Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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U2

  • Boy [Island, 1980] C+
  • October [Island, 1981] B-
  • War [Island, 1983] B+
  • Under a Blood Red Sky [Island, 1983] A-
  • The Unforgettable Fire [Island, 1984] B+
  • Wide Awake in America [Island EP, 1985] B
  • The Joshua Tree [Island, 1987] B
  • Rattle and Hum [Island, 1988] B+
  • Achtung Baby [Island, 1991] Dud
  • Zooropa [Island, 1993] B-
  • Pop [Island, 1997] Dud
  • The Best of 1980-1990 [Island, 1998] *
  • All That You Can't Leave Behind [Interscope, 2000] A-
  • How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb [Interscope, 2004] **

Consumer Guide Reviews:

Boy [Island, 1980]
Their youth, their serious air, and their guitar sound are setting a small world on fire, and I fear the worst. No matter where they're starting off--not as big as Zep, maybe, but not exactly on the grunge circuit either--their echoey vocals already teeter on the edge (in-joke) of grandiosity, so how are they going to sound by the time they reach the Garden? What kind of Christian idealists lift their best riff from PIL (or from anywhere at all)? As bubble-headed as the teen-telos lyrics at best. As dumb as Uriah Heep at worst. C+

October [Island, 1981]
As they push past twenty their ambitions are showing, and suddenly the hope-addicts whiff both commerce and pretension. Sure it's still all fresh-faced and puissant in that vaguely political way that so moves the concerned rock journalist (and fan)--just not altogether unspoiled, sniff sniff. Bono Vox gets poetic, Steve Lillywhite gets arty, and those of us who expect more than sonic essence of rock and roll get enough melody and construction to make the first side a bit of all right. What a stupid band to expect purity from. B-

War [Island, 1983]
The deadly European virus that's always tainted this band turns out to be their characteristic melodic device, a medieval-sounding unresolved fifth frequently utilized by monks in Hollywood movies. In other respects, however, their hot album is rock and roll indeed. The Edge becomes a tuneful guitarist by the simple expedient of not soloing, and if Bono has too many Gregorian moments his conviction still carries the music. Anyway, I'll take his militant if pacifist Christianity ("The real battle has begun/To claim the victory Jesus won") over most of the secular humanism and Jah love rockers are going in for these days. B+

Under a Blood Red Sky [Island, 1983]
They broke AOR rather than pop for the honorable reason that they get across on sound rather than songs, and this live "mini-LP" (34:28 of music listing at $5.99) should turn all but the diehards around. Only one of the two new titles would make a best-of, but the two-from-album-one, one-from-album-two, three-from-album-three oldies selection is the perfect introduction. And although I was right to warn that this was an arena-rock band in disguise, I never figured they'd turn into a great arena-rock band. A-

The Unforgettable Fire [Island, 1984]
Eno has shaped this record to accentuate Bono's wild romantic idealism, and while I prefer his moral force I have to admit that the two are equally beguiling to contemplate and dangerous to take literally. The romanticism gets out of hand with the precious expressionism of "Elvis Presley and America" (enough to make the King doubt this boy's virility), the moralism with the turn-somebody-else's-cheek glorification of Martin Luther King's martyrdom (death stings plenty where I live). But he gets away with it often enough to make a skeptic believe temporarily in miracles. B+

Wide Awake in America [Island EP, 1985]
Especially after their unstinting live mini, this four-cut "special low priced collection of live recordings and out takes from the Unforgettable Fire tour and album" looks like the usual special low priced gyp. But though the outtakes wouldn't have been missed, they're OK to hear, and the opener, an eight-minute amplification of one of Unforgettable Fire's more obscure titles, is why they could get away with superstar rip-offs if they wanted. Maybe Bono's charisma assumes special access to truth, but he doesn't act like that makes him more important than anyone else, and the Edge's elegiac guitar is self-effacing in much the same way--it exists to serve the awesome effect. Epic humility--take it or leave it. B

The Joshua Tree [Island, 1987]
Let it build and ebb and wash and thunder in the background and you'll hear something special--mournful and passionate, stately and involved. Read the lyrics and you won't wince. Tune in Bono's vocals and you'll encounter one of the worst cases of significance ever to afflict a deserving candidate for superstardom. B

Rattle and Hum [Island, 1988]
Pretentious? Eux? Naturellement, mais that ain't all. Over the years they've melded Americana into their Old World riffs, and while Bono's "Play the blues, Edge" overstates this accomplishment, their groove is some kind of rock and roll wrinkle. This partly live double-LP is looser and faster than anything they've recorded since their first live mini-LP, with the remakes of "Pride" and "Silver and Gold" and "Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For" improved by both practice and negligence. A good half of the new stuff could knock over unsuspecting skeptics, the B.B./Hendrix/Dylan cameos are surprising and generous, and as a token of self-knowledge Bono concludes a lecture on South Africa with a magisterially sarcastic "I don't wanna bug ya." Yet as usual things don't get any better when you decide to find out exactly what he's waxing so meaningful about. B+

Achtung Baby [Island, 1991] Dud

Zooropa [Island, 1993]
I've never seen the point of hating U2. Their sound was their own from the git, and for a very famous person, Bono has always seemed thoughtful and good-hearted. I liked what I read about their pop irony, too. Problem was, I couldn't hear it--after many, many tries, Achtung Baby still sounded like a damnably diffuse U2 album to me, and I put it in the hall unable to describe a single song. But having processed this blatant cool move, I'm ready to wax theoretical. Achtung Baby was produced by Daniel Lanois, and Daniel Lanois isn't Brian Eno--he's Eno's pet romantic, too soft to undercut U2's grandiosity, although I admittedly enjoy a few of its anthems-in-disguise now. Zooropa, on the other hand, is half an Eno album the way Low and "Heroes" were. The difference is that Bowie and Eno were fresher in 1977 than Bono and Eno are today. Each must have hoped that the other's strength would patch over his own weakness--that Eno's oft-wearisome affectlessness would be mitigated by Bono's oft-wearisome expressionism and vice versa. But tics ain't strengths, and although these pomo paradoxes have their moments, when I'm feeling snippy the whole project seems a disastrously affected pastiche of relinquished principle. B-

Pop [Island, 1997] Dud

The Best of 1980-1990 [Island, 1998]
hit hooks that live off the guitarist's mysterioso lyricism, B sides that fall back on the singer's humanist egotism ("I Will Follow," "Pride [In the Name of Love]") *

All That You Can't Leave Behind [Interscope, 2000]
I know they're with a new label if not corporation, but the transformation I imagine was simpler. They woke up one day, glanced around a marketplace where art wasn't mega anymore, and figured that since they'd been calling themselves pop for half of their two-decade run, maybe they'd better sit down and write some catchy songs. So they did. The feat's offhandedness is its most salient charm and nagging limitation. If I know anything, which with this band I never have, their best. A-

How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb [Interscope, 2004]
Pop music as spiritual balm--there are worse ideas ("Miracle Drug," "Vertigo"). **