Saturday, August 20, 2005

The View Inside
U2 and The Wallflowers keep introspective rock alive

Just when we were bemoaning the ordinariness of this year musically, things changed in a flash. U2 and The Wallflowers released their respective albums in October and redeemed the new millennium. All That You Can’t Leave Behind by U2 is a uniformly great album, all set to be an all-time classic. (Breach) by The Wallflowers, despite not having the same consistency, contains some absolutely amazing tracks. Both albums (and I refuse to call them ‘CDs’ as everyone has started doing; ‘album’ is so much more apt – implying a collection of snapshots too, which is what popular music is) gloriously demonstrate those very qualities of rock that has made it such a relevant artistic force in the last forty-odd years.

U2’s two celebrated masterpieces are The Joshua Tree (1987) and Achtung Baby (1991). Thereafter, they spent much of the nineties experimenting and being bizarrely adventurous, with a few wonderful moments to show for it. However, with All That You Can’t Leave Behind, U2 have got back to basics, by playing to their strengths and by simplifying their approach. This is their third masterpiece. These are frontman Bono’s most personal songs, delivered unflinchingly by the band, without any kind of posturing. Rendered in the quintessentially recognizable U2 style – passionate and sweeping, these are the most melodic songs U2 have done. The big difference is the focus of the album in general - the leitmotif of lost love running right through it. It reinforces the role of rock’s great muse-provider, indeed, that of life itself. Some of the greatest albums in popular music have come in the wake of this great personal loss, usually the breakdown of a marriage or a cherished relationship. This time around, it’s Bono, who split up with his longtime wife just before the album happened.

This album is about coming to terms with that pain. The deeply ingrained feelings of regret and hope play with each other most evocatively on the song “Walk On”. Bono’s despair and passion is beautifully offset by the acceptance of the situation somehow. Near the end of the song, he embarks on the following lines – “ Leave it behind/ you’ve got to leave it behind/ All that you fashion/ All that you make/ All that you build/ All that you break/ All that you measure/ All that you feel/ All this you can leave behind/ All that you reason/ All that you sense/ All that you scheme/ All you dress up/ All that you seem…” Besides being deeply moving, it’s also the defining moment in the album. The ringing guitars, the piano counterpoint and the vocals straining with yearning give you goose-pimples. The song is dedicated to Burmese leader Aung San Suu Kyi, but that’s a red herring really. “Kite” is actually even more direct – by using this metaphor of floating helplessly in this situation. When Bono’s voice soars, you realize his vulnerability has never been more crystal-clear.

The sheer tunefulness of the songs is amazing. The album opener “Beautiful Day” is about being lost, helpless and full of despair, yet not losing touch of the fact that it doesn’t take much to feel life’s beauty again. Moody synth-styled passages are punctuated by roaring, optimistic guitars and Bono’s euphoric refrain; like streaks of gorgeous sunlight hitting you occasionally as you pass between tunnels. “Stuck In A Moment You Can’t Get Out Of” is soulfully cheery sonically, grittily hopeful lyrically. The sound has more than a touch of Motown. “In A little While” is groovy, with a slinky R&B beat, while Bono sings about getting back to how he felt before the debacle. “Wild Honey” is the most melodic track on the album, swinging gently. “Peace On Earth” is reflective about a lost cause in these troubled times. “New York” superbly captures the city’s spirit while telling a very personal story, perhaps the most revealing on the album. When Bono sings “I'm staying on to figure out my mid-life crisis/ I hit an iceberg in my life/ But you know I’m still afloat/ You lose your balance, lose your wife/ In the queue for the lifeboat”, you know it’s telling. The album closer, the hushed “Grace” is an absolute gem. Perhaps the quietest, gentlest song U2 have ever done, Bono ends the album with the line that explains it all – “Grace makes beauty out of ugly things”. Yes, that’s what Bono and U2 have done on this album. There’s great beauty and radiance on this – easily the best release of 2000. It’s also my favourite U2 album, something I never expected. Most will be loath to dismantle Joshua or Achtung, but given some time, many probably will. This album is that good.

For overall consistency, (Breach) by The Wallflowers doesn’t quite touch the same heights. In fact, some may even dismiss it as an inadequate follow-up to the mega-hit Bringing Down The Horse (1996). In one sense it is – the infectious rockers have gone. Nothing immediately leaps out and grabs you. But, hold on, hear the album a few times and something much more significant is gradually revealed. The songs, for the most part, are more thoughtful and subtler than last time around. There are some fine songs, couple of great ones and one rare, precious moment of breathtaking, inspired genius.

Frontman Jakob Dylan bears the cross of being a living legend’s son. He’s dealt with it very admirably so far, carving out his own identity musically. With a muscular, no-nonsense band to back him, in the purist rock & roll sense, his songs have been pleasingly derivative of Springsteen, Tom Petty, The Band and Wilco. Despite this, The Wallflowers have a distinctive sound, and Jakob Dylan has a trademark weary vocal style, which he exploits a little more on this album than the last one.

“Letters From The Wasteland”, “Sleepwalker” and “Some Flowers Bloom Dead” are sophisticated and assured rockers. “Up From Under” reminds you of Springsteen’s sparse Nebraska phase. “Mourning Train” – vividly evoking lost love, is lovely. “Babybird” is an unlisted, “hidden track” at the end of the album - a gentle lullaby using just a music box and Jakob’s vocals, and it works wonderfully. Some moments, like “Wasteland”, drag, but thankfully there aren’t too many of them.

“Hand Me Down” is a beauty. The song is like a reverse of “Papa Kehte Hain” (from QSQT, remember that?). The father here actually keeps reminding his son how full of shit he is and how he’ll never amount to anything. It’s hard to believe this is autobiographical (but geniuses, like father Bob, are weird people, so who knows?), especially when one considers the languid Californian hooks that remind one of Tom Petty’s irony. Indeed, the song comes from that universe and would have made any compilation of Petty’s had he come up with it - it’s so good.

But it’s the song “I’ve Been Delivered” with which Jakob Dylan makes his stab at greatness… and achieves it. I heard the song a few times in passing initially; sonically, it was unlike anything I’d heard; lyrically, it seemed an odd sort of a stream of consciousness ramble his father has been so good at. Then suddenly, as I paid attention to the lyrics, and tried to make sense of the peculiar soundscape, the realization astounded me. It’s about a dying man who is suddenly seeing his life pass by in a flash, and in that flash he is also experiencing the same wonder we will perhaps all feel one day when we pass on to the other world, wherever that is. This 5-minute song is that flash. It’s actually a jaunty, completely unsentimental song, with a mid-tempo, distinctively rock arrangement – drums, electric guitars, keyboards, bass, with guitar snarls punctuating it now and then. Jakob sings almost cheerfully, even humming off and on. A weight suddenly seems to have been lifted and the life he could never make any sense of before, suddenly doesn’t need to be figured out. Halfway through, when a banjo steps forward in the mix, you suddenly feel that he’s being welcomed to his destination and it’s a wondrous moment. His father would have been proud of this one; indeed, this song is as good as anything Bob Dylan has ever done. I say this with care; Bob Dylan has been, and still is, my favourite artist. But here, I’d say new ground in rock has been broken. At least, it’s one of the most beautiful, moving songs I’ve heard in my life.

Such beauty, such wisdom, such expression – if anyone had doubts about rock & roll sustaining itself in the new millennium, they just have to listen. Both these albums contain some timeless music.

December 2000


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