U2 Embraces the Roots of Rock : The Raw, Experimental Sounds of ‘Rattle and Hum’ More Than Match the Craft of ‘The Joshua Tree’
****U2. “Rattle and Hum.” Island Records.
“This is a song Charles Manson stole from the Beatles,” U2’s Bono Hewson declares at the start of this part-live, part-studio collection. “We’re stealing it back.”
It’s an audacious remark, especially from a band that has frequently been accused of taking itself too seriously. One can almost hear someone snickering, “Oh, so now they think they’re the Beatles!”
But the Irish quartet’s version of “Helter Skelter” explodes with a conviction and heart that summarizes this frequently remarkable album--a work that not only lives up to the standards of the Grammy-winning “The Joshua Tree,” but also places U2 more convincingly than ever among rock’s all-time greatest groups.
Countless bands have written songs that more closely echo the sounds of Beatles or the other great units of the ‘60s, but no group of this decade reflects more jubilantly the combination of craft, accessibility and leadership exhibited by those bands.
There is such a liberating sense of experimentation and growth to “Rattle and Hum” that the album, when coupled with “The Joshua Tree,” gives U2 much the same dazzling back-to-back accomplishment registered by such other rare combinations as the Beatles’ “Rubber Soul” and “Revolver,” Dylan’s “Highway 61 Revisited” and “Blonde on Blonde” or Springsteen’s “Born to Run” and “Darkness on the Edge of Town.”
The new two-record set, produced by Jimmy Iovine, steps away from the formality and discipline of “The Joshua Tree” for a rawer and more exploratory feel. Guitarist Edge, drummer Larry Mullen Jr., and bassist Adam Clayton inject the music with a seductive intimacy that is rare for music that is also so forceful.
One of the remarkable things about U2 is that the band achieved its massive commercial and critical success in the ‘80s without relying on the blues, gospel and country influences that gave character and soul to early rock ‘n’ roll--influences that were key parts of the arsenal of almost every other prized rock attraction.
That changes with “Rattle and Hum” (the title is from a line in the song, “Bullet the Blue Sky”). The heart of this collection is a head-on embrace with rock’s roots--so much in fact that it’s fitting that the band recorded three of the nine new songs in the same Memphis studio where Elvis Presley, B.B. King and Jerry Lee Lewis once worked.
To add to the sense of rock history, one of those three songs--the confessional “Love Rescue Me"--was co-written by Dylan, while another--the raucous “When Love Comes to Town"--features a vigorous duet with B. B. King. Besides “Helter Skelter,” the album also features a treatment of Dylan’s “All Along the Watchtower” and a snippet of Hendrix’s arrangement of “The Star Spangled Banner.”
This album, however, isn’t an exercise in revivalism. U2 continues to explore questions of ideals and faith . . . something (or someone) to believe in. The notable difference between “Rattle and Hum” and past U2 collections is that Hewson shows more vulnerability, both as a singer and lyricist.
Hewson has explained in interviews that he is far from the tower of strength idealized in such numbers as “Pride (In the Name of Love”), but this time he documents in his music the moments of struggle and self-doubt.
He speaks in the blues-driven “Desire"--the first single from the album--of the way one can become as addicted to ambition as to drugs, while he speaks in the tense “Hawkmoon 269" with sharp, probing images of the humility involved in acknowledging one’s limits. Sample line: Like thunder needs rain/ Like the preacher needs pain/ Like tongues of flame / Like a blindman’s cane . . . I need your love.
Beyond the power of the new songs, the strength of “Rattle and Hum” grows out of its diversity--a range of emotions that moves from the gospel rejoice of “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” (one of four concert versions of past U2 songs) to the eloquence and idealism of “Angel of Harlem” to the tenderness of “Homeland” and “All I Want Is You” to the rage of “God Part II.”
The latter is a sequel to John Lennon’s “God,” a 1970 composition that warned against putting your faith in others --including Beatles. In “God Part II,” Hewson slashes at various targets (including Albert Goldman’s hateful biography of Lennon) and wrestles with the power of rock music in the ‘80s.
The question of art’s ability to shape attitudes is one that goes far beyond the boundaries of rock music--but the answer remains the same. The artist can only be responsible for the integrity and quality of his work. In “Rattle and Hum,” U2 hasn’t just reclaimed “Helter Skelter” for the rock community. It has delivered a work that revives the idealism and craft of the music’s finest moments.