Second Best proves U2 is still the band to beat

Pretty much all you need to know about U2’s music in the 1990s can be found by understanding the way they started each of their concerts in the decade.

In the mid-1990s, the band emerged out of a 50-foot lemon below a 100-foot martini olive next to a 170-foot LED screen. That image perfectly encapsulates their PopMart tour – big, flashy and, ultimately, a lemon.

The decade ended with the four artists awkwardly walking on stage and playing with the house lights on through the first half of their first song. No frills, but also no doubt the band’s music is more than enough to bring down the house.

So how do you take these two radically different images and merge them into a “Best of 1990-2000” CD? U2’s answer: You don’t.

This is not a knock on their recent release, U2: The Best of 1990-2000, which is absolutely superb. It’s just mislabeled.

Their first “Best of. . .” album (which, it won’t surprise you to learn, spanned 1980-1990) was just that: an unbelievable collection of the best singles the band released in the decade.

Instead, the most recent installment is an attempt by U2 to justify what guitarist The Edge has described as a decade spent “chopping down The Joshua Tree.”

U2 became a great rock band – and it is, undoubtedly, the only ’80s band to rank among the all-time greats – on the back of its thunderous anthems. It is often said U2’s music cannot be fully appreciated unless you see them in concert; this is largely true, and it is because their anthems become so much more powerful when there are 25,000 people singing along.

Indeed, even a casual music fan would have trouble listening to the tracks that make up U2: The Best of 1980-1990 and not be inspired to sing along. It is difficult to deny the power behind “Pride (In the Name of Love),” “With or Without You,” “Sunday Bloody Sunday,” “Bad” or “Where the Streets Have No Names.”

U2 could have easily entered the ’90s by continuing to produce anthems that sold millions of copies and, after that routine got old, “retiring” to tour off their past success – The Rolling Stones route, if you will.

From the start of 1991’s Achtung Baby, it is clear U2 was trying something different; “Zoo Station” is, well, weird. U2 moved completely away from the realm of the anthem with 1993’s Zooropa and 1997’s POP, both instances where the band experimented with technology and dance music. Neither album is bad, but it’s a strikingly different sound.

The critically acclaimed 2000 release All That You Can’t Leave Behind is universally acknowledged as a return to U2’s roots – not coincidentally, ATYCLB is a return to the U2 anthem, most notably in the forms of “Beautiful Day” and “Walk On.” The former was such a return to U2’s glory days that when The Edge first played the song’s key riff to frontman Bono, he initially rejected it as sounding too much like “classic, early days U2.”

With U2: Best of 1990-2000’s almost complete rejection of ATYCLB (represented by only two songs out of the 13 that were previously released) and embrace of Zooropa and POP (eight tracks from that era), you might expect the album to have that bizarre mid-1990s feel; it does not. Instead, it is clear U2 is trying to use this album as a way of fitting the mid-’90s into the broader narrative of their career.

Nowhere is this more evident than with the selection of “The First Time” as the final track of the album. As most will remember, the first “Best of. . .” album ended with “All I Want Is You.” The two songs are virtually identical – you could easily splice the first 10 seconds of one song in place of the first 10 seconds of the other, and you might never know the difference. Here, we see U2 taking a song from their experimental phase and literally fitting it into the mold of the 1980s.

The other mid-’90s tracks the band has chosen for this album fall into two main categories: half – “Stay (Faraway, So Close!),” “Gone,” “Hold Me, Thrill Me, Kiss Me, Kill Me” and “Staring at the Sun” – are truly fantastic songs, and the other half – “Miss Sarajevo,” “Discothéque” and “Numb” – are awful songs that should not have been allowed anywhere near this album.

The inclusion of “Miss Sarajevo,” which The Edge has called “one of our best ever songs,” in the latter list will surely get me in trouble, but all three songs are missing a characteristic that all the great U2 tracks have: a catchy tune that you just can’t resist singing along to. Indeed, not only is singing along to these songs difficult, but even understanding the lyrics is a challenge I’m not up to.

Those three disappointments aside, however, the rest of the album is unreal. “Even Better Than the Real Thing” is certainly not the most rhythmical song ever produced, but it’s a fun, energetic song.

“Mysterious Ways,” probably the greatest party song U2’s ever created, is well worth the number two position on this album, and “Beautiful Day” – the song that reestablished U2’s credibility with our generation – deserves a place on a “U2: Best of Anything” album.

“One” – among the greatest ballads ever written by any group – needs no further introduction, and “Stuck in a Moment You Can’t Get Out Of” and “Until the End of the World” are both catchy tunes.

This leaves us with the two brand new tracks on this album, and you could not find two songs more different than “Electrical Storm” and “The Hands That Built America.” “Electrical Storm” is included on the album to help it sell. Released as a single back in October (but available to hardcore fans on the internet since August when Bono gave an unofficial version to a friend as a wedding present, after which it was leaked to radio play-lists), it’s a powerful song with some of the best guitar riffs U2 has ever released.

Ultimately, “Electrical Storm” is a pop song with no pretense of grandeur. Its lyrics are weak – “the air is heavy / heavy as a truck” is one many high school garage-rockers would be embarrassed to have written – but are more than made up for by Bono’s powerful vocals and The Edge’s aforementioned performance on the guitar.

“The Hands That Built America,” the theme song of the upcoming film “Gangs of New York,” is surprisingly personal. The song is a tribute to Irish immigrants in the 19th century, but also a tribute from Bono to the two countries he considers home. The song begins by addressing the conflict between an Irishman’s love of the “freckled hills” of Ireland and the “promises” and “dreams” of America.

At this point, it becomes relevant to know Bono was writing the song during the summer of 2001. A seemingly out of place opera verse, for example, is actually a tribute to Bono’s father – an opera singer who died that summer. Similarly, the following verse is an overt reference to Sept. 11.

Unlike other songs which reference Sept. 11 – such as virtually every track on Spring-steen’s The Rising – “The Hands That Built America” keeps the reference sufficiently understated so that it does not detract from the overall message of the song. It is very much in the same vein as their reference to Martin Luther King, Jr.’s death in “Pride (In the Name of Love).”

Though the album is certainly an enjoyable listen, it would have been strengthened b
y the inclusion of three other fantastic tracks from the ’90s. “Who’s Gonna Ride Your Wild Horses” is a powerful song that would have led beautifully into “Gone.”

While the album starts off on an appropriate note with “Even Better Than the Real Thing,” there was little doubt in my mind that “The Fly” would have been a better choice in the leadoff spot.

Finally, the omission of “Walk On,” the song with which the band chose to close each performance of their Elevation Tour, is simply tragic. It is a fantastic, moving song rife with energy, and its absence sticks out like a sore thumb. I can only assume it was left off with the intention of being included on U2’s Best of 2000-2010 album, which they are contractually obliged to produce.

For those thirsting for a taste of the experimental U2 of the mid-’90s, the B-Sides offer a good assortment of those tracks. It is almost impossible to find a U2 fanatic who doesn’t love “Lemon” (included on the B-Sides) – however, I think it’s pretty awful.

Finally, the bonus DVD is fairly disappointing. While it offers an interesting “History Mix” that walks you through U2’s experience in the decade and a fantastic performance of “Please” from Helsinki, it amounts to little more than a teaser for the full-length DVD which comes out in December.

U2’s first “Best of. . .” album was little more than a collection of singles culled from albums their fans, in all likelihood, already owned. U2: Best of 1990-2000 is different. As an album, it can stand well alone – the songs are powerful, work well with each other and leave the listener ready to start over at track one. Buy it.