So, my father in-law gave me a couple of U2 gifts for the holidays. One was the Super Deluxe Edition box set of The Unforgettable Fire CD – that included a DVD of music videos and a documentary of the making of the album, and a whole bunch of B-sides. That was a pretty great gift since it’s one of my favorite U2 albums, and it comes from a period in their career when they were creating a ton of music — especially for this record. Oddly enough, even though the band wrote a large number of songs, The Unforgettable Fire was a kind of hit and miss album. But that’s the price you pay for innovation, huh. The band changed producers (leaving Steve Lillywhite for Brian Eno) which altered the sound of their songs by adding more layered atmospherics, and more mature lyrics. When U2 missed the mark, however, it was disappointing. Songs like “Elvis Presley and America” and “Indian Summer Sky” were, to me, half baked, and the more atmospheric songs that were clearly Eno-inspired experimentation, seemed plodding at times. However, the first four songs (on what used to by “Side One” of LPs) showcase U2 is in top form — with my favorite tunes being “A Sort of Homecoming,” “Wire,” and the title track. Overall, the Super Deluxe Edition box set of The Unforgettable Fire is a fascinating collection of songs that show the band in transition. The Edge said he (and presumably the rest of the band) wanted to get away from the “shrillness” of War, and I think they were able to do so. But somewhat jettisoning the “Classic Coke” sound the band was known for in favor of the ambient style Eno was known proved to be a good move. Sure, some of the songs weren’t all that strong, but they were able to push themselves beyond a comfort zone that marked the first three albums.
I never really delved into the biography of the band, mostly because I was more interested in the music rather than their biography, but my FIL did send me Unforgettable Fire: The Definitive Biography of U2 by Eamon Dunphy. Dunphy wrote a fairly substantive story about the four lads from Dublin, Ireland who were unremarkable kids growing up, but because they found a love a music when they were in high school, they forged a tenuous bond to “make a go of it” and to see if they could make it as a rock band. What they lacked in ability, they made up for in passion — especially Bono. In more than a few references, it was clear that Bono really couldn’t sing, nor could the others really play their instruments (except for Larry, the drummer). But they were able to hone a live stage show that turned the nihilism of the Dublin punk scene on its head. U2 stood out, in part, because they weren’t standard rockers or punk wannabes. They didn’t do drugs, they had a “no groupies” rule, three of them became evangelical Christians, and they eventually wrote overtly religious songs that beckoned the audience to become one with the band during the live performances.
What I really found revealing was that Bono, The Edge and Larry wanted to quit U2 a number of times (once after recording Boy, and another time after October, and even at one point during War). Why? Well, it seemed they couldn’t reconcile their religious devotion (which required them not have an ego) with the demands of being in a rock band (which is all ego at times). There was a lot of soul searching and they eventually decided to soldiered on. The other factor in wanting to quit was the demands of writing lyrics. Bono is a guy who does not write lyrics until the music starts to come together. And he doesn’t so much write lyrics based on a theme, a story, or a personal experience, but rather writes impressions and fills in the melody with sounds. Only later do the words start to become more coherent. It’s a difficult process and one that Bono is not all that suited for because he is one of the most unorganized people in the band. But, by hook or crook, he completes the lyrics and the band is able to piece together songs that, when complete, are at times amazing anthems of passion, fury, soul-searching.
Overall, Dunphy’s biography of U2 is good, but he doesn’t go deeply enough into the making of the albums as I would have liked. The trials of writing and recording the first four albums are noted in short paragraphs, and it seemed that Dunphy was more interested in the family lives of the band members than their work as musicians. I supposed there’s a certainly tabloid fascination that goes with books like these (and to be fair, Dunphy stays away from the fluff), but I could have done without extensive biographies of the band’s parents. Now, would I recommend this book? I think if you have an interest in the band, there are probably better written biographies out there, but it’s a book that captures the band right on the cusp of superstardom, so there’s a certain honesty that comes through in the pages.