- 24 Oct 02
It’s true – the winners get to write their own histories.
There’s something a little revisionist about the track listing on The Best & The B-Sides Of – 1990-2000, but then it’s U2’s mirror ball and they get to go home with it if they don’t like the rules. In the spirit of the Zoo campaign that dominated almost the first half of the ’90s, chronology has been fed into the shredder.
First off, they’ve expunged ‘The Fly’ from the record in favour of its DNA swab ‘Lady With The Spinning Head’, and more’s the pity: it would’ve been the perfect opener and a demarcation line between Lovetown and after (although lets face it, the real shape of things to come was the cold soul of Cole Porter’s ‘Night And Day’, which surely merited inclusion here on the second set). But the sheer density of the track augured well for the Houdini-like straightjacket slippage of Achtung Baby. Mind you, a few songs on that album showed the strain, most notably ‘Who’s Gonna Ride Your Wild Horses’, which didn’t make it here either. And from later eras, there’s no ‘Last Night On Earth’, no ‘Please’, no ‘The Ground Beneath Her Feet’, no ‘Elevation’ remix with molten guitar break for us mugs who only bought the album. And surely ‘Walk On’ deserves a walk on?
Then again, this is a Best Of, not a singles catalogue, and if the sequencing sometimes begs an explanation, the actual content is pretty unimpeachable. ‘One’ needs no further commentary, and I’m glad the dank underworld of ‘Until The End Of The World’ has been given its due; for my money U2’s greatest four and a half minutes.
‘Lemon’ made the grade too, albeit in remixed form and missing the forward thrust of the original. The key line here is “Midnight is where the day begins” (hushed on the record, operatic cabaret live), summarising the dizzy-orientation of Zooropa, whose brinkmanship harnessed the furious energies of the tour and sent ripples through the next couple of albums. From those sessions, ‘Hold Me, Thrill Me, Kiss Me, Kill Me’ is a classic U2 contradiction: shiny glam gunk masking the deadly ramifications of fame and consumer celebrity suicide (“They want their money back if you’re alive at 33”) that would come back to haunt the band throughout the PopMart tour. ‘Wake Up Dead Man’ was an another Zoo escapee that eventually surfaced on Pop, but its shadow made ‘Beautiful Day’ and ‘Stuck In A Moment’ possible, as darkly startling as the moment in Pasolini’s Gospel According To Saint Matthew where Blind Willie Johnson soundtracks Christ getting handed over to Pilate: through some tectonic fold, the lost gospels floated down the Nile to surface 1800 odd years later in the Mississippi Delta. Hard to fathom how that tune was beaten out of a place by ‘The First Time’, which made much sense in The Million Dollar Hotel but not here.
I may be alone in saying the Passengers record was a better U2 album than Pop (revisit ‘Slug’ and ‘Always Forever Now’, or check out ‘Your Blue Room’ on the extra disc), but few can dispute it was a more coherent work, and here ‘Miss Sarajevo’ remains a thing of great beauty and sorrow. Pop is represented by remixes of ‘Discotheque’ (more ear-lickingly lascivious, with a jacked up cowbell and starker power surges), a scalding ‘Gone’, and ‘Staring At The Sun’. Again I’ll play the contrarian, lobbying for the missing ‘Mofo’: Lennon’s ‘Mother’ in techno threads and broken drill-bit guitar.
Like any band’s party line, the U2 spin machine often sacrifices the previous album on the altar of the latest, but ‘Beautiful Day’ managed the minor miracle of reclaiming their Hall of Fame elements without it sounding like rearguard action. Come the end of the Elevation tour, anything was possible all over again. The ’90s were U2’s great lost weekend: if Achtung Baby was the drunken domestic row, Zooropa the AWOL all-nighter, Passengers the moment of clarity at dawn and Pop the hangover, then All That You Can’t Leave Behind was the day after the day after, waking up wrecked and purged and full of resolve to do good works.
And so to the new tunes. ‘Electrical Storm’ is a sly one. Initially I went looking for a big chorus and overlooked the beating heart of the song in the verses, especially when Bono pushes his upper register. And William Orbit’s aquatic mix perfectly matches pop sensibility with the lyric’s epical sweep: “If the sky can crack/There must be some way back”. I’m addicted. In its company, ‘The Hands That Built America’ sounds like a generic Bono-ballad adrift from Scorsese’s period piece, until the opera interlude and last verse connect it with the here and now: “It’s early fall, there’s a cloud on the New York skyline/Innocence dragged across a yellow line”.
Curiously, The Best Of is a biased selection, favouring song structure over raw sound, melody over rhythm and noise, as if those rogue elements were foolish club flirtations. It may make more sense in the light of the last album, but there’s an underlying feeling that the band have sought to whitewash a dark period. After all, the Perfecto mix of ‘Even Better Than The Real Thing’ was even better than the real thing. Plus, the extra album has some unnecessary duplication and omissions of curios (no ‘Slow Dancing’ or ‘One Shot Of Happy, Two Shots Of Sad’).
But having aired all my prejudices, song by song there’s a shitload of gold bullion here. I’m just greedy; I wanted more.