12 February 2009

In the howling wind comes a stinging rain

So the fly has been hard at work, blogging up a storm (at least by the standards around here) of late. It seems TOaO is now a site for song-analysis, and as you can see by the comments sections, I'm an avid reader.

But today my thoughts turn from song analysis to album analysis, or better, sequence analysis. This was spurred by Amazon's u2 sale today!!! Since I already own every song, I picked up my 4th copy of The Joshua Tree (that's not a typo: my original + tekne's original + the version from the complete u2 + today = 4). I imagine I've heard this album at least 1000 times, and I've heard many of the songs on it live more than a dozen times. So what struck me when I listened to it today, twice? It's this:

A large portion of u2's success, of u2's mythic status, of who and what they are as a band is owed to the sequence of the first 4 songs on this album. For those for whom this isn't written into their brains, that's 1) Streets, 2) Still Haven't Found, 3) With or Without You, and 4) Bullet the Blue Sky. All were huge hits. With or Without You might have been a bigger single at the time, but Streets and Bullet are played at EVERY u2 concert - something that can be said for very few of their songs, with only Pride going back farther. But the 'thing' about these 4 songs isn't about the individual songs; only the last is one of my favorites. And it's not clear that today songs like these would even be hits. Streets and Still Haven't Found just aren't those sort of catchy, poppy, rockin' songs that usual make hits.

But there is just something about the way they go together, about the way they create a space that is the American desert, set a mood, establish a sound. Bono has commented that later albums (like ATYCLB) had a lot of great songs, but had the wrong playing order, or for some reason just didn't come together as an album. The Joshua Tree definitely comes together as an album.

Even more interesting, to me at least, is the fact that these 4 songs really don't sound all that much like most of the 100s of songs that u2 has recorded. Indeed, now that they have 12 studio albums, it becomes even clearer that their biggest album is in many ways the one that's most distinct - more ballads, more anthems, less rock, more weirdness that's not easy to categorize (e.g. Zooropa has weirdness, but it's synthetic weirdness, whereas Joshua Tree has hippy moments on it).

Perhaps the fly can tell us, in future writings, about how to make an album. How to fit songs together. And how to come up with an opening sequence of 4 songs that make it possible to play an album 1000 times without the slightest hint of getting sick of it.


Transient Gadfly said...

I think the answer lies at least partly in the narrative constructed by the sequence, and how that narrative is reflected in you the listener. This leads to two interesting and related points for discussion:

1) It's the frickin' Joshua Tree, one of the most popular albums of all time, so it's not like you've formed an attachment to the opening four songs of some Mexican death metal L.P. Literally millions of people, across multiple cultures and backgrounds, feel the same way you do (though they might articulate it differently).

2) That narrative is obscure, or at the very least hidden. It's not like you listen to it and say, "Oh, that's Hamlet in musical form." So if indeed they (U2) tapped into something universal in the construction, you don't just listen to the album and know what it is.

I now have like five different things to blog about next.

Transient Gadfly said...

Or am I just overthinking this? I read on Wikipedia that the order of the album was determined by Kirsty MacColl (a singer of whom I've only vaguely heard) and she just put the songs in the order that she liked them. Is it just the fact that four of the most popular singles of the 80s happen to appear on the same album (I know, not a coincidence per se), and they appear first because another musician recognized them as the best songs?

fronesis said...

Interesting. My thing, and maybe it's idiosyncratic, is that A) these aren't the 4 best songs on the album, and B) they aren't even obviously 4 singles. There are many better songs (e.g. One Tree Hill and Exit) and there are songs that sound more like singles (e.g. Trip Through your Wires and Red Hill Mining Town).

tenaciousmcd said...

Late to the game here, and I hate to disagree with Fro over U2, since he knows them far better than I, but. . . really?!? How is "I Still Haven't Found. . ." not an unbelievably classic single? The bass line, the gospel inflections, the chorus that sticks in your head like cranial peanut butter. Hell, I haven't heard that song played in ages, and I get it back in memory instantly. It's not my favorite track, but it is radio genius. "Red Hill Mining," not so much.

I'd also disagree on "Bullet," which was easily my favorite tune in, say 1987, but one which I don't think holds up: too artificial a rocker (see also "Desire," along with the larger share of Rattle & Hum, and maybe!? "Get On Your Boots"). Meanwhile, I didn't get "With or Without You" at first--I thought it a bland mid-tempo rocker--but I've come to think of it as one of their best moments (ditto, "All I Want is You"). And "Streets" never gets old for me.

What makes a great album is actually pretty simple, I think: great songs. Sequencing matters (see "Discoteque"), but the songs themselves are the cornerstone. Actually, on that score I'd argue that from start to finish, Achtung Baby! is U2's best overall record. But then I like ATTYCLB better than HTDANB too, and I know you disagree. What feel do you have for the newest stuff? Are they trying too hard to seem young and edgy?

BTW, I remember Kirsty MacColl having at least one great song, ("I Can't Stop Killing You"). I think she died young.

fronesis said...

First off, YES, Achtung Baby! is U2's best album. There's no doubt about that, and we agree completely there. I think the last half of ATYCLB is weak and that HTDAAB will hold up better over time, but ATYCLB has a few great songs.

Maybe some of my views of the individual songs on Joshua Tree are clouded by years of concert history. Hence my not seeing Still Haven't Found as great, whereas Bullet has changes SO MUCH over the years as they play it live and it is still SO relevant. But I can't really mount a critique of Still Haven't Found.

As for the new stuff...I refuse to judge any u2 album by its single, but I actually have high hopes for No Line on the Horizon. And Get on Your Boots doesn't dampen them. I didn't really love the Fly when it was released; now it's an absolute all-time favorite. I liked Beautiful Day when it was released; now I place it WAY DOWN on the u2 list.

I like them when the are experimental, and that's why ATYCLB was a bit weak for me. I disagree with everyone, u2 included, about PoP. I think it's a great album!