U2 Pop (Island)

In which U2 conclusively prove themselves to be even more out of touch with what the kids want than ever before, and given that here we’re considering the band that came up with the idea of baggy approximately two years after the rest of the world (compare and contrast "The Fly" with The Stone Roses’ "Fools Gold") that takes some doing. A few moments of quite goodness aside in the form of the almost touching "If God Will Send His Angels" and next single "Staring At The Sun", "Pop" is the sound of unappetising reheated leftovers from "Achtung Baby" unsuccessfully propped up by contributions from violently fashionable folk like Flood and Howie B, (lots of people get credited in the booklet notes for things like ‘additional loops’ and ‘inspirational decks’, whatever they may be). Probably not coincidentally, "Pop" is the first (and worst) U2 studio album since "War" to be totally Professor Eno-free: surely if he were around sooner or later someone would’ve cut the pack of Oblique Strategies cards at the one that said "The Pet Shop Boys have been doing irony for at least a decade, it’s not big and it’s not clever etc. etc.". Perhaps the last laugh is reserved for the holograms and stickers a certain rather paranoid record company has plastered all over the CD case enabling Joe Punter to tell the difference between the genuine article and one of them dodgy pirate pressings they’re knocking out by the million in Bulgaria or wherever...because nobody likes being ripped off by buying tawdry, shoddy goods, do they? Hmmm.

U2 All That You Can't Leave Behind (Island)

Another release billed as a big comeback album, admittedly from a band that probably couldn't sneak away from the limelight even if they tried, "All That You Can't Leave Behind" disappoints in the finely crafted, chunky and substantial fashion that's becoming the rule rather than the exception in major works at the moment. Certainly it's a country mile ahead of the woeful, misguided "Pop", which laboured under mock-techno beats so elephantine that even U2 couldn't seriously believe they could be passed off as ironic, and it functions acceptably as pleasant modern background noise, but it's still some distance from being a good album.

It's a solid one, yes: reuniting with Eno (whose name appeared in some or other capacity on every U2 studio outing from "The Unforgettable Fire" to "Zooropa") is probably the cleverest idea they've had in a while, and the 'standing around looking moody and black and white in an airport' cover concept can trace its distinguished lineage back to 'standing around looking moody and black and white in a desert' ("The Joshua Tree") and 'standing around looking moody and black and white in a castle' ("The Unforgettable Fire"). In the puffed-up 12" square booklet that accompanies the vinyl release they urge you to 'take a step to stamp out torture - join Amnesty international', 'write to the President of Sierra Leone and ask that those responsible for rape and other war crimes are brought to justice' and 'remember Aung San Suu Kyi, under virtual house arrest in Burma since 1989', as all good conscience rockers should. In just about every way, even down to the tongue-trippingly rambling titles, "All That You Can't Leave Behind" contains all the elements of classic U2 albums through the ages.

But when you listen to it…not to deny the classic pop nous of "Beautiful Day", the nudge wink self-referencing of "Kite" ("The last of the rock stars/When hip hop drove the big cars/And new media/Was the big idea"), or even the way 'street' influences like scratchy beats and loops have been painstakingly stitched into the fabric of the songs rather than randomly slapped on top of them…there's nothing going on. Unnervingly similar to labelmate and touring partner P J Harvey's latest, it's well honed, ultramodern rock music that just about recognises its past and conspires to be 50 minutes' worth of quality entertainment, no more, not much less. It pushes the right buttons, extracts the correct responses, and it's gone. Utterly clean and professional, ironically given the title its major flaw is that it leaves nothing behind.

U2 Achtung Baby (Island)

“Achtung Baby” was an abrupt reaction to the lukewarm critical reception of live/studio/soundtrack hodgepodge “Rattle And Hum”, a po-faced travelogue through American culture weighed down by its heritage guest spots and heavy-handed appropriation of classic rock tenets. Bono memorably described “Achtung Baby” as “the sound of four men trying to chop down “The Joshua Tree””, and in following the well-worn trudge from America to Berlin (look, there’s Bowie and Iggy just a little further down the track!) U2 gave their music a comprehensive, contemporary reboot. It’s an album of soft industrial sounds, the noise of collapsing old walls sweetened into pop song structures.

Perhaps surprisingly for an album so emblematic of its time, it still sounds pretty good 16 years later. The clanking, steam-powered motorik of “Zoo Station” is possibly the exception: a song that seems to have no purpose other than to introduce the album, perhaps it was deliberately written as a relatively undemanding, if ultimately empty, entry point to the band’s new music. On the other hand, if any song is for the ages here, “One” wins the prize. (In fact, it’s done so already, having been proclaimed “the greatest recorded song of all time” by a typically reserved and cautious Q magazine in 2003.) It’s arguably the song that’s easiest separated from the sound and circumstances that surround it, although I wonder how much that’s Johnny Cash’s doing. Title notwithstanding, “Who’s Gonna Ride Your Wild Horses” sounds like a futuristic Rolling Stones, and perhaps that’s what U2 have become; “The Fly” always seemed like a Hollywood remake of The Stone Roses’ “Fools Gold” to me, which isn’t to deny that mindless entertainment has its time and place.

This Universal Europe reissue is something of a mixed bag. The cover art is more akin to a blurred photocopy than a pin-sharp reproduction, and the original issue’s picture inner sleeve appears to have wandered off somewhere. It retains the original’s single disc format, so both sides are forced to contain far more music than is optimal, although it sounds reasonable enough when cranked up appropriately.

“Achtung Baby” harks back to a time when U2 (in cahoots with Eno) could be relied upon to produce state of the art popular music. With its classic(al) songwriting given a modern sheen, it’s no wonder it was so successful.

U2 War (Island)

“War” might’ve been the album that broke U2 internationally, but it also landed them with a reputation as po-faced political flag-wavers that would follow them until the 1991 release of “Achtung Baby”. Still, they had a lot to be po-faced and political about: following the demise of The Specials and The Jam nobody else brought topical issues to the top ten with such force and conviction, as a perusal of the subject matters tackled on “War” will attest: the Northern Ireland situation, nuclear armageddon and the Polish solidarity movement are covered in the first three tracks alone!

“Sunday Bloody Sunday” is surely their greatest non-hit, a song particularly effectively deployed, albeit in an alternate live recording, at the close of Paul Greengrass’ film “Bloody Sunday”; “New Years Day”, propelled by that stentorian piano riff, is one of those prototypical standing-around-in-long-overcoats-looking-gloomy songs that seems to have spawned the likes of Interpol and Editors. But outside of these songs the authority is replaced by a cloak of fumbling, blustering sixth-form seriousness that really doesn’t fit them. It’s all a bit cold and calculating, like they’re reciting the lyrics from some badly Xeroxed political pamphlet, the sound of a band growing up awkwardly, desperately in need of an injection of warmth and humanity. Who would have guessed that Eno would be the man for that job? You can hear a precursor of what he would go on to achieve with the band in the album’s wondrous closer ““40””, a thing of beauty and fragility rarely, if ever, glimpsed on a U2 album up to that point. “I will sing, sing a new song” purrs Bono, prophetically.

As with Universal Europe’s 180 gram vinyl reissue of “Achtung Baby”, the sleeve artwork is bordering on bootleg quality, with the text in particular coming across as fuzzy and blurred. This edition also misses out on the photography and partial lyrics found in the CD booklet. In this form “War” isn’t a sonic delight, sounding bereft of bass and painfully thin and nasal to the point that Steve Wickham’s electric violin on “Sunday Bloody Sunday” sounds like a squeaky hinge. Apparently a remastered 180 gram reissue along the lines of the recently reactivated “Joshua Tree” is imminent: it wouldn’t have to aim particularly high to improve on this.

U2 The Joshua Tree (Universal-Island)

Familiarity might’ve curdled the impact of “The Joshua Tree”, here presented in all its 20th anniversary vinyl finery, but, c’mon, “Where The Streets Have No Name”, “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” and “With Or Without You” isn’t the shabbiest way to begin an album. But it’s the subtler songs that impress the most: the shading and dynamics of cautionary heroin-deal-gone-bad tale “Running To Stand Still”, for example, or the tearing harmonica and percussion intro to “Trip Through Your Wires”, the track least submerged in Eno and Lanois’ pillowy treatments. In contrast, “Mothers Of The Disappeared” is “The Joshua Tree” at its most Enossified, fabricated from sounds that seem like the synthesised equivalents of scratching rodents and struck pipework. The album’s masterpiece, for me, though, is “One Tree Hill”. Perhaps I’m biased because it’s the track that most closely approximates the foggy experimentation of “The Unforgettable Fire”, my favourite U2 album. This gentle but insistent requiem for a departed friend of the band topped the charts in New Zealand, the only territory in which it became a single.

Compared to the meat ‘n’ potatoes Universal Europe U2 reissues examined above, something more than the bare minimum of effort has been expended here. For a start, it’s a double disc instead of the original’s single album, the shorter side lengths potentially improving sound quality. It also arrives with a big booklet of lyrics, photos and a cogent essay by one Bill Flanagan (author and senior vice president of VH1, the interweb tells me), in which he claims the album “put U2 on the mountain with The Stones, The Who, Hendrix, Springsteen and Zeppelin” – evidently they couldn’t be bigger than The Beatles. It’s a shame that the sonics are generally underwhelming: I know that any incarnation of the album will be swimming in the producers’ trademark treatments, but here “The Joshua Tree” seems airless and compressed, almost like a non-Dolby tape being played back with Dolby on. (That’d be the “Re-mastered audio” threatened by the cover sticker, then.) It’s actually got me waxing nostalgic about the Universal Europe pressing of “Achtung Baby” and wondering what their single disc reissue of “The Joshua Tree” might sound like compared with this.