It's been well-established that U2 -- reluctant inheritors of the weighty "world's greatest rock 'n' roll band" mantle -- can inspire, soothe, pontificate, evoke, provoke...
Still, the question has remained: Can U2 swing?
With its rambling new Rattle and Hum (also the title of the band's upcoming documentary film due next month), the Irish quartet answers in the hearty affirmative, throwing off the cloak of European impressionism both musically and lyrically with a set of stark, emotionally revealing, warmer songs that get right to the point -- and, sometimes, to the beat.
"I was in a Dublin nightclub last week with a cassette of the album, so I put the song 'God Part II' on," relates the Edge, whose distinctive lead guitar patterns have largely defined U2's sound over the years. "And for the first time ever, people were actually walking to the dance floor instead of walking off the dance floor when a U2 song came on."
At that, the soft-spoken guitarist chuckles.
"A lot of people who've heard the album compare it to (the Rolling Stones') Exile on Main Street -- sort of a messy album, lots of different ideas, guest musicians...It has a kind of rawness to it which I don't think people will have heard before on a U2 record. It was time to strip away some of the sound."
The looseness of Rattle and Hum stands in stark contrast to the formal structure of its Grammy-winning predecessor, The Joshua Tree -- which is just fine by the Edge, who is not one of those types likely to sit around and worry about what shape the follow-up should take. The film provided a convenient, pressure-free excuse to put together a disjointed (yet somehow cohesive) double-album that's sort of a sound track and sort of isn't.
"Everything was getting a little precious," says the Edge, on break from final sound mix duties for the accompanying Rattle and Hum film at a Studio City production facility. "I said in one of the last interviews I did after The Joshua Tree that I intended to try on our next record to, as it were, write some '90s rock and roll -- not in the sense that maybe the term is used now, but music with some of the spirit and feeling and excitement of early rock 'n' roll music, like Jerry Lee, Elvis, that kind of thing.
"You know, listening to the way I'm talking about it, you might get the feeling that we're getting into looking for the past. 'Why are they not looking to the future?' But I think what we're trying to do is ask ourselves the question which I hope everyone is asking: Why was music better? Why is it not as good now? What is it that's changed? And the answer for me is that people have taken the human beings out of music."
He half-contemptuously waves a hand at the expensive, state-of-the-art sound equipment being used for the movie's mix. "It's so complex now that often the musician ends up feeling like the only moving part in some larger machine. This outboard stuff -- reverbs and echoes and EQs and stuff -- is all very well in its right place, but people have forgotten that what people want to hear is a performance.
"So in trying to recapture some of that spirit, we're trying some of the older recording techniques. But I still think we're looking forward." He cites "God Part II," which is both the first 12-bar blues song U2 has ever done and the first time U2 has used a beat-box on a song.
"We grew up musically in the late '70s, early '80s. At that stage, I'd had enough of white blues, to be honest. I thought it was just the worst, most boring music. Zeppelin was at least exciting, but a lot of that music I just had no interest in. Every bar band in the whole of Ireland was doing this sort of second-generation music.
"The music that seemed alive, seemed interesting at that stage -- some of it was American, but it was things like Patti Smith, Iggy Pop, Lou Reed, Television and Richard Hell. And in England there were bands like Wire and Magazine, very innovative groups with always something new to say. That's what was inspiring at that stage.
"But this is 10 years on and what's inspiring to (U2) now is this new area of music for us, this American roots music, from John Lee Hooker blues to Bo Diddley to even some country music. It's like a new world, and it's inspired us to write a collection of songs which I think really are unlike songs we've ever written before. The film in a way has managed to capture that period of transition in the group's songwriting. If the film has a theme, that's it."
If the Rattle and Hum album has a theme, it's very definitely not a call to social action or any of the other examples of worldly sermons usually associated with Bono's lyrics.
Songs like "Love Rescue Me," "When Love Comes to Town" and "God Part II" have Bono taking on a nakedly self-revelatory, troubled tone only hinted at in previous confessionals. If there are grand pronouncements, they're about Bono himself, not the world -- and his more worshipful fans may be surprised by this complex character, tainted by the temptation of evil.
"Nobody's gonna know Bono as well as I do, and I tell you he's certainly neither all good nor all bad," Edge said. "But people have this strange idea of him as a perfect human being, and now they react in shock and horror when they see that he's much like anyone else.
"He's got a bum rap in some ways because he's become known as a great spokesman for a generation -- with songs like 'Sunday Bloody Sunday' in particular. But that was actually my idea, and he's been sort of lumbered with this thing as a result of that song!
"I'm just worried in a way that he's going to get so hemmed in by what people think of him that they won't let him develop and mature as a writer, in the way that I think he can if he doesn't get too stereotyped as one thing.
"I think this album's a lot closer to what he wants to be as a writer. And what's interesting him now is the weakness and the strength in people, and the strange obsessiveness and strange twists of different kinds of love..."
As often as Bono and the Edge have backed off from discussion of their spiritual beliefs since the time of their explicitly Christian second album, 1981's October, the spiritual undercurrent in the music itself has remained constant. The last album and especially the new one have demonstrated a marked return to those themes, although -- with lyrics like "I have cursed thy rod and thy staff/They no longer comfort me" -- on a much darker level.
"I know," says the Edge. "They're dark times, aren't they? Especially for Christians. Aside from the scandals of the last few years, it's very hard to figure it out and sort out where you stand.
"You see so many things which you disagree with and you abhor going on in the name of Christianity and Christ. We still haven't figured it all out, and I'm sure I never will...But I think it's much more important what you do, rather than what you say. That's the kind of philosophy that we've had -- to let our music try and explain where we are.
"What's inspiring to (U2) now is this new area of music for us, this American roots music, from John Lee Hooker blues to Bo Diddley to even some country music. It's like a new world..."
© The Los Angeles Times, 1988.