New U2 Single: Still Better Than The Real Thing?
There was a time that I would have been really excited about the dropping of a new U2 single. That time ended around 2009.
While I really liked No Line On The Horizon, mostly because it sounded fresh, and I hadn’t fallen into retro-U2 heavy rotation phase (and I never really have), everything that came after it was sub-par for the group in comparison. Being a long term U2 fan, I was accustomed to their putting out one really great album, followed up by a so-so album. This trend goes all the way back to their beginning. 1980’s Boy was a solid debut. 1981’s October was a weak follow up (granted the recording of the album was plagued with troubles outside the band’s control). War remains a classic of classic alternative (it dropped like a bomb into the New Wave synth laden year of 1983). The Unforgettable Fire was the letdown of 1984 (although it birthed two of the band’s most long lived singles: “Pride In the Name of Love” and “Bad.”). 1987’s The Joshua Tree speaks for itself. 1988’s “double album” Rattle and Hum labored under its own pomposity. A problem that tarnished the band’s rep nigh irreparably. Achtung Baby, and its coda, Zooropa, became the instant classics of high-classic alternative upon their release in 1991 and 1993. 1997’s Pop speaks for itself to the opposite of The Joshua Tree in every way.
The band almost broke the trend with 2000’s All That You Can’t Leave Behind and 2004’s How To Dismantle an Atomic Bomb, although ATYCLB outshone it by a stage light or two. Then came the unfairly ignored No Line on The Horizon (2009) and it’s follow up Songs of Innocence (2014) which at first appeared to be strong, but didn’t hold up to multiple listens like their best albums did.
Now, with Songs of Experience on the horizon, the U2 trend should suggest that current fans (however many are left) and wayward fans (much too many to count) should be expecting something spectacular. Two songs have been released/previewed. “The Blackout” which can’t be discussed properly because we still haven’t properly heard the song without the annoying pseudo-live crowd effects, and “You’re the Best Thing About Me,” which is the proper first single off the forthcoming album. So, is this new single still better than the real thing, to borrow a phrase from Bono?
His lyrics, in almost opposition to the bright, clear, rocking, and straightforward (and this time around inspired) guitar playing by The Edge, that conjures up all that old U2 sonic elevation, are almost spurning. Yeah, he sings about how “When you look so good the pain in your face doesn’t show” and “You’re the best thing about me/The best thing that ever happened to a boy” joyously, but he also sings with as much joy (slightly tinged with a little disbelief) “You’re the best thing about me/The best things are easy to destroy” and “Why am I walking away?” The latter lyrics, that come later in the song, shed new light on just what the source of the “pain in your face” is, turning the whole song from what at first listen might sound like yet another ode to love into something as dark emotionally, if not as inspiring lyrically, as “One.”
The partner that looks “so good that the pain in your face doesn’t show” is being dumped, left, divorced or forcely separated from by the song’s protagonist. That line becomes almost a snarky refrain in the light of the songs later lyrics. It’s like telling your girlfriend while dumping her, or your wife while leaving her, “Sorry baby, I know it hurts that I’m leaving ya, but damn you still look good even though you’re dying inside.” The coldness of the protagonist’s insensitivity is astounding, but visceral. Sounds like Bono is putting on a mask of experience here, surely he isn’t singing this to his wife (he’s penned many love songs to her), but perhaps he’s drawing upon the experiences of some of his bandmates. After all, Achtung Baby was inspired by Edge’s emotionally messy divorce. Who really knows where Bono is drawing his inspiration from, but damn, he’s still got some of that spiritually poetic, if no longer dactylically sharp, power to tell a story, and sprinkle it with a little irony and sarcasm. Anyone got a “The Fly”-swatter around?
Bono isn’t reverting to full on “The Fly” mode here, but he’s veering dangerously close to the persona he perfected while touring in support of Achtung Baby back in the early 1990s. In opposition, The Edge and the rest of the band are relishing in the type of sound that catapulted them back into mass consciousness: the clear cut and lesser produced sound of ATYCLB. U2 may not be the greatest musicians of all time, nor even the greatest songwriters of all time, but there is one thing that they undoubtedly are. They are the greatest band of all time in a strict definitional sense.
Every drum beat, bass line, vocal, and lead guitar riff mix together, and draw your attention equally, better than any other band’s music. There’s no Lennon/McCarthy dynamic pushing their collective sound in different directions at once, leading to uneven sounding albums. There’s no burying of the bass line like Metallica did with Jason Newsted’s for years. There’s no album in the catalogue dominated by one band member, like many of the early Pearl Jam albums were dominated by Eddie Vedder. There’s nary a non-communally decided upon note or word that sits out of place in “You’re the Best Thing About Me,” nor is there one in just about any U2 song from at any point in their catalogue and career. Bono might appear to be pushing the song in a different direction lyrically from what it might sound like instrumentally, but he’s doing so gleefully while hiding the darker side of the lyrics, teasing the listener into believing the fake news that this is just another pop-rock song about easy breezy love. Fake news used in the artistic and ironical sense can be brilliant, and Bono and the boys excel at it here.
Their glory days may be behind them, but with “You’re the Best Thing About Me” U2 might still be even better than the real thing, or at least still better than for what passes for the real thing in the world of smart pop and rock music.
Songs of Experience is due out in December.