at. The other two singles “Elevation” and “Walk On” are brilliant. It’s too bad they couldn’t replace the last few songs.
Bonus: With September 11th occurring a month before the release the songs “New York” and “Peace on Earth” took on different meanings than intended and became important songs in their Elevation tour. This is despite me liking either track.
MG: I was also surprised at how good this “comeback” album was – it took me a while before I went out and bought it. I concur with everything in your write-up – great album that trails off at the end. Speaking of 9/11, U2’s Super Bowl halftime performance in Feb 2002 was both entertaining and then extremely moving and something I will never forget. The band gave an enduring gift to America that day.
How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb (2004) – Mike G
After enjoying their last album so much, I was back on the U2 bandwagon and bought this release on CD as soon as it came out. Even though I liked some of the tracks on first listen, beyond the well-played single “Vertigo”, I don’t recall listening to this album enough. It’s actually quite solid and I like how the album has a pervasive feeling of optimism throughout. Collaborating with Steve Lillywhite as a producer seemed to bring the band back to a more traditional rock sound. For example, the second song, “Miracle Drug” along with the second single “All Because of You” have that classic U2 anthemic sound, but avoid trading on their earlier work. Other standouts include “Love and Peace or Else”, and “City of Blinding Lights” which are great upbeat songs, both featuring a nice combination of sublime guitar work from The Edge and prominent, driving bass work from Clayton. This album really feels like a return to the sound of a band – not Bono being featured with the other guys backing him. If I had to make a minor quibble, there are a few moments where it feels like Bono is shoehorning in some lyrics to fit the melody, but at the same time, you have to give credit to Bono for continuing to turn out exceptional songwriting this far into his career. Like its predecessor, the album does soften a bit towards the end, but overall this is an album I can play start to finish and have no issues with any track.
Bonus: This album marked the start of the partnership between U2 and Apple – with “Vertigo” being featured in TV ads for the iPod (remember those?) and there was even a U2 branded iPod in the album colors (black and red) with the band’s laser-engraved autographs on the back.
DJ: I did love “Vertigo”, which seemed like a perfect U2 song. Also “Sometimes You Can’t Make it On Your Own” is one of my favorite U2 tracks. Thoughtful, meaningful lyrics by Bono and maybe the last song from U2 that I love. The rest of the album again is ok, it’s not a bad listen especially for what is to come.
No Line on the Horizon (2009) – DJ
I am not going to lie, until this post, I have not listened to any of these last three albums. My only inkling that this album existed at the time is “Get On Your Boots” was shown on some show, maybe SNL, maybe a football show, not sure but after that I heard nothing. I didn’t love that song and still don’t. Maybe I was all U2’d out. So here are some fresh thoughts. My initial feeling was that I really didn’t like what I was hearing but with a few more listens some of it has grown on me although not sure it will come up in regular rotation anytime soon. It is uneven at times. U2 had first started to work with Rick Rubin but scrapped those sessions to go back to Eno, Lanois, and Lillywhite and so I wouldn’t be surprised if that caused some of it. The styles are massively different. This would be the last time using those producers before going to Danger Mouse and others. The other influence is their trip to Morocco where they heard some different world music sounds. It’s heard throughout as it does not always have that U2 sound. “Magnificent” maybe my favorite track, it’s up-tempo and is closest to what I have been used to from U2. The first half of the album includes the better pieces for sure but even that for me was just okay. The last few songs were tough. “White as Snow” put me to sleep and the strangely named song “Fez – Being Born” almost did as well. My least favorite track is saved for the end, and is also the most middle eastern-influenced track, “Cedars of Lebanon”. It just goes nowhere and is preachy, just not an enjoyable listen. For a fan of U2, I was hoping for a unfound treasure but it wasn’t to be.
Bonus: Will.i.am from the Black Eyed Peas joined the guys on the song “I’ll Go Crazy If I Don’t Go Crazy Tonight”. It’s one of the better songs on the album. Surprisingly to me, it was a single and Grammy-nominated.
MG: Before we started putting this anthology together I might have listened to this album once or twice through at the most. Like you, I didn’t give it much thought, although I kind of like “Get On Your Boots”. Giving it another few spins, I warmed up to it quite a bit and it’s not a bad album, though undeniably a significant drop off from their last two.
Songs of Innocence (2014) – Mike G
So I’ll also be honest on this one and say I never gave this album a listen before this. I should have and don’t know why I didn’t – maybe I was worried it would be bad and didn’t want to taint my view of the band. Now that I think of it, though, I may have checked out a few tracks before deleting them from my iPod in disgust, because…U2 and their partner Apple angered a lot of people by automatically downloading this album to people’s iTunes accounts, whether they liked U2 or not. It was a poorly thought out marketing strategy, and left a sour taste with a lot of music lovers for both “forcing” music on them and also feeling like a corporate intrusion. So is it a good album? With one exception there aren’t really any “single” ready hits, but as an album I found this to be a pleasant listen. The exception I mentioned would be the album’s leadoff track “The Miracle (Of Joey Ramone)” that has a catchy beat and a great flow. I did find overreach in the production at times, to the point of being gimmicky – as if they felt the songs weren’t good enough and needed to be covered for. Over the years Bono has been one of the best musical storytellers out there, but here I thought he continued a trend of forcing lyrics into the music/melody, making for some awkward moments – not pervasively, just at times. You can read on Wikipedia and elsewhere about how each song was about elements of Bono’s childhood, but I had a tough time getting those themes, even when I was paying close attention to the lyrics. Nevertheless, as an album I can play this and enjoy it, but I wasn’t hooked into individual songs like their prior stuff.
Bonus: The band worked on this album on and off for nearly five years, the band’s longest gap between albums. During that time they stopped working on the album to record “Ordinary Love” for the film Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom. The song won a Golden Globe and was nominated for Best Original Song at the Academy Awards.
DJ: I wasn’t mad to get this album for free on my iPod and I may still have it but I wasn’t really interested in any of it. I think I listened to bits of it. Listening to it for real here, I did not enjoy it, it was tough to get through. Maybe too much Bono not enough Edge? It’s boring, maybe fine for some background ambiance.
Songs of Experience (2017) – DJ
I wasn’t really sure what to expect with this album, never heard it before barely knew it existed. It’s a companion piece with their last album Songs of Innocence. Experience being their adult experiences with Innocence being songs written about their youth. It took three years for the follow-up despite having the songs completed closer to the last album’s release. The 2016 U.S. election came and changed the world. Bono felt he needed to comment on this and they rewrote and rerecorded some of the songs. It does feel like he crammed those themes in at times. There is a theme of mortality too as Bono experienced an unidentified “health scare”. The album is as uneven as you would expect. Overall not a huge fan of Bono’s lyrics here, often cheesy and self-important. The music is also up and down and sometimes feels like parts of songs I have heard before. Tell me “Beautiful Day” isn’t in there somewhere. The tracks I enjoyed the most were “You’re the Best Thing About Me” a song from Bono to his wife and “The Little Things That Give You Away” another ballad. Kendrick Lamar on “American Soul” and Lady Gaga on “Summer of Love” are wasted. I do like “Lights of Home” which features the all-female band Haim, who also have a writing credit. I found “The Showman (Little More Better)” and “Red Flag Day” just to be awful. I thought “Landlady” was going to be a parody of Adam Sandler’s “Lunch Lady”, terrible title and song that is just as bad. In some ways, though I feel I could listen to this more than No Line On The Horizon. It’s good background music.
Bonus: It was actually an album that debuted at number 1 in the United States all due to their bundling the album with tickets to their 2018 tour. They know how to market an album I guess, I would prefer creating a better album, but that’s just me.
MG: Perhaps “Landlady” is the companion to The Police’s early track “Landlord”. The band is getting into their 60’s, so you have to give them credit for still putting out albums, but it does feel like the well is running dry. I enjoyed “You’re The Best Thing About Me”, otherwise this album was a tough listen, as much as I tried to find stuff I liked. Totally agree “Red Flag Day” and “The Showman” are the rare U2 tracks I simply do not like at all.
But I don’t want to end on a bad note, so let me add this: in doing this anthology, I was able to reflect on how great the body of work this band created across four decades, which is just amazing. I almost think we as fans have taken for granted what they’ve contributed to rock and popular music in general. Thank you for reading our anthology and we hope this was a good way to appreciate U2’s career.
Don’t forget about part one U2 – Anthology: Part I or our other musical anthologies.