I heard U2 for the first time almost 25 years ago. A friend of mine was a huge fan. As they became one of the biggest rock bands in the world, I wondered, “How did he know?” Now I wonder, “How did I not know?” In every respect, they are as important to the 80s (and everything after) as the Beatles were to the 60s (and everything after), both musically and socially. To boot, they became a political force as well. Perhaps U2 was more of the Beatles/Dylan of the 80s and maybe the David Bowie of the 90s. That’s probably too many analogies though.
I used to think that U2’s career could be divided in two, Boy through Rattle and Hum and Achtung Baby to the present. Going back and listening to everything together though, I really think there are four periods, the Irish period, the American period, the European period and the Rock period.
The Irish period consists of the first three studio LPs, Boy, October and War as well as the live Under a Blood Red Sky. Their sound was pretty well-defined, but hadn’t become the huge arena-oriented sound into which it would soon develop. The Edge was already revolutionizing what could be done with a guitar and a delay pedal. Bono’s vocals were already soulful and completely engaging. Adam Clayton and Larry Mullen, Jr. were already a simple but tight rhythm section. The pieces were in place, but U2 didn’t sound like a huge band yet. They were still Ireland’s and not the world’s.
The American period saw U2’s focus shift from Ireland to the American superpower, both the largest market and the biggest power in the West. The Unforgettable Fire, Joshua Tree and Rattle and Hum all share the same sense of being American records, both musically and philosophically. Interestingly, the band never seemed like an Irish band trying to act American. They thoroughly absorbed America into who they were as a band without losing the Irish spirit that made them unique.
They didn’t ease into the European period as they did into the American period. The three years between albums saw an abupt shift in their sound from the very organic American roots influences to the colder, more precise world of European club music. Nonetheless, they managed to keep the sense of warmth that always made them so engaging for Achtung Baby. That warmth was comparitively absent from Zooropa and Pop.
Despite the commercial and critical success of the European period, I think U2 felt the need to re-engage themselves which led to the albums of the Rock period. While the tours for the previous three albums were supposedly amazing, they also had the quality of being more of a spectacle than a rock concert. When they released All That You Can’t Leave Behind, my first reaction was that they had written an album they could play live without all the frills of the recent tours. How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb continues in the same vein.
In order to keep things manageable, I’m going to split this into multiple posts, one for each of the periods above.