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The decade of the 80's was an interesting time for this band from Ireland who call themselves U2. Having started out over 10 years before from humble beginnings and the city of Dublin, and having established themselves since that time as the biggest rock band on the face of the planet, U2 entered the latter part of the decade with five albums under there belt and a monster called The Joshua Tree to live up to. Considered among many to be one of the top live acts in the business, and having toured extensively since the beginning of the 80's, a live album and film project was put in the works to close the decade. But something interesting had happened to U2 in there journeys across America promoting their albums. And that something was they fell in love with American blues, gospel, R&B, and soul. So now, having paid there dues and having made their record company a ton of cash, the former little band from Dublin that could had licence to do whatever they wanted to. And with Rattle and Hum they set out to do just that.
Part live album, part studio album, and exploring somewhat diverse musical stylings, Rattle and Hum is a disjointed and joyful mix of typical U2, atypical U2, and a band who isn't U2 at all. Not so much a cohesive album of songs as a collection of songs thrown together as best they can be, and produced by Patti Smith/Tom Petty/Stevie Nicks/Pretenders producer Jimmy Iovine, Rattle & Hum is an album of close calls, near misses, homeruns, and near failures. Neither a step forward nor a step back, and having little or no narrative to hang it's hat on, this reviewer is going to tackle the album track by track. Because that's exactly the kind of album it is. And this is the treatment that suits it best. So let's get started.
Helter Skelter -
"This is a song Charles Manson stole from the Beatles. We're stealing it back". And with that Rattle And Hum kicks off with a live cover of the Beatles classic Helter Skelter. It's a shaky start at best, with the band following Edge's stiff opening riff with ploding bass and drums while Bono tries his best to live up to his opening statement. U2 never quite steal the song back for the Beatles, but they make it through with servicable competence. This performance is stiff, average, and doesn't sound much like an opener. But they make it through and change gears on the very next song. You can tell this is not going to be business as usual U2 right from the start. - 3.0
Van Diemen's Land -
I have no idea who or what a Van Diemen is. But this is a nice, simple electric folk song of longing and perseverence. Ultimately a song about loss, justice, and the labor of life, Edge tackles lead vocals on this track while providing a simple melody from his instrument and blends the two together nicely to deliver what basically amounts to a live solo performance. The stark, barebones music and Edge's gentle, plaintive wail carry the song along nicely to it's final message of hope, and when it's over you feel like you have heard it before but don't know where. A good song in everyway, but nothing too special. - 3.25
This is the real start of the album. All sexual tension and charged up R&B, Desire bristles and burns with what the title of the song suggests. Bluesy, rockin, shaking, and shimmering all at once, Desire smolders and smokes like the subject of the song. Using heavy symbolism in his lyrics (nothing new for Bono) and driving the whole thing home with a hot blast of harmonica, Bono gets down and dirty in the trenches of desperate sexual desire here, and the band backs him up with big drums, thundering bass, and wild, screaming guitars. Great single, great track. - 4.0
Hawkmoon 269 -
If you had picked up this album on vinyl upon it's release, this song would bring side one of the album to a close. Saved for last and for good reason, this track swirls and whirls and never really goes anywhere musically or lyrically. Bono's lyrics on this track are so contrived and self-concious it almost makes you grimace as he sings "Like thunder needs rain, like a preacher needs pain, like tongues in flame, like a sweet stain, I need your love" And so it goes on and on for six long minutes of sonic noodling from Edge, big jungle drums fron Larry Mullen Jr, and muddy bass from Adam Clayton. Throw it all together and you are left with a song that deserved to be a throwaway b-side at best. If that. - 2.0
All Along The Watchtower -
In the film Rattle and Hum U2 are shown in a trailer rehearsing this song right before they take the stage for a free show in San Francisco. The rehearsal scene is meant to show that this was a spur of the moment performance of a song the band had never performed before, and that they were going to wing it, so to speak. The performance bears out this fact well, as this is one of the worst Dylan covers ever commited to record. Stale, stagnent, and flat all around, the band sounds lost on this track while Bono over sings and Edge plays uninspired power chords. The only thing that saves this track from sinking into the abyss are Larry and Adam's solid playing in the rhytmn section. And even then they just barely manage to keep it afloat. Just a bad idea all around - 2.0
I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For -
Always a gospel song at it's core, this live version of I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For brings that core out from behind the song and puts it front and center. Recorded with a full gospel choir (the excellent New Voices Of Freedom) starting out quiet, and building momentum throughout the song until the band, the choir, and the audience seem to be joined in unison at the end of the song, this is an uplifting, heartfelt, and joyous rendition of a song of faith, hope, and doubt all rolled into one. And it serves to give the album a direction and focus that up until now it had lacked. - 4.0
Freedom For My People -
A brief musical interlude...
Silver And Gold -
Recorded live in Denver, Colorado for the film Rattle & Hum (not all songs featured in the film are on the album, and vice versa) this song was the b-side for the Where The Streets Have No Name single released a couple of years earlier to promote The Joshua Tree album. Passionate, purposeful, and performed with great vigor, this song and performance finds U2 in full flight onstage doing what they do best. With Edge's choppy guitar work leading the way, and the rythmn section locked in a rock steady groove, this song about racial injustice touches on everything from slavery to aparthied, and conveys in no uncertain terms the horrors of such things and the search and desire for human dignity in spite of them. On familiar ground here and keeping it basic and simple, the band storms though this song with the fire and passion necessary to convey it's message with distinct clarity. And they pull it off brillantly. - 5.0
Pride (In The Name Of Love) -
U2's breakthrough hit more or less in the States, this live version of Pride, a song written in tribute to Dr. Martin Luther King, doesn't stray much from the album version found on The Unforgettable Fire. Performed a bit uptempo and with Bono leading the crowd in a sing along of "oh oh oh oh's" at the bridge and elsewhere, the band turns in a good solid performance of a good solid song. With Edges trademark guitar work leading the way once more (as in so many U2 songs) and Larry and Adam laying down a strong foundation, the song ebbs and flows like a tide moving to and fro. And we are more then happy to go along for the ride. - 4.0
Angel Of Harlem -
This song kicks off the second half of Rattle and Hum with a hot blast of steam from the legendary Memphis horns and never looks back. A valentine of sorts to the late great Billie Holiday and recorded "live" at Sun Studios just like they used to do it way back when (even going so far as using legendary producer "Cowboy" Jack Clement behind the sound board) this is the sound of U2 chewing up everything they loved about american music and spitting it out U2 style. Soulful, stirring, musically fully realized, and loud
, this is Bono and the boys at there stripped down and earnest best. No different then the Rolling Stones, the Beatles, and Van Morrison in many ways, U2 from afar had fallin' in love with american roots / blues / jazz music and the artists who play it. And while they had touched on it on The Joshua Tree, this slab of R&B (if not quite authentic) left no doubt about the bands depth of feeling for it. One of the best cuts on this or any other U2 album, this song does indeed shake the windows and rattles the walls. Billie would of been proud. - 4.5
Love Rescue Me -
Co-written by Bob Dylan, who also plays piano and adds vocals to the chourus, Love Rescue Me is a bluesy spiritual far removed form U2's usual fare, but very close to where Dylan was artistically at this moment in his career. Dark, moody, and brooding, this song sounds uncertain from the start and never does find a firm footing to steady itself. Lyrically full of dark religious imagery, and musically downbeat and meloncholy, this song trudges toward it's eventual close in a plodding manner that it's loud, horn driven, faux-inspired ending cannot save it from. With the band sounding a bit lost and the songwriters sounding a bit uninvolved, Love Rescue Me is frustrating for what it could of been, and dreadfully average for what it is supposed to be. - 2.5
When Love Comes To Town -
Arguably the best new song on the album, When Love Comes To Town is R&B played the way God intended it to be played, pure and simple. Stripped of frills, sonic soundscapes, and elaborate production, and backed by a ringer by the name of B.B.King, the band moves along like old pros at the game and shows it has done it's homework well. Lyically the strongest cut on the album, when Bono sings "I used to make love under a red sunset / I was making promises I would soon forget / She was as pale as the lace of her wedding gown / But I left her standing when love came to town" the listener knows this is a man in need of redemption. And he, the band, and B.B. spend the rest of the song trying their best to find it. A real standout track. - 5.0
The most "U2 like" song on the album up to this point, this song would of been right at home on The Joshua Tree, or even The Unforgettable Fire. Shimmering, full of atmosphere, and romantic, this is typical U2 performing a typical U2 song. Somehow comforting and reflective in tone, if you know U2, you know this song before you even hear it. Hard to define, as many U2 songs are, it succeeds for being just what it is. A good song performed by a band comfortable doing what they do best. A very listenable track, if ultimately unremarkable. - 3.5
God Pt. II -
Meant as a companion piece of sorts to the John Lennon song God, this song rails against hypocrisy and spiritual contradiction even as Bono admits he can't rise above these things himself. Angry, confused, and forceful, this track is full of the kind of conflict and menace not found on many U2 songs, with the singer professing at the end of each spat out verse that despite it all "I, believe in love". Which sounds not only like a proclimation of purpose, but also a desperate claim to convince himself as much. The band is very solid here, and the track moves along with all the grace of a frieght train. Rockin, passionate, conflicted, and inspired, this song hits the bullseye. - 4.5
The Star Spangled Banner -
A brief musical interlude.....
Bullet The Blue Sky -
Another live track from The Joshua Tree, U2 give this song the thunder and lightning treatment from the outset. A song inspired in large part by a humanitarian trip Bono and his wife took to El Salvador at the end of The Unforgettable Fire tour, this song rips scripture right out of the bible and makes it into song. Apocalyptic in some ways and a stab at american foriegn policy in another, this song live sounds like the mighty hand of God himself invoking his wrath upon his subjects. With a forboding chourus of "bullet the blue sky" and a remider toward the end that "outside is America", it also acknowledges that it is America's very own actions that force many to "run into the arms of America" One of the great political contadictions of our times, perhaps. And the message is delivered loud and clear. - 4.0
All I Want Is You -
Closing the album with a simple statement of someone who desires simple love and nothing more, All I Want Is You is U2 at their familiar best. Bringing the album full circle in a way and reminding listeners that perhaps what came before was indeed a grand experiment and nothing more, this is a sweet and tender love song that almost any listener who has ever stood in the singers shoes can certainly relate to and identify with. And when Bono sings "All the promises we make / From the cradle to the grave / When all I want is you" we understand perfectly what he means. A great closing and complete track to a somewhat fractured and patchwork album. - 5.0
Ultimatley Rattle and Hum feels incomplete and a bit tossed together. But the album is none the worse for it. It's an album that leaves you wanting more of some of what it has to offer, and wanting less of some of what you get. Coming at the end of a long decade that saw U2 go from a small band from Ireland to the biggest and most acclaimed rock n roll band in the world, it's the final chapter in the first half of a book that is still being written. Having no place to go after the albums that came before it, this is the sound of U2 taking a step back not in it's own history, but in the history of rock n roll as they had come to understand it. And it is also the sound of a band coming apart more then the sound of a band coming together. Backed against a wall by their own success and seemingly having nowhere to go, this album served as a stop gap until they could find the time and space to figure out what would come next.
Sometimes richer for it and sometimes poorer, Rattle and Hum serves as a testament to what great rock n roll can be if you strive for it, and the failure that can occur if your reach does not extend as for as your grasp. But somehow in the end, as with any good band that gives it a shot, it's well worth the effort and risk of just going for it.