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"Music expresses the inexpressible. All our songs are about that, about inarticulation." — Bono

U2: The Best of 1980-1990

U2: 10 Years That Shook The World
Hot Press
U2 The Best & The B-Sides Of 1980-1990 (Island) 10 out of 12

The Anglo-Irish music press often insist that there are two U2s: the faintly embarrassing huffers and puffers of the Thatcher/Reagan era, and the grudgingly respected '90s ironists. This alleged disjunction, however, is not one which bears any serious scrutiny. The band's post-Rattle and Hum canon is as packed with molten meditations on God, love, betrayal, lust, innocence and experience as the early work, and the astute juxtaposing of "Mofo" with "I Will Follow" at the start of the PopMart shows only emphasised the emotional continuity. U2 might now have better posture, but the songs remain infused with the same searching restless spirit.

So, this collection is, to all intents and purposes, the first ten years, and it's important to remember the context -- when U2 began, few were dreaming in widescreen. Discounting the Clash, English hopefuls were often good bands handicapped by their own post-imperialist complexes, intimidated by, or feeling superior to America's possibilities. Out of this climate came U2, wearing all the wrong clothes. Their most inspired juvenilia is largely passed over here, but songs like "11 O'Clock Tick Tock" and "Out of Control" were both unique and oblique. While their Irish peers were peddling beer-bellied blooze, and the Hersham boys just wanted to smash it up, this lot were painting Dorian Gray and praying to the Lord of the Flies.

A crucial factor in U2's musical adolescence was the players' ability to turn technical limitations into stylistic badges of merit. Listen to the spiky "I Will Follow," and witness a band who could barely pilot the song's furious impetus, but fuck it, they were on fire. An inability to adopt virtuoso licks left the backline no option but to invent a new vocabulary; before Adam and Larry, rhythm sections rarely used sixteenths to widen the bottom end, but it was this barrage of rolling toms and four-string rumbles that eventually allowed the band to dominate the stadia.

And of course, Edge took instruction from Verlaine, Fripp and Quine, then custom-built his own non-guitar solo. In time, the six-stringer would become a master of space and symphonics; review his eagle-takes-flight section in "Pride," or the armour-piercing break in "New Year's Day" for proof.

But lets not get bogged down in minutiae here -- U2's greatest strength has always been their willingness to go for the jugular. After ten years away from these songs, this listener had forgotten the sheer panoramic surge of "New Year's Day," "Bad" and "The Unforgettable Fire." Of the foursome's contemporaries, only Springsteen was willing to go as balls-out, 1000 percent committed to the spiritual marathon of performance, to break through to that place beyond cool, to reach down your neck, pull your heart out and leave you raw and blubbering.

Which is where Bono comes in. Long before he became a great singer (and, after the uptight early albums, he matured quickly -- check out the assured falsetto on Unforgettable Fire), Mr. Hewson had mastered the essence of all arts worth a shit -- connection. When words failed the vocalist, when the occasional cliche or unnecessary abstraction obscured the spirit of the song, the voice and the melody still killed you. Just listen to the point where "With or Without You," after a spellbinding three minutes of purgatorial brooding, finally explodes into a wordless articulation of sheer torment. Even at their most cinematic, this lot were plumbing the dualities ("I can't live/With or without you") rather than the dogma of love.

Of course, The Joshua Tree was the Album That Ate America, but here's what's weird: this era witnessed what would be the most sinful omission of classic material from a major album until Dylan left "Series of Dreams" off Oh Mercy. Consult the accompanying B-sides album for proof: "Walk to the Water," "Spanish Eyes," "Luminous Times (Hold On to Love)" and "The Sweetest Thing" were crucial to U2's mid-period. In many ways, these tracks were precursors to the deep and troubled marital waters of Achtung Baby. Indeed "Luminous Times" is the motherlode, a naked, shivering crawl through the band of gold; "I love you 'cos I need to/Not because I need you," Bono bleeds, before handing the reins over to his Maker: "I love you 'cos I understand/That God has given me your hand/He holds me in a tiny fist/And still I need your kiss."

"Spanish Eyes" was rougher, a horny hymn that could've been Them at their most carnal, but "The Sweetest Thing" was always the great lost single, a mooching mea culpa anchored to a crisp dub rhythm track. It's a measure of these players' restlessness that now, 11 years later, they've felt compelled to revisit the tune, hunting out fresh ad-libs, string parts, and even a new middle-eight. One can only lustily speculate as to what alternative Joshua Tree might have emerged had today's standard 74-minute album length been the norm back in 1987.

To these ears, the only tapestries that have faded are those that represent everyone's favorite punchbag, Rattle and Hum. "Desire," "Angel of Harlem" and "When Love Comes to Town" are solid, but lack spark, simply because U2's driving force, their very curiosity, sent them in search of roots they didn't have or need. Consequently, these tracks found them paradoxically sounding nothing like themselves, yet on the verge of self-parody. You can hear a band struggling to slip their own skin during this era, faithfully covering chestnuts like "Unchained Melody" or applying Neil Young's guitar sound to Patti Smith's "Dancing Barefoot." Indeed, the discarded Stones-y gospel of "Hallelujah Here She Comes" still glistens, but the group's finest song from the Americana-obsessed period, the Sam Shepard-sparked "Hawkmoon 269," was no single.

Folk are often distracted by U2's seeming ability to give themselves a makeover at strategic junctures in their career, but The Best Of & The B-Sides...accents their need to constantly redress recurring themes: a torch-like lyrical ambivalence to love, turbulent cocktails of doubt and faith in God, and an obsession with psychic and physical warmongering. With this in mind, the hard white funk of the War period hinted at decade-later dancefloor remixes, "All I Want Is You" presaged the Scott Walker-isms of "So Cruel," and the Eno-conducted Unforgettable Fire out-takes predicted the Passengers preoccupations. Indeed Larry's slo-mo pulse on "Walk to the Water" seemed to anticipate the trip-hop eight years before the fact.

For all the double-barelled blasts of derision and even more damaging praise regularly hurled at U2, they are rarely given credit for being innovators, yet the quartet have constantly re-invented the very wheel they're tethered to. Long may they roll.

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