"Craft is what enables you to be successful
when you're not inspired." - Brian Eno

Melody Maker MARCH 14, 1987 - by Alan Jackson


When I think of U2, I don't think of America, I don't think of stadia, sweat, pumping fists, auxiliary hair. I think of fresh air, fjords, snow, the sky, expanse. Only the small-minded could resent these open spaces, this size; the indie regressives or the soulboys, who both hanker for the grass roots, keep their ears fixed to the ground.

I certainly don't think of Springsteen. Springsteen is a hearth, harking back, bringing nothing new in the way of sound or of meaning, every phrase or gesture cueing our pop memories, binding us tighter as a rock family. U2 belong with pop institutions like Costello and The Smiths, whose existence is at once radical and reactionary. Reactionary because they're trammelled by their audience's sheeplike faith. Radical because they've brought something new to pop. And in U2's case, that's a new sound.

It's a sound, a sense of space and architecture, that wouldn't exist without Television. Tom Verlaine opened up the possibility for rock to retain acceleration and urgency while shedding its aura of masculine rowdyism, its scuffed shabbiness. He invented a kind of austere psychedelia, an abstract attack, a pure aggression with no object beyond exultation in itself. This puritan, post-R&B rock is everywhere - Verlaine gave us Echo, Go-Betweens, REM, Bodines, Meat Puppets, Hurrah! - but no one has made it resound louder and larger in global pop than U2.

U2 are massive but minimal, majestic but free of pomp or flourish. There are no solos, power chords, curlicues even - just a weave of close-chording texture, an exhilarating shimmer. Tracks like Where The Streets Have No Name teem, accelerate, become inexorable, a cascade of sapphire and marble. Echo haven't done anything as powerful since All I Want. U2 bring to the packed, agoraphobic confines of pop something big, something grey. That's their valour, but also their undoing. Their music can never be as selfless as REM or Stars Of Heaven, because Bono is mixed too big, thunderously close. When he embraced that girl from the audience at Live Aid, it was touching.

Listening to this album, crushed against his bosom, deafened by his pounding heart, the intimacy, the concern is quickly intolerable. There are only ever three tracks on every U2 LP you can listen to. The other problem is that all the mystical outreaching impulses in their sound get condensed down into a humanist vision, vested in the charismatic focus of Bono. Driven by the desire to articulate big truths, to wield language large enough to unite us all, U2 are drawn to safe issues, like Amnesty International, Martin Luther King, that reach across divisions to all "decent folk". There's a naive hope that we can transcend politics (but Bono, there are monsters in our midst, in our own hearts), whereas at its best U2's music suggests that we can transcend our flesh and our identities. It's glorious make-believe.

Some say the impulse to "soar above" is a bourgeois delusion, a hygienic aversion to the "truth" of filth. Well, the good thing about being a schizophrenic rock critic is not having to choose - I can be up in the air today, down in the dirt tomorrow. U2 are out of touch, and today at least, I mean that as a compliment.