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I'm not sure the Vatican people have as much of a sense of humor as the pontiff. -- Bono, on the Vatican not releasing photos of his visit with the Pope

Passengers: Original Soundtracks 1

Hot Press
Rating: (10 out of a possible 12. 10 = "Exciting")

God, it's a hideous life being a rock star! One year touring, one year recording your next album and then two impossibly bleak years of sufferation, during which your homes and lives are sadly but a way-station for supermodels and gossip columnists. Really, matters could be far, far, far better organised!

Which is probably why U2 have allied with Brian Eno to transmute into Passengers. I wasn't being (only) a most tiresome trainspotter when I wrote about their B and C-sides, since these underexposed tracks have often been the best and earliest clues to the foursome's stranger chameleon progressions. Likewise, extracurricular activities -- the best examples being the Roy Orbison single and Bono's soundtrack with Gavin Friday -- should be seen as increasing evidence of U2 as a band who just can't keep their creative instincts inhibited and on hold during the music industry's usual business-cycle of silence.

Let's not argue whether or not this is U2's best album but instead agree that it is certainly their most relaxed, and their most playful. It's to be applauded that they've set themselves a task that disassociates them from the more predictable patterns of superstardom. But better still is the fact that they have effectively created a world of night-time atmospherics that is both very far from anything U2 have done before and yet curiously recognisable as their work. I may even send a copy to impress one of my bestest friends who hates them.

Of course Eno followers, may validly insist that Original Soundtracks is predictable. From that perspective, this is a collection of rocked-up tracks that put a mild spice of Afro into the ambience.

True but also not true. What gives Original Soundtracks its merit is its attention to detail. As an attempt to evade the celebrity pollution that surrounds them, it is very, very far from sloppy. You can imagine that headteacher Eno sets an exercise -- but U2 are still determined to be better than the best in his class, and to produce music that is genuinely transcendent.

And Yes, I do like "Miss Sarajevo" -- not just because of it most amusingly transforms Mr. Pavarotti into Mr. Friday's Caruso. True, it is very likely the track that Bono's Da will most enjoy, and the one with which Passengers may merrily charm and persuade Gay Byrne. It is also their most Dublinesque track yet, as Mr. Eno's ambience meets and greets Mr. Joyce's Antient room! But the real secret is that the alchemy works on both a musical and an aesthetic level.

Of course tracks like this allow Bono to hide while he and his colleagues puppeteer Luciano into the role of a Mr. Mephisto slightly more acceptable to John Banville. Here and elsewhere, the singer gets droll and downbeat, posting a belated registered letters acknowledging debt to Lou Reed.

But mostly U2 cruise on instrumental fuel. Edge has fun further redrawing the guitar boundaries, while Adam Clayton and Larry Mullen get yet another chance to confirm their crucial importance to the U2 project to both the deaf and the dumb. In a recent interview, Brian Eno said that he was disturbed by the lack of Afro attitudes in an increasingly sanitised computer environment. Here, Adam and Larry allow him the opportunity to demonstrate his point.

But mostly, Original Soundtracks is a serious proposition exactly because it's such unbuttoned, easy fun, almost cavalcade of the in-jokes that perhaps only their most educated fans will appreciate and enjoy. The point of U2 is that they've survived and succeeded above anyone else from their generation precisely because of their musical adaptability. Hear this album to understand why.

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