Bafflingly left off Pop – it was released on the B-side of Staring at the Sun – North and South of the River is audibly better than swathes of that album: a low-key excursion into something resembling trip-hop, replete with breakbeat and lo-fi orchestral samples and particularly yearning Bono vocal.
If All That You Can’t Leave Behind returned U2 to something like their pre-Achtung Baby selves, How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb’s roaring lead single took them back even further: inspired once more by the Sex Pistols and Buzzcocks, it stripped their sound to its elemental punk roots: one guitar, bass, drums.
Once they had shaken off their youthful obsession with Siouxsie and the Banshees and Joy Division, U2 seldom sounded like anyone other than U2. In a Little While, however, has a 70s Rolling Stones feel to it. Subsequently covered by both Hanson and William Shatner, it’s a lovely, loose ode to enduring romance.
U2’s debut single is very much a product of its era, further bedevilled by the difficult recording session at which the band’s own technical limitations were revealed. Re-recorded for 1980’s Boy, however, Out of Control shone, its blazing youthful power fully revealed itself.
The contents of Songs of Innocence were overshadowed by the controversy over its means of distribution – oddly enough, not everyone wanted a U2 album to automatically appear in their iTunes library – but they were better than the reviews suggested: produced by Danger Mouse, Sleep Like a Baby Tonight’s lambent tune and electronic pulse deserve reassessment.
Another song worth salvaging from the wreckage of Pop, the drum machine-driven The Playboy Mansion is raggedly charming, its lyrics casting an ambiguous eye over media bombardment, celebrity and advertising, its guitar snaking around Bono’s low-key vocal.
U2’s contribution to the soundtrack of Batman Forever might well be their own charming homage to Marc Bolan, albeit put through a distinct Zooropa-era filter: the string arrangement is pure Children of the Revolution, the guitars crunch very T Rex-ily, there’s a distinct hint of a “glam descend” chord sequence about the chorus.
Cursed with the kind of title guaranteed to get U2 naysayers rolling their eyes, Cedars of Lebanon is nevertheless one of No Line on the Horizon’s scattered highlights: sonically muted and misty, the vocals oddly conversational, its tone weary and sombre, it feels focused and potent where the rest of the album feels confused.
Kraftwerk apparently lurked among the regular musical diet of the nascent U2, but it took until 2014 for their influence to really make itself heard. Invisible’s blend of classic U2-isms with motorik drums and Autobahn synths is the most successful of their recent attempts to reboot their sound.
There’s a sense that U2’s vast commercial success means their willingness to experiment gets overlooked, but The Joshua Tree’s second side is thick with impressive diversions into the musical left field, as evidenced by its closing track’s ominous, chilling ambient noise.
As befits a song originally intended for Frank Sinatra, Stay pared back the sonic overload of much of Zooropa, leaving U2 more or less au naturel. Its live sound bolsters the song’s beautifully elegant, elegiac, small-hours tone, its lyric inspired by the plot of the Wim Wenders film they wrote it for.
At the other extreme to Gloria’s breast-beating lurked October’s title track, an austere, suitably autumnal-sounding piano ballad in which Bono’s vocals arrive only in the final 50 seconds. “Joy Division had gone to our heads,” shrugged the singer years later, but there’s a hushed, stark beauty to the track.
U2’s most recent albums have been marred by the audible sense of a band trying too hard, but Songs of Experience’s highlight felt effortless. Its shifts from soft and sad to rousing are the sound of a band not worrying about their place in the modern pop landscape and being themselves.
A fantastic example of Achtung Baby’s ability to adapt current musical trends so they fit into U2’s universe, rather than vice-versa, the shuffling, vaguely “baggy” dance rhythm here supports a retelling of the story of Judas Iscariot, a song that alternately broods and soars and a particularly sky-scraping Edge solo.
The song that in effect sent U2 supernova plays fast and loose with the facts of Martin Luther King’s murder – he was shot in the afternoon, not the morning – but it hardly matters. As straightforward a lunge for anthem status as they had yet recorded, Pride worked.
Either a paean to Bono’s goggle-eyed first trip to London, or a description of Manhattan, City of Blinding Lights isn’t about taking risks so much as U2 doing what U2 were put on Earth to do – make music that’s atmospheric but anthemic, uplifting but soul-searching – and doing it absolutely perfectly.
Julian Schnabel’s The Diving Bell and the Butterfly features a scene soundtracked by Ultraviolet: the film’s paralysed protagonist remembering a car journey with his lover, her hair flowing in the wind. It is an extraordinary piece of film-making that perfectly captures Ultraviolet’s power, the most musically uplifting of U2’s examinations of faith.
Pop is generally regarded as U2’s latter-day nadir: its recording was rushed, its attempt at grafting samples and loops on to U2’s sound ungainly, and even its title managed to upset US rock fans. But occasionally, it worked, as on Mofo, an improbably titled song about the death of Bono’s mother, complete with thrilling, Giorgio Moroder-ish synth line.
U2 have been resident in the world’s stadiums for so long, it is easy to forget they were once a post-punk band. (They would doubtless argue they still are.) It is very clear here, a song about alienation and electro-convulsive therapy, vocals hidden amid trebly, reverb-heavy guitars, drums heavy on tom-tom thunder.
At the other emotional extreme to Beautiful Day lies All That You Can’t Leave Behind’s anguished response to the death of Michael Hutchence. More complex and affecting than a standard issue tear-jerker, its lyric keeps shifting from sadness and empathy to anger at its subject: “You’re such a fool.”
Zooropa was Achtung Baby’s scrappier sibling: if you wanted evidence of the distance U2 had travelled in recent years, the title track’s experimental, episodic collision of ambience, distorted vocals and densely affected guitar was a good place to start. Moreover, they somehow did it without surrendering their, well, U2-ness.
Inspired by a trip to El Salvador, Bullet the Blue Sky’s tribal drums, dub bass and arcs of guitar noise sound like a bold attempt to turn the experiments of post-punk into something stadium-sized. Extra fun can be had imagining Mark E Smith’s reaction when he learned the chorus was based on a Fall track.
U2’s second album could have been their last – a confused exploration of spirituality, it nearly pre-empted a split – but when it worked, as on towering opener Gloria, it underlined what a different proposition U2 were. Who else among their peers would write an open-hearted, earnest celebration of Christian faith?
Not all of U2’s recent lunges for contemporaneity have worked (who in their right minds wants to hear Bono singing through Auto-Tune?) but Songs of Experience’s concluding duet with Lykke Li did. A slow drift that never deals directly with the conflict in the title, but focuses on the impact that growing up near conflict has on one’s personality.
From its opening blast of chaotic guitar, The Fly boldly announces things are not as they were in the world of U2. Out goes earnestness that could border on painful, in come more murky, ambiguous songs sung in character. “Conscience can be a pest,” offers Bono, as if starkly critiquing his former self, “ambition bites the nails of success.”
Rattle and Hum marked the point at which U2 allowed their passion and self-belief – and indeed their reaction to superstardom – to slip into bombast, but sometimes its experiments with US roots music work. Fizzing with their enthusiasm for music forbidden under post-punk’s rules, Desire’s irresistible Bo Diddley beat is evidence.
Inspired by the rise in heroin use in 80s Dublin, Bad looms large in U2 legend. The original is hypnotic and slow-burning, delicately shaded with Brian Eno’s electronics, the perfect launchpad for onstage development. Most famously, they played it for 12 minutes at Live Aid, a performance they thought was a disaster, but which turned out to be a highlight.
U2’s first truly great song was a product of its era – Public Image-esque guitars, the vocal influence of Siouxsie particularly evident on the chorus, a hint of DIY experimentation in its percussive use of cutlery and a bicycle wheel – but it hoisted its influences into the service of music expressly built for crowds to sing along and punch the air to.
The unexpected result of Adam Clayton attempting, and failing, to play the bass line to Visage’s Fade to Grey, U2’s breakthrough hit had what Bono admitted was a sketchy lyric about Poland’s political upheavals. It didn’t matter: its anthem status rests on the emotional shift between the jagged iciness of its verses and the warmth and yearning of the chorus.
How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb’s greatest track remains Bono’s rumination on his complex relationship with his dying father. It’s the perfect counter-argument to those who feel U2’s music exists solely on a grand scale, painted in emotional brushstrokes too broad for its own good. Incisive and personal, it is heartbreakingly frank.
Achtung Baby’s singles employed a lot of hip dance remixers: the shimmering synths and falsetto vocals of Zooropa’s Lemon seemed to seamlessly integrate the sound of a hip dance remix into U2’s own. It is helped by the fact the song itself is great; you could strip it of its production and it would still work.
Returning to Achtung Baby’s many remixes, Paul Oakenfold’s version of Even Better Than the Real Thing was the most famous, but then his source material was fantastic: a rattlingly exciting song about the desire for immediate gratification – “Slide down the surface of things” – that now seems remarkably prescient.
A commercial disappointment – selling a mere 5m copies – No Line on the Horizon was muddled and, in Larry Mullen’s words, “fucking miserable”. Finding its highlights requires a degree of sifting, but its title track is fantastic: a wracked vocal over a pulsing wall of guitar effects, the intensity of which ebbs and flows throughout the song.
Trailed as a return to basics after the failed experiment of Pop, All That You Can’t Leave Behind wasn’t quite as straightforward as that, but U2 songs come no more direct and powerful that its lead single. Everything about Beautiful Day clicks perfectly, the apparent effortlessness of its widescreen euphoria at odds with its tricky gestation.
By now, U2 could knock out potent stadium rock to order, as evidenced by Pride, but The Unforgettable Fire’s best moments are more opaque, less direct. The title track is atmospheric, synth-heavy and dense with serpentine melodies, its euphoric power gradually building over the course of five minutes.
The gospel inflections and earnest tone of I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For are precisely the kind of thing that winds up U2’s detractors. But blessed with a melody that sounds it has somehow always existed, its strength lies in the fact that it doesn’t deal in pious sermonising; its expressions of spiritual doubt are disarmingly heartfelt.
Of all Rattle And Hum’s attempts to tap into American music history, employing former Beach Boys collaborator Van Dyke Parks for All I Want Is You was the most inspired. His complex but beautiful string arrangement turns a straightforward love song into something richer, adding an undercurrent of uncertainty to Bono’s vocal proclamations.
A lot has been written about Sunday Bloody Sunday’s lyrics – a non-sectarian, pacifist view of the Troubles – but its power lies in the way its sound keeps lurching back and forth from a clattering racket strafed with feedback and scraping violin to something more straightforward and palatable: a killer riff coupled with the singalong-inducing refrain: “How long must we sing this song?”
Daringly at odds with then-prevalent trends for pumped-up and musclebound stadium rock, With Or Without You’s examination of faith and/or love is simple to the point of sounding stark: subtle, even subdued, never reaching the big climax you expect. None of which stopped it going to No 1 in the US, a very counterintuitive way of becoming the biggest band in the world.
“Heavy bottomed but light-headed” in the words of the producer Brian Eno, Mysterious Ways is one of a number of Achtung Baby tracks to bear the influence of contemporary indie-dance, an inspiration U2 were able to assimilate remarkably well, hence this gleefully lubricious blast of wah-wah guitar, congas and funky bass.
Achtung Baby is rightly heralded as one of the great 180-degree artistic turns a major band has ever performed, but at its heart lies a traditionally U2-esque song: a love ballad that reaches for bigger topics – “We’re one, but we’re not the same, we get to carry each other” – so emotionally powerful it apparently reduced Axl Rose, of all people, to floods of tears.
Where the Streets Have No Name had inauspicious beginnings: in effect written to order – The Joshua Tree was “short [of] a certain kind of song”, the Edge later recalled – the band struggled to record it, and Eno was so unimpressed he attempted to wipe the tape. He would have erased a song that perfectly sums up U2’s appeal. Powered by a particularly gripping example of Edge’s patent echo-drenched arpeggios, it is breathlessly exciting without ever resorting to rock anthem cliche (the time signature changes twice). The lyrics seem to be as much about the ability of music to inspire joyful transcendence as the divisions in Belfast that inspired them and the chorus soars irresistibly. “The ultimate U2 live song,” Edge suggested. He was right.