Review Summary: An alienating and very difficult record that – rather deservedly – earns its long-standing tag of being U2′s least-known and worst-selling album.
Conceived with the help of Brian Eno (of “Dune Prophecy Theme” fame), U2′s Original Soundtracks 1 initially started out as the intended soundtrack for Peter Greenaway’s 1996 film The Pillow Book. Although this plan was ultimately scrapped, Eno – a long-time producer of U2′s work – suggested that the five of them band together and continue recording music for imaginary films; although initially quite hesitant, U2 eventually agreed and the Passengers were officially born.
For Original Soundtracks 1 the five-piece decided to prioritize the development of visual themes over writing songs that would be both “safe” and “radio-friendly”. As a result, songs that attempted to represent a thematic “night-time” feel were created through the use of free-form jamming and stream-of-consciousness improvisation - aided and abetted by the usage of video clips from various films to provide some form of visual "grounding". This rather unusual production approach ended up creating an album that – in Bono’s own words – “feels like it’s been set on the bullet train in Tokyo.”
Indeed, there are several parts on the album where the attempt at creating an overarching time/place set actually comes off quite well: for instance, numbers like “Slug”, “Always Forever Now”, and “United Colours” are shimmering yet strangely beautiful numbers that successfully create a vibrant and decidedly urban texture for the album. Other equally experimental oddities like “Plot 180″ and “Ito Okashi” (which features haunting vocals from Japanese singer Holi) are also a worthwhile listen - if only to inspect the oblique new musical direction that U2 ends up taking with Brian Eno in full creative control. To give themselves a bit of a safety net, there are also a few more “conventional” numbers on the record: lead single “Miss Sarajevo” – most notable for containing a guest vocal performance by the late Luciano Pavarotti – is one such example. Incidentally, "Miss Sarajevo" is the only song of the album to ever see significant airplay (plans to release a second single were scrapped after poor album sales), and remains a staple of the band’s live shows even today.
In a way, it can be said that Original Soundtracks 1 actually works as an modernized, electronic version of U2′s The Unforgettable Fire (released in 1984), which was a record famous for its utilization of ambient atmospheres and vaguely-Impressionistic textures. Indeed, certain themes common to sketches like "Promenade" and "MLK" can be seen on Original Soundtracks 1; for one, Bono’s minimalistic crooning persists in hovering gently above the synthesizer-driven mix – very rarely does his smooth vocal work seem like a separate entity from the roiling mass of digital sounds in the background. The chugging industrial riffs that characterized the Edge’s guitar work from the early 90s is also all but gone on this release – having been completely replaced by organic synthesizers and dripping piano work (which for the large part is still very good). Drummer Larry Mullen Jr. is also prevented from touching his kit with a ten foot pole, and ultimately ends up working with the rhythm sequence and tracking machines instead. Indeed the only member of the band who appears to be allowed to settle into his usual U2 niche is bassist Adam Clayton; however even he gets forced into some rare vocal duty on “Your Blue Room” - and honestly one can actually see why he’s confined to the Fender Precision instrument most of the time.
Despite all the positive experimentation, it has to be said that it is the album’s very concept that ends up making it such a difficult work to appreciate and delve into. If the band intended to make their playing signify the lights of a city being turned on at dusk, then they succeeded; the problem is the fact that not many listeners will be (and have been) willing to make the same descent into the depths of a unknown music form that is solely intended to wallpaper movies which themselves only exist in the back of U2 and Brian Eno’s minds. It is a concept that is near-impossible to relate to, making absorbing oneself into Original Soundtracks 1 a herculean effort for the masses. The album also sounds nothing like a U2 record, and although that isn’t necessarily a bad thing by any stretch of the imagination, the band’s trademark hooks, riffs, and arena rock grooves are truthfully sorely missed.
Ultimately, what truly kills this album is its all-round inability to be consistently interesting. Songs like “A Different Kind of Blue”, “Theme From The Swan”, and “Beach Sequence” end up being so unbelievably forgettable that oftentimes one struggles to remember a single note from any one of them. Much like real wallpaper, the songs become very hard to notice, and end up just being "there" – all one truly understands with wallpaper that it’s around in some form, and that it’s green in colour…or perhaps yellow. Whatever. Furthermore, it is difficult to even occupy oneself with wondering whether Original Soundtracks 1 as a whole serves some abstract “higher purpose”; it’s even more defeating for those that DO wonder to ultimately learn that that "higher purpose" is as self-serving as the in-jokes within the album’s liner notes are (there are references to a “Peter von Heineken” and a certain “Pi Hoo Sun” – go figure).
Drummer Larry Mullen Jr. probably said it best in an interview for Original Soundtracks 1 a few years later: in that conversation he remarked that, “There’s a thin line between interesting music and self-indulgence. We crossed it on the Passengers record.”
Author's note: This review may also be found on my personal blog (at the address http://snuffleupagush.wordpress.com/2010/09/25/always-forever-now/).