Review : Album : "Rattle and Hum" *

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Fall 1988 saw the release of the album, book and film "Rattle & Hum." To celebrate this 15th anniversary, Interference.com is featuring a series of articles. Below is Phillip's album review of "Rattle & Hum".

By Phillip Thompson

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2003.10

When U2 emerged from the shadow of the Joshua Tree to release the highly hyped Rattle and Hum in 1988, the world could hardly blame the band for a little self-indulgence. The Joshua Tree, had propelled the band well beyond the stratosphere into the American mainstream. America had not simply embraced the sincerity and passion of the Irish rockers, it consumed them. And it wanted more.

Rattle and Hum was more, but not necessarily what the world had thought it was getting. The album carried - or dragged - two tunes from The Joshua Tree over (even the title came from a Joshua Tree song), turning ?I Still Haven?t Found What I?m Looking For? into a rousing gospel song - complete with full choir - and putting the finishing touches on the searing energy of ?Bullet the Blue Sky? that had seemed lacking in the studio version.

But Rattle and Hum - to borrow a line from a later song - landed with a bang and clatter. U2?s odyssey into the roots of American music had morphed into what often came across as self-importance at best, and, at worst, downright conceit. After excising cuts from such American bedrockers as Bruce Springsteen, U2 appropriated (?We?re stealin? it back,? intoned Bono on the record) The Beatles? ?Helter Skelter? and covered Bob Dylan?s ?All Along The Watchtower.? The band teamed up with blues legend B.B. King for one of the most moving and enthusiastic tunes of the collection, ?When Loves Come to Town.? Dylan?s influence is even more evident in ?Love Rescue Me,? one of Bono?s more revealing songs from U2?s ?pre-irony? period and one which features Dylan himself singing background vocals.

There were, of course new songs which stood the test of time: ?Desire,? ?Angel of Harlem? and ?When Loves Comes To Town? in particular. But what the album lacked - with one notable exception - was a new sound. Rattle and Hum was Joshua Tree, part II, and the band knew it. Drummer Larry Mullen, Jr., complained that he was tired of being the world?s U2 jukebox. Bono closed the tour with the enigmatic pronouncement that U2 was going away ?to dream it all up again.?

But in 1988, none of this was yet known. It?s only looking back that one realizes how important the album was to U2, how it almost spelled the end of the group, and how it changed the band?s approach to music and its own image.

The album is remarkable for its sense of confusion and its proselytizing. Nowhere is the former more evident than the verbal exchange between the band and Phil Jouanou, who asks ?? what has happened since the ? writing of the Joshua Tree, the recording of the Joshua Tree, and the tour and now the new stuff.? After a few giggles are smothered, one member - presumably Adam Clayton - mumbles, ?I dunno.?

Indeed, one wonders if U2 truly didn?t know. For in its attempt to search rock?s roots, it found the roots of American rock. Found them, unearthed them, and sought to grow from them. But U2 is essentially a European band, and this fact may account for the lack of thematic sound and intensity for which U2 albums are known. And the songs that appear to strive most for a ?roots? sound seem the most empty. ?Hawkmoon 269? comes off as too clever for its own good, even as it builds dramatically toward a gospel revival crescendo. ?Heartland? poses as a bittersweet ode to America that simply sounds flat compared to the energy of anything on War. The one notable exception referred to above is ?God Part II,? a dark song propelled by a driving bassline and a stripped-down sound that may have been the seminal notes of what ultimately became Achtung Baby.

The band?s adherence to and passion for the rights of the downtrodden is evident throughout the album, from ?Van Diemen?s Land? - one of the few U2 songs featuring The Edge as lead vocalist, to ?Silver and Gold,? a blistering comment, on apartheid in South Africa that sounds more like a song from The Joshua Tree than anything else on the album. The other two live cuts, ?Pride (In the Name of Love)? and ?Bullet the Blue Sky,? also serve as calls to action.

The ironic result (or perhaps U2?s most important discovery about itself) was an album that Americans loved but one from which the band felt a need to escape. And in the end, that worked out just fine for both parties.
 

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