“Any proposition containing the word “is” creates a linguistic structural confusion which will eventually give birth to serious fallacies.” ― Alfred Korzybski
“Is,” “is,” “is”—the idiocy of the word haunts me. If it were abolished, human thought might begin to make sense. I don’t know what anything “is”; I only know how it seems to me at this moment.” – Robert Anton Wilson
“It depends on what the meaning of the word ‘is’ is. If the–if he–if ‘is’ means is and never has been, that is not–that is one thing. If it means there is none, that was a completely true statement….” – Bill Clinton
“Whatever you say it is, it is… NOT” – me
The title of the new Bowie exhibition mocks us, but in a fun-loving way. He knows what he’s doing, using only one word (other than David Bowie) for the title and it’s a completely intentionally misleading, or at very least, untrustworthy, word. So, for starters, let’s take a look at what the exhibition which is the subject of this documentary “David Bowie Is” actually IS. According to the Huffington Post:
“‘David Bowie Is,’ contains more than 300 artifacts selected from an incredible 75,000 items Bowie had archived over the years.”
So this is not a documentary about David Bowie, it is a documentary about a huge collection of David Bowie “stuff” through which we will experience the different David Bowie iterations as they unfolded throughout the last 40 plus years, literally a middle-aged lifetime, my own, to be super-specific. It comes about a month after Showtime’s tight and classy “5 Years” documentary, which was SO good and SO right and SO short it leaves you wanting MORE. When you sit down to watch a one hour documentary about Bowie’s career, you know that they’re not even gonna try to tell “the whole story”. I know they just put it out to get ME, personally, excited and hungry for more. Maybe all this stuff from the exhibition will tell the whole story, if there’s enough stuff! Obviously, there’s a heavy-duty hype campaign being rolled out and Bowie is going out of his way to make sure it’s very fragmented and indirect, which is what we love him for.
What Bowie is perhaps best known for, is being the original unpredictable shapeshifting artist who never even tries to insult the audience by trying to act like the whole thing is not an act, if you catch my drift…
BUT, like all great originals, he is not original at all, as far as changing identity and fucking with public perception goes. As usual, it starts with rascal-visionary-genius-plagiarist Bob Dylan. Dylan is even more like Bowie than Bowie in this regard. He acts like he expects you to believe him, but he knows that you know that he knows…
I bring up Dylan specifically because I believe what Bowie is doing here is similar in some ways to Dylan’s “Chronicles”, which came out close to the great Scorcese “No Direction Home” documentary, which, in my thinking, sort of corresponds to the relationship between the recent Showtime retro documentary and the new retrospective museum exhibit and film documentary about said exhibit.
“To reveal art and conceal the artist is art’s aim.” – Oscar Wilde
No artist has made art as transparently about “concealing the artist” as David Bowie. From the get-go, Bowie not only never committed to a musical style, he never even officially committed to music as his primary medium as an artist, even when he wasn’t famous yet and no one cared if he decided to be an actor or a fucking mime or whatever.
Getting back to the Dylan connection, I now will digress to discuss the marketing of old shit, which is the business the Stones have been in for quite a while, Dylan has been quietly doing and Bowie, as usual, was one of the pioneers of. In the new world, because music is so literally freely available, selling music is hard, because it has been devalued, at least in a monetary sense. So who’s selling new music these days? Ace Frehley has been admirably (and rightfully!) successful selling his new shit on iTunes and Bowie and Dylan have been coughing up so much truly awesome old shit (the live cd that came as a bonus with the semi-recent “Station To Station” reissue is a revelation, how could it have been languishing all those years? And don’t even get me started on the inspirational balls-out triumph of the “Rolling Thunder” installment of Dylan’s Bootleg Series) that IT’S ALMOST AS IF THEY WERE VISIONARY PROPHETS WHO KNEW THIS TIME WAS COMING. But really, I figure they are artsy-fartsy genii who have a certain detachment that allows them to work the system to their benefit, rather than scurrying to catch up and adapt to it.
How did I get this far without mentioning McCartney, who waged a promotional campaign to promote the work of THE BEATLES (as if he needed to, but still, it seemed to help) and then went back out with a tour and documentary and reissues in a transparent effort to make room in the canon for WINGS?!?!?! And it fucking worked! But now, once again, the new Beatles audiophile collection is the latest, most coveted musical product being sold. THE BEATLES ALWAYS WIN FOREVER. The only music you can sell now is old music. Partially because old people (i.e.: me) had long ago been habituated to purchasing music and because Bowie/Stones/Beatles/Dylan etc. is music that has already been long-established as important and “worth paying money for”. I think this is true both in objective and subjective terms, but I’ve blah blah’d on this enough already.
As far as the movie goes, IMHO, it ate a bag of dicks. Before it started, there was a brief introduction in the theater, in person, by one Vivien Goldman (who seemed really pleasant and warm and enthusiastic) identifying herself as “the professor of David Bowie, NYU, Clive Davis Branch, Tisch School of the Arts”. So we got off on the wrong foot immediately because as anyone who knows me knows, even though I lack any academic accreditation in any field, I, KEITH HARTEL, AM THE FUCKING PROFESSOR OF DAVID BOWIE. So I got an axe to grind and the thing ain’t even started yet, but when it does, here come “Fame” cranking over the speakers. Are you fucking kidding me? There is no more hackneyed gesture in the world of Bowie than to use his ginormous perennial hit, “Fame”, when you’re watching something that’s trying to tell you about him. We get it: when he got really famous he wrote “Fame” about being famous and this is such a great example of his detachment from his surroundings, allowing him to look at his predicament from an ironic distance, or some such horse shit. It’s just so obvious. Why don’t you spell it the fuck out for me, you indignatious motherfuckers? It goes downhill from here.
“This documentary is the ultimate tour of the exhibition”, says one of the incessant English accents which beat you over the head throughout the entirety of the movie (I realize Bowie is a British guy from Britain and these are British people talking about a British exhibition BUT among other things, this film has totally ruined British accents for me, and very possibly may have turned me racist against the British). So here’s one of the problems: this exhibition is no different from anything you ever saw at The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, except it’s all Bowie stuff. As it happens, politics aside, I LOVE visiting the RNRHOF and I could spend a whole day there, completely absorbed and fascinated (and I have done exactly that more than once). And since Bowie is my all-time favorite artist, more or less, I believe I’d be like a pig in shit at the actual Bowie exhibition. My point is, could you imagine seeing a film that starts with someone announcing “This documentary is the ULTIMATE tour of The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame”? I think that would sound totally fucking stupid, which is probably why no such movie exists (to date, at least).
RELATED: U2 are a Christian band giving you a gift called “Songs Of Innocence”. Why you wanna be so shitty?
The Bowie music sounds great cranking over the system (not “Fame” anymore, but THEY BRING IT BACK LATER, DUH!) and they flash shitloads of awesomely cool pictures, so really, someone had to go out of their way to make this thing suck. The first thing they do is show you a RICE SCULPTURE representing everyone born in 1947, a peak birth year in England. THANK YOU FOR EXPLAINING THE FUCKING BABY BOOM FROM A BRITISH PERSPECTIVE USING A FUCKING RICE SCULPTURE!!! Really helps me get a new perspective on Bowie (I mean that soooo sarcastically). Also, sarcasm intact, thank you for pointing out that Elton John and Marc Bolan were born around the same time, it never would have occurred to me, I had no idea… I NEVER WOULD HAVE GUESSED THAT CONTEMPORANEOUS STARS OF THE BRIT GLAM ROCK HEYDAY WOULD HAVE BEEN BORN AROUND THE SAME TIME AS EACH OTHER! So approximately two and a half minutes into the movie, they’re already hitting us with filler which I honestly cannot imagine would make the movie one iota more interesting to anyone who would ever see it. At this point, two and a half minutes in, I’m already pretty sure that this film just not for me.
17 YEAR OLD DAVID BOWIE ON TV
In the next segment they show the recently circulating clip of 17 year old Bowie on TV talking about “Society for prevention of harassment to longhaired men”, which was a simple PR setup, a way to get an up and comer on TV with a gimmick. That’s worth seeing, but they spent way too much time setting the scene for the sociological environment in which this took place. It’s like they think no one ever saw a Beatles documentary.
DAVID BOWIE – First TV appearance 1970 – SPACE ODDITY
He becomes David Bowie instead of “Jones” in 1965. There’s a healthy dose of bullshit revisionism (IMHO) when they point out Bowie’s debut album was released on the same day as Sgt. Pepper, and he was on the wrong side of far-outness or some such. But really, Bowie’s first album was perfectly weird and artsy-fartsy enough for the times, he just hadn’t written “Space Oddity” yet. In other words, his debut album was not one of those great, fully formed debut albums and it took him a while to find his groove, like so many of the all-time greats. Bringing Sgt. Pepper into the dialogue is a bunch of bullshit, totally irrelevant. BUT, it is cool that they show the original acetate of the Velvet Underground’s “Banana” album, which was given to Bowie by his manager before it’s actual release, and it reminds us why he was influenced by it before anyone else of note and he’s gotta be their most influential proselytizer. Still, it’s not that great to see it in a movie with some guy explaining that Bowie liked VU. But credit where credit is due, that’s an impressive artifact they got in there.
Then they start talking about Lindsey Kemp and the mime shit and Bowie discovering that he might want to try being “different people”. They gloss over the fact that he was already doing that, playing Saxophone in mod Who-ripoff bands, then trying his hand at singing and writing, then moving from mod to Kinks-influenced music-hall style. This was a guy trying all different shit to try to make it. It’s about the need to make people pay attention to you at any cost. An audience to fill the void left by the dysfunctional family structures experienced by so many baby boom era children, who were brought up in an atmosphere of repression and denial due to the unprecedented atrocity which was how the West WON. I believe the trajectory of his early career in many ways resembles that of Steve Martin. Reading Martin’s excellent “Born Standing Up” memoir, I was surprised to learn that he was not a “born comedian”, he just wanted to find a way to make people watch him, he needed an audience. He put in time as a magician, a banjo player, a dramatic actor and a comedy writer before becoming the world’s most successful stand-up comedian, then a big movie star and now he writes books and makes records with Edie Brickell. Steve Martin may be more shapeshifting and ultimately unknowable (most likely even and especially unto himself, but I digress), than Bowie.
After all these relative irrelevancies (‘cept the VU acetate) they have a bunch of “customers” talking about “how fascinating the first room in the Bowie exhibit is”. It comes across very similar to when a lowbrow comedy is released and they have a commercial with exiting civilians enthusing about how much fun they had because quoting people who write about movies is not gonna make a very good advertisement.
Next: they explain “Space Oddity”. They’re talking about the first pictures of Earth taken from space, and how it was the first time we knew the Earth looks blue from space, and that it inspired the line “Planet Earth is blue” from Space Oddity. Approaching 20 minutes into this thing, here is reasonably interesting fact #2. They analyze the visual content for the album cover of what they refer to as “The Space Oddity Album”. This is bullshit because anyone who gives half a shit knows that the album was titled “Man Of Words, Man Of Music” in the UK upon initial release whereas it wasn’t even released as an album called “Space Oddity” in the US until after the Ziggy breakthrough, and of course, the American version (the one actually titled “Space Oddity”) had Ziggy era photo-shoot stuff on the cover. They do make some interesting observations about what the cover of the original UK release had on it, but referring to it as “Space Oddity” is once again, a bunch of bullshit. Maybe I’m just being bitchy because I never had the original UK one on LP.
Then this film, this mockery of a travesty of a sham, takes a turn sharply for the worse, when they start talking about how Bowie’s COSTUME, when he appeared on “Top Of The Pops” for the first time ever in 1972, changed various random, ordinary British accent-speaking peoples’ lives. I know it’s an art exhibit and I’m aware that music isn’t art (I really need a sarcasm font). Let me remind you, this movie started with a rice sculpture about the births occurring in Britain in 1947, then we talk about Bowie’s “overlooked” debut album, which no one has ever listened to, and then we examine Bowie’s breakthrough hit single, “Space Oddity”, which we act like was part of an actual important Bowie album (which it sort of ain’t) and then completely ignore the fact that “Man Who Sold The World” and “Hunky Dory” were created (except for “Oh, You Pretty Things” obligatory playing in the background while more British accents explain how Bowie had “a bleak view of the future” at the dawn of the 70s). My beef is that this period that is being glossed over is, in my opinion, the most crucial phase in Bowie’s development as artist and superstar. But what do I know? I’m only a “self-proclaimed” professor of David Bowie, not a real one, from the Clive Davis branch of the Tisch school of the Arts at NYU. The suppression of my obviously very important thoughts on this topic is clearly a symptom of the intentional dumbing down of the culture.
Now we’re getting to close to the first time during the movie where I had the urge to fucking walk the fuck out. Here’s the low point: A long speech, delivered in broken English, by Japanese designer Kansai Yamamoto, who designed the fabulous, revolutionary stage wear for “Ziggy”. In no way would I wish to say anything to detract from his phenomenal creative contribution to the theatrical presentation of Bowie’s most celebrated and revered “Ziggy Stardust” era. But he just didn’t have a whole lot to say (why should any real artist, aside from in their art?) and his rambling, incomprehensible speech, which mainly seemed to express “we liked what each other did, so it worked”, was the first point in the film where there was no doubt in my mind that if I was watching this at home on TV, I’d change the channel. It would have been better if he spoke in Japanese with subtitles. Listening to this guy who can hardly speak English talk about his first trip to New York was EXCRUCIATING. Now, getting back to my earlier theme that this is a movie loaded with pointless filler, this guy’s speech, which is impossible to really understand, took WAY too long. This was the first time I checked to see how long I’d been watching this fucking thing, seemed like forever, but it was only a little over a half hour, so as a fucking professional, I resolved to stick it out until the end, or at least until I caught a cue that left no doubt in my mind that it was time to walk the fuck out.
Next thing you know, they skip to the fucking Union Jack jacket he’s wearing on the cover of the 90s era (really good, actually) “Earthling” album. I’m pissed! Did I say this is a bunch of bullshit? The film starts out chronological and now they seem to be visiting random times when he had some garment that someone can talk about. In retrospect, I’m surprised I managed to hang for another 20 or so minutes. “Fashion” comes up on the soundtrack, keeping with the very INSPIRED (there’s my sarcasm font again) tone set by the earlier employment of “Fame” and “Space Oddity” to assist in not telling a potentially extremely fascinating story.
Finally, the song creation part of the exhibition gets some coverage. I can’t complain when they bring up the Burroughs cut-up technique and Eno’s “Oblique Strategy” techniques. This is the first, and almost the only, truly worthwhile insight into Bowie’s creative process that’s been presented, as far as I’m concerned. Since I am an arch-nerd, super-fan, self-proclaimed professor of Bowie, there’s no new information for ME here, but that’s not a criticism. I am, however, unsurprised when, disappointingly, this aforementioned relevant and illuminating insight into Bowie’s creative process at his artistic peak takes less than 3 minutes to cover. And then it’s on to…
“The guy from Pulp!” I like Jarvis Cocker, I like Pulp and I think he’s an interesting and smart commentator. At this point, I thought the movie might be turning around, finally getting really interesting, informative, insightful. Jarvis Cocker is a witty dude who knows his Bowie. But in this movie, he is merely “the guy from Pulp”. OK, guy from Pulp, it’s make or break time. What are you gonna bring to the table?
“I wanted to talk to you a bit about David Bowie’s writing, and I really do mean his writing because you’ve seen it, earlier on. That was one of the things that really struck me when I came to this exhibition, was to see his handwriting.” Listen here, guy from Pulp, DAVID BOWIE’S FUCKING HANDWRITING IS ALL OVER THE BACK COVER OF “HUNKY DORY”, ONE OF HIS MOST POPULAR ALBUMS. DAVID BOWIE’S HANDWRITING APPEARED IN A FAN CLUB ADVERT INCLUDED AS AN INSERT IN “ALADDIN” FUCKING “SANE”, DAVID BOWIE’S HANDWRITING APPEARED IN THE GATEFOLD TO FUCKING “DAVID LIVE”. DAVID BOWIE’S FUCKING HANDWRITING IS NO FUCKING MYSTERY AND I DO NOT BELIEVE THAT YOU, GUY FROM PULP, SERIOUSLY WERE CURIOUS TO SEE IT. I guess seeing it on the actual original paper is pretty cool, as cool as the other million examples taped to the walls of the rock and roll hall of fame, but this is the part of the movie where I actually became enraged. Fucking handwriting? It gets WORSE…
Guy from Pulp says “it had a bit of the look of the 14 year-old girl’s handwriting”, meaning, legible and a bit round and pretty looking, HOW UNIQUE FOR GENDER-BENDING ARTSY-FARTSY TYPES who write POETRY (lyrics, technically, but you catch my drift). Gene Simmons has equally interesting handwriting. Handwriting is just not that interesting, at least not to me. It is my contention, especially in the “paperless” age, that all people’s handwriting is unique and idiosyncratic in a way. And who fucking cares? I do not believe this is what the guy from Pulp was really the most interested in, I believe they needed a cool, smart, famous, funny guy to make it seem like it’s worthwhile to discuss Bowie’s handwriting. But I was not fooled. The guy from Pulp also mentions the “Bowie Nights” which were a kind of 70s-80s punk, new romantic nightclub cultural thing in Britain, which I believe did actually mean a lot to the guy from Pulp, but it was only brought up as a sort of sidebar to his bland remarks about Bowie’s handwriting, which I think he was blackmailed into speaking about. Because it’s just dumb.
Here’s another tired trope applied to all sorts of artists working in the field of music, inevitably trotted out to kill time, or if I pay attention to the paranoid voices in my head, to slowly kill me, personally: “The recording studio for Bowie is like a canvas”. I’m not even gonna say anything about that one, but if I did, I would need a SARCASM FONT. So then, this other guy that said that last obvious quote STARTS TALKING AGAIN ABOUT BOWIE’S FUCKING HANDWRITING which he say is, “almost sort of naive in a way”. And then some civilian attendant of the exhibition weighs in with “It’s really, really cool to see the handwritten lyrics, it’s a bit trippy and amazing.” This last remark is the only one I fully agree with and endorse but I wish to point out that WE HAVE HAD THREE DIFFERENT POINTS OF VIEW ON BOWIE’S FUCKING HANDWRITING!!! Now let’s think back to that rice sculpture in the beginning of the film. Have I mentioned this movie contains an exceedingly high percentage of FILLER? It seems to be getting worse, but I don’t stay for very much longer after this.
At this point I’m thinking, “Give me one more reason to walk out, and I’m OUT.”
Suddenly and unexpectedly, there is one more brief high point when they show sketches Bowie made for his aborted “1984” musical which morphed into the wildly original and super weird and cryptic “Diamond Dogs” album and tour. These storyboards are dark and weird, the real deal. Another strong motivation to see the actual exhibition if it ever made its way to, God forbid, New York.
Now suddenly we’re being brought up to date with the guy who designed Bowie’s most recent “The Next Day” album cover. I thought it was cool how they just put the white label on top of the “Heroes” cover. But how much is there to say about it? What’s the mystery? We see different versions with every other classic album cover he ever released covered with it. Basically, they make the point that they really put some time into deciding which iconic Bowie album cover would be defaced with “The Next Day” label. Again, it’s a pretty cool idea but way over-explained. I concede it was neat to see the other possible covers, but still, FILLER.
And here was my cue to leave:
“On working on the exhibition we’ve met many people who say David Bowie literally changed their lives. We wanted to illustrate that with the work of a single fan, who at the age of 14, made the most beautiful scrapbooks. That boy turned into a man and eventually into a visiting professor at the Royal College of Art. Ladies and gentlemen, I’m delighted to introduce…”
I’m outta here!!! I’m a lifelong Bowie fan. He didn’t change my life because he was always there, for which fact I have my parents to thank. David Bowie didn’t change my life any more than food or air or water or the group Kiss (although he’s been a stronger consistent influence and source of inspiration to me than Kiss or any other artist.)
So like Jane’s Addiction sez, “I walk right through there door. I WALK RIGHT THROUGH THE DOOR.”
When Robin Williams recently killed himself, the dreaded Facebook was LOADED with all sorts of dumb, irrelevant opinions about suicide. You know, “whether it’s the right thing to do”, as if the suiciders could, should, or would possibly give a fuck about anyone else’s whiny, self-absorbed, self-important, self-ISH opinion on this weighty topic, and I shared this link of my favorite current comedian, Doug Stanhope, to express my personal attitude on the matter. He uses walking out of a movie as a metaphor for suicicide. I’m presenting it, ironically enough, simply as the correct, sane, intelligent reason for leaving an actual movie before it’s over:
Life isn’t for everyone (Doug Stanhope)
No one should blame you for walking out early.
David Bowie Wants Ideas MP3 by BongWater from Double Bummer
All I Want / Heroes(LCD Soundsystem< David Bowie Covers) MP3 by Lightouts
(David Bowie I Love You) Since I Was Six MP3 by The Brian Jonestown Massacre from Take It From The Man!
ANOTHER ONE BY KEITH: What is going on with Tom Petty that he feels a need to rock so fucking hard at this specific time?
Alrighty facehookers you know what to do. Comments always welcome.
U2biquity is nothing to fear.
ALBUME REVIEW: Here’s how Christian I think U2 is: I think they’re the benevolent equivalent of Mel Gibson, or, expressed more economically: Bizarro Mel Gibson. They take the title of their new album from William Blake, who can be described as a “Christian mystic”. Do you think U2 put a lot of thought into what they call this thing they’re giving to half a billion people? I’m gonna guess the answer is yes. So what’s a mystic? The way I’d describe is it is a mystic is someone who experiences the divine as subjective reality . Throughout history, there have always been nay-sayers who find these people insane. Sometimes they even kill mystics. Assuming Jesus Christ was an actual historical figure, one could make an argument that he was not literally “the son of God” any more than anyone else, but his mystical experiences convinced him that he was, and he went around talking about it. Big mistake. And now they wanna kill U2 too.
In terms of how much attention each of their new albums receives upon release, I believe U2 may be on top of the longest winning streak in rock and roll history. Last I heard, U2 are Christians (except for Adam Clayton, which is why he’s the one that went out with Naomi Campbell, I guess.) Since they’re Irish, religion isn’t simply a comforting aspect of their lives, or such is my speculation. What’s impressive about this to me is they don’t advertise or emphasize their spirituality but it has always been reflected in their work. This means they are in the faith, hope and love business, rather than the anger and selfishness business. For the most part, all my favorite artists are geniuses at expressing negativity, from John Lennon all the way down. I love that shit. If Nick Cave or Leonard Cohen or Elliott Smith of Kurt Cobain (extra points for suicides!) are selling darkness and despair I will put mustard (alcohol?) on that shit and gobble it down. But that’s the easy way. BTW: I gotta mention Cohen and Cave have also written many powerfully uplifting songs that express real feelings of transcendent sacred hope. Here’s an interesting snippet of Jim Morrison talking about where I’m going with this:
“A PIECE OF MUSIC IS THE PURE EXPRESSION OF JOY (1968) – JIM MORRISON
Apple and U2 have colluded to revolutionize what it means when a new album comes out, at least this once. What I’m interested in is what they have decided would be the thing they give to basically every person in the civilized world. So U2 being U2 and Apple being Apple, I believe careful consideration has gone into what they’re dumping into everyone’s library. A band doesn’t end up in U2’s position by accident. U2 always worked hard towards the aim of being being the biggest band in the world. U2 in general and Bono in particular have been committed to using their powers for good to the point of near absurdity. I find the reaction to their new free album to be cynical and jaded beyond all rationality, but that’s probably just because I’m looking at my Facebook feed, which consists primarily of crabby old punk rockers in their 40s and 50s who are living in the year 1983 (like myself). But boy, oh boy, do people love making wisecracks about U2 giving them an album they never asked for. The sheer effrontery of this grand gesture has got legions of middle-aged men acting like the snotty adolescent older daughter on all my favorite “golden age of TV” cable serials. It’s just another thing coming at you over the computer, get into it or ignore it or delete it but if you’re complaining about it it’s because you LOVE complaining. I love complaining. Complaining reinforces the ego with beautiful efficiency. But for me, this is no such occasion. I find “Songs Of Innocence” to be inspiring and uplifting and it gives me hope for the future of rock and roll and for humanity.
U2 have the elements of a “real” band. You can really hear the contribution of each of the four members on every song. Like the Who, each member has an idiosyncratically individual musical personality expressed through their style but like the Ramones there is no virtuosity, no element superfluous to the expression of the song. This is consistently the case throughout the album. Bono in particular is singing as beautifully Bono-like as ever but he sounds more interested in the song than he is in his own Bono-nature. He’s not going a step past what is needed. On any other U2 album from “Unforgettable Fire” onward Bono gets a little too rich for my blood, but never on this album.
The first song is “The Miracle (Of Joey Ramone)”. They come out pushing all the right buttons for U2-80s-new wave nostalgia. They’re coming at you with the “whoa whoahs” and the moody minimalist piano vibes of “New Year’s Day”, then the Edge comes in sounding more crunchy and lo-fi than ever. This guitar is loud and distorted and rocking hard and obnoxious but NOT Ramones-like, which is a good choice. When the groove kicks in I like to imagine they were thinking of Adam and the Ants. It has the stick clicks of “Antmusic” and the “Whoah whoas” associated with Adam and the Ants (and also U2, of course). A little of the old military snare. They always were good at using the snare drum to remind you of a military band and thus the underpinning haunting subconscious knowledge of the ongoing inevitability of the never-ending horrors of war. It’s an Irish thing, these people didn’t just discover terrorism over the last 15 years. This is the first of many songs that evokes the “War” album for me, which is the best U2 ever were. Take into consideration once again, the demographic they’re appealing to is EVERYBODY. Also, most people who like U2 at all have liked them for a REALLY LONG TIME, decades. These guys have been around the block enough to know what side their bread is buttered on. All of us Gen-x-ers grew up with U2, whether we cared to or not. What I like about this song is it seems to say “remember that feeling, it has always been there”. No music gets under your skin like the stuff you got into when you were 14. Ask the surviving Beatles and Stones, who have always embraced this truth. This song is about connecting with what it means to find the healing powers of rock and roll at the most painful and confusing part of life, the transition of adolescence. It’s also a sexy and exciting time, full of the feeling of possibility and the FUTURE. I think this song expresses all of that. For me personally it does somewhat remind me of my favorite band when I was 13 and this song in particular:
and also around the same time I was way into this:
And the hook for the first song on their latest and biggest new album contains the lines:
“Everything I ever lost now has been returned, the most beautiful sound I’d ever heard”
That’s very beautiful to me. It takes me back to when music really was the thing that made sense out of the world. Before I grew up and “figured it all out” and worked out my “philosophy of life”. What’s REALLY deep about it is this: from U2’s Christian perspective, “everything I ever lost” can only mean the connection to God, or the collective-consciousness, “the higher power”, the ONE, the thing bigger than yourself, the thing that the so-called “soul” is said to be hooked into. The pursuit of ecstatic connection triggered by the mysterious powers of music (like, how does it work? Why does it DO that to us?) is an expression of this spiritual longing, just like the booze and drugs and sex and all the other good stuff. Television, for Christ’s sake! ANYTHING to feel connected and immersed in something larger than yourself that you can lose yourself in. So this song and this chorus contain for me all that is needed to show that U2 is back and they have something worthwhile to say to us. Remember, they’re old too, they’re in the same boat. This is a line that fits and is simple and contains the whole meaning of life. And it’s catchy and it has a good beat. The Edge does not lean on special effects here and he’s playing some real satisfying punk rock rhythm guitar. I’m assuming this song had to have been written and recordedy before the recent death of Tommy Ramone, which triggered a wave of nostalgia ultimately resulting in the canonization of the Ramones as second most important band ever. If this is indeed the case, U2 has their finger on the pulse in a way that continues to be SPOOKY! They do a great job of making an anthemic rocker that doesn’t in any way attempt to sound like the Ramones. “Vertigo” sounded more like the Ramones than this one does. They got good taste.
The second song is “Every Breaking Wave”. This song is shamelessly evocative of “With or Without You”, but faster, more driving, which only takes it slightly past the excitement level of “Every Breath You Take” by the Police, but I’m really digging it. As a matter of fact, because you can easily picture Sting singing these verses, for the first time ever I know for a fact that I find Bono a million times less annoying than Sting. But this is a cool, middling Police-type song. I like the line, “Every gambler knows that to lose is what you’re really there for”. I’m not a gambler, but I’m familiar with the concept, it’s a big part of the psychology of self-destruction. Contrary to Bono’s assertion, I’m sure there’s a lot of gamblers out there who think they want the thrill of victory but Bono’s talking about the self-examining self-destroyer, who really knows he’s his own worst enemy all along. That’s a lot of extrapolation from one simple lyric and a great example of the strength of Bono’s words on this album. From the unique perspective of the Christian rock star, I find this to be a line that expresses sincere empathy and compassion, without judgement. You don’t get as big as U2 without making a deal with the devil, and I believe Bono is quietly and non-self-aggrandizingly grappling with his own demons, whatever form they may take. This song is about not waiting for the next big thing to make your life worthwhile. “To be swept off our feet and stop chasing every breaking wave” and “I thought I heard the Captain’s voice, it’s hard to listen while you preach” are examples of Bono sharing moments when he discovers humility is where fulfillment lies. “Are we so hopeless against the tide?” Good fucking question the song is asking. This is a song about strength in spiritual surrender, which is the only strength there is that won’t ultimately result in eating yourself alive, somehow. “We’re in love with defeat” has to do with the human condition in general. Did I say this song is about surrender? Bono uses a sweet falsetto that uncharactistically makes him softer at the peak of the melody. The message I take from this song is “the kingdom of heaven is within.” It’s catchy, it’s got a good beat.
I love an album that puts the best song 3rd, and for me this is clearly one of them. On “California” they kick into my favorite groove which my friend calls “The Sex Pistols beat” but I think of it as “the ‘Funtime’ beat” and here’s a couple favorite examples:
IGGY POP – THE IDIOT – FUNTIME
DAVID BOWIE – RED SAILS
But it makes me want to dance like this:
SCENE FROM FOOTLOOSE
Now I’m really digging this album. It is building momentum, the tempo is faster, dancier, but still rocking and the message is super-duper Christian! “There is no end to love”. As far as I’m concerned, that’s up there with “All You Need Is Love” and “The love you take is equal to the love you make”, as far as I’m concerned at the moment. This is a great song about Universal Cosmic Love. Warning: this Love does not disintegrate haters, it absorbs them. We got us a new Van Morrison here, Irish mysticism expressed directly and simply. That may be wishful thinking on my part, but there’s no denying this groove don’t quit. This is some super-entertaining new wave power pop. The synths in the chorus sound warmly soothing in a way that reminds me of Berlin’s “Take My Breath Away” (again with the 80s retro), but there’s also some subtle tasty string arrangement sounding stuff and then the Edge takes a melodic guitar solo that is more straightforward in expression of simple and loud and fat melody than I can ever remember hearing him do, he sounds like more like Television and the Skids, which he always credited as primary influences. Larry Mullen and Adam Clayton (from here on in referred to as “the rhythm section”) are appropriately propulsive. There is no song ever written where it is more obvious when you’re hearing The Hook and I mean that in the best possible sense. My favorite “whoa-whoahs” on the album. It’s real catchy and has a really good beat. Unfortunately, for me it’s all downhill from here. Plenty of quality U2 for the next 40 minutes or so, but I could listen to “California” all day. I hereby declare it is my favorite U2 song of all time.
This next “Song For Someone” starts with a nice acoustic Edge guitar. This is sort of a nice new “One”, if you want that kind of thing. I like it better than “One” which, again, is a little rich for my blood. Yet another “classic-U2″ sounding song on the album. Again, in his guitar solo, The Edge evokes his primary original influence, Stuart Adamson of the Skids:
THE SKIDS – CHARADE
Stuart Adamson went on to further refine his bagpipe-like melodic guitar style with a band called Big Country. He’s dead now.
“Iris” has the band as one rhythm unit. This is real old school U2, “Where The Streets Have No Name” with a little of the mood of the “War” album style but faster and leaner and meaner. The Edge has got his delay back and he remembers how to use it. Not a bad song, but maybe the closest they get to doing “U2-by-numbers” on this album. It’s a fairly silly love song (some people want to fill the world with them). I like the ending tagline “Free yourself to be yourself, only you can see yourself”. Positive energy!
“Volcano” starts with bass and drums, almost like an old Pixies tune. The chorus reminds me a bit of Siouxsie and the Banshees with maybe even a little REM “This One Goes Out To The One I Love” thrown in via the guitar line at the end. The 80s mood continues, this is the point of the album where I’m starting to suspect they front loaded all the really good songs, but that’s no crime. Total album track, not bad. There’s some nice guitar on here, as always. Single note-lines rather than chords makes it sort of modern-sounding.
“Raised By Wolves” builds tension through the first two verses with some typically minimalist U2 style piano, gradually increasing in volume. This song is about growing up in the urban blight of war-torn Dublin, and the tension builds until the chorus bursts out : “Raised by wolves, stronger than fear”. And what’s stronger than fear? Conventional wisdom says the answer is love, but they don’t come right out and say that, sneaky Christians that they are. The pattern of evoking nostalgia for the classic, early, “innocent” U2 is continued. On this track it’s a nice little bit of “New Year’s Day” style piano. So we’re back where we started once again, pretty much in a good way.
“Cedarwood” is all over the place. It’s got some incongruously non U2-like heaviosity that reminds me at times of Soundgarden’s “Spoonman” of all things and some great melodic bass playing from Adam Clayton. This song seems like it was built out of leftover parts that were too good to be thrown out. Every part is stylistically different, but it sounds like it should be four different developed songs instead of one string of different ideas. It’s all good, except I don’t think it works as a song.
“Sleep Like a Baby” has nice minimalistic synth work. These sounds reminds me of stuff like U2’s early contemporaries: Yazoo, early Depeche Mode, Heaven 17 and good old Human League mores than U2. Bono’s singing in a style and using some sort of vocal phasing effect that makes him sound like Marc Bolan, which is pretty fucking cool. The song ends up sounding almost like a cross between U2 and the Eurhythmics. Bono hits an incredibly high falsetto in this tune, so high it’s like he almost disappears into it. And the outré solo-is super rude and fuzztonish. Nice groove and sound, not a great song.
“This Is Where You Can Reach Me Now” sets up some nice vibes with acoustic guitar, more classic-style U2 piano and a group vocal that makes me think once again of the “War” album. Getting towards the end of this album, I’m thinking U2’s own “songs of innocence” culminated on their third album, “War”. Remember, they had the picture of the same little kid on the first album and the third album (and a handful of import singles, and the video for “Two Hearts Beat As One”). “War” was the end of the innocence for these boys. That was the album where they hit their stride stylistically and became big rock stars in America. Say, I wonder if that’s presently being rereleased on iTunes, in remastered form? (along with the rest of their catalogue) Wouldn’t that be something?
Now all of a sudden, at the last song, the plot thickens! Is U2 trying to edge themselves into the Beatles/Bowie/Stones/Elvis Costello category of artists who can sell you their old classics over and over again? The reason I ask this is I gotta say, I loved the first three U2 albums when I was a kid but I have never owned them since the advent of the compact disc, because I was too cool to buy U2 records when their latest hit was consistently omnipresent all throughout MTV’s entire music video playing era. But I’m starting to feel like I want to own those first three albums again, and it’s this album that is making me feel this way. You gotta be a certain age to get the urge to buy albums, or a weirdo. And that’s why Ace Frehley is at number 2 in the charts and Bowie releases a new old album every year.
So I digress, the second last song’s got “Soldier, soldier” in it and when U2’s got a gang of voices singing about anything to do with war, it’s gonna remind you of “War” in some way or other. The Edge is doing some great, semi-Radioheadish electric guitar in it in the intro. Or is it ZZ Top? And then it goes disco. A more 70s version of “Achtung-era” U2, another winning period for the group. As a matter of fact I’m gonna say it’s got “Achtung” verses and “War” choruses. The Edge is playing some real cool spiky single note rhythms on this. Even with all these assets the song seems to deserve it’s placement as second last song on the album, a traditional dead spot. Not that anyone’s ever gonna listen to the whole thing all the way through. AND it’s the longest song on the album! Nice touch. I guess it just HAD to have that superfluous acoustic breakdown!
So finally, the last song is a long, slow, boring thing called “The Troubles”. Starts out with some female voices. It’s a moody song that maybe gets into that mood of “One” but with a different approach. I’m not loving these lady vocals at the end of the album. This song starts from a low place dynamically, but really seems to try to have “moments”. Seems like all icing. At least they give The Edge the last word, with a long strong outré solo that is very traditionally Edge-like.
It occurs to me this album could actually be great it if it were 15 minutes shorter. The 35 minute album! That’s what I really miss and it’s one of the reasons we used to listen to entire albums. Overall, I enjoy this U2 album. It’s got all the elements I like about them and a few great songs. I don’t think they owe anyone an apology.
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