Review Summary: During U2’s concert, these are the bits when everyone went to the bathroom.
Forgive me for opening on an unprofessionally personal note, but I feel it may be the best way to give the album some context and, more importantly, show you which side of the U2 lovers/haters fence I am firmly placed (it’s the former, if you were wondering). I came to “Wide Awake in America” in hope of discovering some more of the bands incomparably majestic live recording, to sate an appetite awakened by the delectable “Under a Blood Red Sky”. To be fair, it was more than a hope – a sort of expectation, a certainty that they would live up to themselves once more, once again prove themselves meisters of the arena. Surmise to say that I was not only disappointed, but confused, when I was let down.
What makes it more depressing is that matters begin with promise as twinkles dissolve into that familiar itching riff under those midrange, distinct notes, sending a tingle up the spine that goes with recognition. Our companion Bono sounds ever the same; the tones we have become accustomed to comfort. Larry and Adam we know are present and correct too as they quietly join in. Good. The whole gang is here and everything should go according to plan – another tremendous U2 live spectacle and one of our favourite tunes at that. A deliciously lively and sprawling bass seem to confirm our expectations, as layers unfold and supplement and engorge the gaining volume. But as much as this build-up builds-up, it concludes without it building up to anything; there is no moment of realisation or of released tension, no highpoint at all to speak of. So, what went wrong"
In theory, nothing did. Strictly speaking, Bono hits the high notes, the percussion returns to docility on cue, The Edge is as consistent as ever and never puts a foot wrong – it’s a remarkably tight live set. Precise, correct – though regrettably, only in the coldest and most mechanical sense. Gone is the showmanship, the spontaneity, the soul that makes U2’s shows extraordinary. So obsessed are they by following procedure that everyone forgets that they should be entertaining and creative; that they’re in the middle of a show, for goodness sake! The result is a dull, dreary and lifeless affair. Precision in a live set is commendable, yes, but what’s the point of a masterclass in musicianship if it’s no fun to listen to" The predominance of silence among the crowd speaks for itself. The one saving grace is the bass. Adams pounding exertion at every scale and pitch is delightful, battling the lifeless monochrome soundscape, even if his fight is ultimately lost.
I would guess that the shortcomings of ‘A Sort Of Homecoming’ are similar – although it is rather hard to tell, because somewhere along the line of recording or production a noticeable amount of clarity and potency is lost. This makes judgement hard. Did Bono manage to put enough power into his vocal performance (which remains diverse), did the Edge’s complementing and offsetting of it pack enough punch to thrill the crowd so; or were they just easily excitable" Either way, it doesn’t matter – what we get on ‘Wide Awake in America’ (apart from, bizarrely, the bass, which once again sounds full and juicy) is flat, listless and smells of poor production quality.
This is the second time that ‘Three Sunrises’ and ‘Love Comes Tumbling’ have been restricted to the B-side. Don’t worry, on the reverse is where they belong. These are no hidden gems but forgettable filler, as they serve no other purpose and are in themselves poor, any notable quality (perhaps the exuberant duo that both stringed instruments make on ‘Three Sunrises’ is a little redeeming) wasted on the sparse production and re-mastering that is typical of B-sides. Today, now that slapping something on the discs opposite side is no longer necessary, it is more than likely that they would have simple been excluded altogether. But let’s face it, everyone that has listened to “Wide Awake in America” did so for the live performance – so they don’t detract from the experience as much as they would. Nevertheless, skip-able tracks are the trademark of a poor album.
It begs the question – what was the point of “Wide Awake in America”" Was it a little extra for the fans" It’s hard to complain if it was, but they would come away disappointed anyway. To demonstrate once again that on stage is where U2 are at home" Nope; if that was it, they would have at least chosen tracks more suited to that experience and not been sloppy in the editing room. To fill in the gap while they worked on their masterpiece, the Joshua Tree" This seems the most admirable and least cynical explanation for this curious EP’s existence. Whatever their intent was, it’s no longer relevant (just like the B-side, both at large and in this instance). Which is for the better, actually, as anyone who takes an interest, even those like myself hoping to feed an addiction for the bands wonderful live material, will come away without finding what they were looking for.