You Too Can Hear U2 Overthink Its New Song

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By Andrew Romano, The Daily Beast

The new single 'Ordinary Love' comes with a tasteful lyric video, but there's been a bothersome trend in U2's music lately.

For nearly five years, the world has been U2less.

Sure, the Irish rock juggernaut has continued to play live shows, setting the record, in 2011, for the highest-grossing tour of all time. But not since No Line on the Horizon came out in early 2009 have Bono & Co. released any new studio material. No soaring choruses about faith and love and Africa. No reverby, ricocheting guitar lines. No martial drum beats. No chart-topping uplift.

Until now. Yesterday, Bono & Co. finally ended the debilitating U2 shortage of the last half-decade and delivered a new song. It's called "Ordinary Love," and it was written specifically for Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom, the new biopic about South Africa's legendary anti-apartheid crusader and eventual president. It comes complete with a tasteful lyric video and limited-edition 10-inch vinyl release for Record Store Day.

The problem is that "Ordinary Love" is, well, ordinary.

It pains me to say this. I've been a U2 fan for almost as long as I've loved music. I think Achtung Baby is one of the greatest albums ever made. I think The Edge ranks alongside Keith Richards, Jimmy Page, and Robbie Robertson as one of the few guitar gods who manages, somehow, to sound like nobody else when he plays. And Bono's boyish bombast doesn't irk me like it irks so many others. In fact, I find it kind of endearing.

Beyond that, U2 itself is anything but ordinary. Name me another 37-year-old band that is still refusing to calcify into a greatest-hits act; that is still striving to improve; and that is still writing and releasing new material catchy enough and contemporary enough to compete on the charts with the latest pop singles by much younger acts. With all four of its original members to boot. You can't. There isn't one. U2 is in class of its own.

And yet there's been a bothersome trend in U2's music lately.

Here's my theory. The early part of the band's career, from Boy (1980) through Rattle and Hum (1988) was its Id Period--an era defined by big, flamboyant, irrational emotions like desire and faith and outrage (and their sonic equivalents).

The middle part of the band's career, from Achtung Baby (1991) through Pop (1997), was its Ego Period, when U2 established an ironic distance from their earlier emotionalism--when they "attempt[ed] to mediate between id and reality," as the great rock critic Sigmund Freud once put it.

The most recent part of U2's career, meanwhile, which began in 2000 with the release of All That You Can't Leave Behind, has been its Superego Period. To me, much of U2's recent output sounds like a band trying to act appropriately. A band that knows how it's supposed to sound and is attempting to sound like that. A band that is imposing concepts onto its music. A band that is calculating. Overthinking. And losing some sort of spark in the process.

Which brings us to "Ordinary Love." On the plus side, the production by indie guru Danger Mouse is lovely and sparse: light, plonking piano; crisp drums; a subtle wash of The Edge's signature guitar. Sometimes U2 records can sound a little leaden. This is nice and airy.

Bono's vocals are excellent as well. As most singers age--Mr. Hewson is now 53--they begin to treat their voices with effects and bury them in the mix. But on "Ordinary Love," Bono's voice is clear and present and admirably bare, with a touch of hoarseness in each note. It sounds even better than it did back when he was young and invincible.

Yet "Ordinary Love" is still missing something. There's no oomph in the melody. The falsetto hook isn't hooky enough. And worst of all the lyrics read like middle-school poetry. Bono used to be a fine lyricist; on Achtung Baby in particular he managed to pack a lot of big emotions into very particular phrases that still sound natural when sung. "Who's gonna ride your wild horses? / Who's gonna drown in your blue sea? / Who's gonna taste your salt water kisses? / Who's gonna take the place of me? " is about as good as a breakup song gets.

But Bono's work on "Ordinary Love" is just awkward (as it has been for the last dozen years or so). Almost every other line calls attention to itself. "The sea wants to kiss the golden shore." "Time leaves us polished stones." "Your heart is on my sleeve / Did you put it there with a magic marker?" Words are shoehorned in without much regard for scansion, stress, or tone. The overall effect is of someone not trusting his gut: of trying too hard to write "good lyrics"--superego lyrics--and then forcing them onto the music.

As a result, "Ordinary Love" never really takes off. It isn't a bad song, per se--U2 rarely releases a truly worthless track. It's just not nearly as good as the band that made it.

Word is that Bono and the boys have a new Danger-Mouse-produced album coming out in April 2014. Sessions began in 2009. Danger Mouse joined the team in 2010. The LP was supposed to come out in early 2011. Then it was May 2011. Then, in June 2011, it was "next fall." Then it was 2013.

I was hoping that U2 had spent all that time figuring out how to shake off their collective superego and stop sounding so calculated and correct. "Ordinary Love" suggests they may have lost the battle.

© 2013 The Daily Beast Company LLC

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Unfortunately, Romano is a bit off with his understanding of Freud's three parts of the psyche. The id is unrestrained drive (the instinctual sphere), the ego is moral conscience (the judgmental sphere), and the super-ego mediates between the two. If anything, the early part of U2's career (pre-Achtung Baby) is the ego, not the id as Romano suggests (think of the judgmentally--albeit emotionally so--moralizing songs on War, The Unforgettable Fire, and The Joshua Tree), and the middle part (Achtung Baby through Pop) is the id, not the ego as Romano suggests (think of the libidinously and lasciviously instinctual drives of the songs on those records). The last part of the band's career could be interpreted as the super-ego in this context, but not for the "overthinking" Romano posits. Rather, it's because the band has figured out how to listen to their collective loins as well as their heads with their post-Pop output.

I always laugh when critics treat the songs bands write for soundtracks on the same level as their album work. I remember a critic slagging Eddie Vedder's soundtrack for the film Into the Wild as if it were Vedder's solo debut. Sean Penn, the director of the film, asked Vedder to help narrate the story of Christopher McCandless through music. That's what Vedder did. To review that album from the perspective of a "solo debut" is kind of silly. It's just as silly to review "Ordinary Love" alongside U2's album work. The song was a one-off written--by commission--for a film. It wasn't written to have "oomph in the melody" or "a falsetto hook that's hooky enough" as Romano yearns for (listen to "Vertigo" or "Get On Your Boots" if that's the case). As most of us know, the poems poets write by commission often don't compare to the work they've done via self-volition. Romano cites the lyrics to "Who's Gonna Ride Your Wild Horses" as an example of great lyrics on Achtung Baby. Those lyrics are fairly pedestrian; at best, they get the job done for what is a so-so rock song on the record (It was the fifth and final single released from the album, after all). I'd revisit the lyrics for "Ultra Violet," "Until the End of the World,"--heck, even "Tryin' to Throw Your Arms Around the World"--as better examples of the work of "a fine lyricist" on Achtung Baby.

Romano also complains about how long it's been since U2 has put out an album. There are at least four reasons for this. First, when you are putting together a tour with the production costs of U2 360, you're going to have to tour for a long time to break even (which is pretty much what the tour did despite its record grosses). Second, when Bono was sidelined for two-and-a-half months with emergency back surgery during the summer of 2010, the band had to postpone the third leg of the North American tour for an entire year. Third, because of the need to schedule a tour as logistically complicated as U2 360 well in advance, the band ended up running into their deadline for finishing No Line on the Horizon (NLOTH). Music producer Jimmy Iovine said the band should have taken more time to finish the album in order to make it truly great. Granting Iovine his opinion, the album is still great, particularly because it's not simply a rehashing of All That You Can't Leave Behind (ATYCLB) and/or How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb (HTDAAB). Unfortunately, because it didn't sell as much as either of those albums nor have a "hit single," it's perceived as "a failure." In truth, the album was the seventh-highest-selling album in the world for 2009, and it has fantastic songs on it, just as ATYCLB and HTDAAB do. And finally, Bono has talked about the band wanting to take its time with a new album--perhaps unlike it did with NLOTH--in order to better meet the high expectations of U2 fans. It was four years and three months between ATYCLB and HTDAAB, and it's now four years and eight months since NLOTH. According to Billboard, the new album will be released in April 2014.

I also laugh when Romano cites Achtung Baby as one of the greatest albums ever made without discussing some of the cognitive dissonance surrounding its release. At the time, the record was hard to deal with for U2 fans because it was such a departure from their previous work. In the end, most old fans came around, and new fans jumped on board. Sure, many critics liked the album at the time, but other critics disagreed. Spin Magazine called Achtung Baby a failure, and Robert Christgau, the "Dean of American Rock Critics," thought the album sucked. So, even those who liked Achtung Baby at the time likely would not have ranked it as U2's best album to date--let alone one of greatest albums of all time--but now, twenty years later, folks say that. As a result, I think NLOTH will be considered a much better record and worthy of the U2 canon in due time. At minimum, one should find the title track, "Moment of Surrender," and "Unknown Caller" as outstanding songwriting.

In the end, not only is Romano's id/ego/super-ego metaphor misapplied to U2's oeuvre, it's ham-fisted: he just works too hard to try and make it work--even while it's not--and it's obvious to the reader. Romano's not very different from most young music critics, though. They talk about music that came out when they were tykes--in this case, Romano was around nine years old when Achtung Baby was released--without understanding the contexts or the timelines of critical reception for those records. The Who's Quadrophenia had a lukewarm reception by both critics and fans alike at the time of its release, but one wouldn't know that today: Now, it's considered one of The Who's classic albums. Romano, like many before him, arrives to the "music-critic game" and want to demonstrate how "critical" they can be, often picking a new work by a band that belongs to a previous generation to do so. I guess when Romano writes "No soaring choruses about faith and love and Africa. No reverby, ricocheting guitar lines. No martial drum beats. No chart-topping uplift" early on in his piece, one should know Romano's goal is going to be to show his fellow critics how snarky he can be about a mega-successful artist's new song rather than simply to be a good critic. Rolling Stone got it wrong with Led Zeppelin, Spin got it wrong with U2--the list goes on, and it happens to the best of them. Romano's analysis of "Ordinary Love"--as well as U2's last three studio albums--just happens to miss the mark, too. One of my favorite sayings is, "Critics are like eunuchs at an orgy." The only way one can avoid being that type of critic--not very useful to the rest of us--is to write intellectually responsible--as well as historically and metaphorically accurate--criticism.

- Andrew Smith, a U2 fan since 1984

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This page contains a single entry by Jonathan published on November 23, 2013 12:12 AM.

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