A few months ago, I blogged about seeing a couple of movie trailers back to back, both featuring U2 songs not sung by U2. I talked a little bit about this super rare recording commissioned by Q magazine back in 2011, where, to celebrate the 20th anniversary of Achtung Baby, they got 12 bands together, getting each one of them to record a track from the album, and then including the CD in their Dec 2011 publication.
I put a challenge out to the loyal fanbase to see if they could find me a copy of this CD, and left it at that. Months passed, and I thought the trail had gone cold. But to my surprise, a few days ago, I received a card for my birthday, and inside that card was a CD simply titled in Sharpie, “U2 Covered”. I couldn’t believe it. There is was: just waiting for someone to listen to it.
“How did you ever get this?” I asked in amazement.
“It’s on iTunes you know. I checked it immediately after I read your post and then I thought, well I have a few months until his birthday. I’ll give it to him then.” She added cheekily: “Maybe I should be a librarian?”
Now, reader, you must believe me when I say that of course I checked iTunes for this album, but could not find it. How could I have missed it? As you will recall, I even had someone on the ground in England when the magazine was to be released, but no luck. I’m as dumbfounded as you are as to how this oversight could have happened. When I got home, I dialled up iTunes and sho’ nuff, there was the album, plain as day. Am I losing my touch as I approach my twilight years?
But I shan’t dwell on it. What’s the point of that? Instead I thought I might as well review the album, track by track, partly as a “thank you” to the person who found it, and partly as a way to organize my thoughts around it.
Before I say anything, let me just say that “Achtung Baby” is one of my personally favourite albums of all time. It is the best U2 album of all time, and I still remember it coming out in the fall of 1991. My Dad had died suddenly at the beginning of that summer, I was going into Grade 12, it felt like everything that was safe and familiar was gone and I was adrift in life. One night, my friend Ed and I were hanging out in my basement and we had MuchMusic on in the background (this was back when they actually showed music videos) and the video for “The Fly” came on and we both stopped and just stared at the TV. We missed the intro so we were just watching this video with amazement. Ed spoke first: “I think that’s U2”. I wasn’t sure what I was seeing or hearing. It certainly didn’t sound like U2, at least not like the U2 of “Still haven’t found what I’m looking for” or “With or Without You”. And yet, was that Bono? Bono with the dyed jet-black hair and crazy huge shades and leather pants? By the end of the video, we had seen and heard enough to know that it was, in fact, U2. I just smirked and thought to myself. “Makes sense. Nothing else in my life right now seems real or reliable. My favourite band having an identity crisis seems like the right thing to happen right now, doesn’t it?” Yet despite the unfamiliar images and sound, there was something about those images and sound that called to me. It sort of gave the finger to the world and said “I don’t have to look or sound the way society and culture says I should look.” It was a break with the past and an uncertain leap to the future, and what did I have to lose? Like the lyrics to Zoo Station say, “Time is a train, makes the future the past. Leaves you standing in the station, with your face pressed up against the glass”. I wasn’t about to be left in the station.
I’m rambling, I know. Let me just sum up by saying that this album came out at a time when I was particularly sensitive to outside influences and that almost immediately it became a part of my DNA. In my car, I had a basket of cassettes. They were all U2. Achtung Baby got the most play, but I also had a number of bootleg live concerts that were in heavy rotation. This pretty much was my car listening repertoire for almost a decade. When I took the digital leap in 2008, Achtung Baby was one of the first albums to get added to my iPod, and it’s never left. So I’m not going to compare this cover album to the original. It just wouldn’t make sense. It would be like asking 12 artists to paint something in honour of the Mona Lisa. Nothing that gets painted will diminish the beauty and perfection of the original, but it is certainly fun to see what people have come up with. Bono famously called the sound of Achtung Baby as “the sound of four men chopping down the Joshua Tree”.
So after 840 words of preamble, let’s start this blog post, shall we? Let’s hear what 12 bands chopping down the Joshua Tree sounds like, or in this case, the sounds of 12 different axes, chainsaws and beavers. In honour of my “decade of U2” in the car, I’m playing this CD in the car exclusively for the next little while to get a real good feel from it. Here are my thoughts so far:
Zoo Station-(Nine Inch Nails) Interesting choice to start things off. Way mellower than the original (see I said I wasn’t going to compare to the original but I can’t help it!), but it has a cool, almost, throbbing quality to the sound. Much more restrained than what I thought Trent Reznor would come up with, and it points out to me how much Adam and Larry bring to the table. Sure, Bono and the Edge get all the glory, but in this song, the bass and drums drive it relentlessly. I never thought NIN could have a “lounge” sound, but I guess this is the closest one will get to that. I always thought that Bono’s repeated “It’s all right….” in the middle of the song is meant for the skeptical fans who haven’t quite got on board with the new sound. I like the fact that NIN leaves that part off, as I always thought it felt improvised.
Even Better than the Real Thing-(u2) When I started listening to this one I thought, “Wow, whoever this is, he sure sounds a lot like Bono.” Well, friends, guess what? It IS Bono. Yep, for some reason, this song was not a cover, but actually a remix of the original (which I guess SORT OF counts) by the band themselves. What? Coldplay and/or Arcade Fire were too busy? EBTTRT has always been my least favourite song of the album, so I was happy to hear this new version. The Edge’s opening guitar riff always kind of grated on my nerves, so I’m pleased to report it has been excised from this remix, and what remains is actually quite a listenable version. Would I go as far to say that this version of “Even Better Than The Real Thing” is actually even better than the real thing? I just might. U2 began its final North American leg of the 360 tour with a pumped up version of this song which I really liked, and am happy to have a couple of bootlegs of that version too.
One-(Damien Rice)I don’t know anything about this Damien Rice fellow, but he does a fine job with an well-worn song. His version was also recently used in the trailer for the emotionally charged “The Impossible“. It’s fun to hear such a well-known song done on a different instrument. This time, it is piano. It’s sort of what I imagine Royal Wood sounding like if he misplaced the anti-depressants, or maybe if Elliot Smith sat down at a Casio. It’s probably what my brain would hear if I had just witnessed a tsunami, so good choice, movie producers! Still, when it comes to covers of “One” Michael Stipe’s version still “takes the cake” if you ask me. (You take that cake, Michael. Take it! #cake)
Until the End of the World-(Patti Smith) I must also wave the “flag of ignorance” when it comes to Patti Smith. Yes, I can hear monocles dropping and stage-whispered-gasping all over fanbasedom with this confession, but it’s true. A quick peak at her Wikipedia page gives me the sense that I probably should know who she is. Would it be gauche to call her “the female Leonard Cohen”? Or how about “the female Lou Reed”? Or maybe if Leonard Cohen and Lou Reed decided to rent an apartment together but then realized that they needed to sublet it because they both would be away for a few months and they put an ad up asking for people to rent it, and Patti Smith would be the person who would eventually end up subletting it? But we’re not judging her on her past achievements here. We are just looking at her contribution to this cover album. Well, I have to say that Patti Smith drew the short straw when she was assigned this song. UTEOTW is just one of those songs that you don’t fuck with, okay? It is perfect in its original form and without those “air raid” guitar sirens (TM The Edge) it’s just not the same. Still you have to give her credit for trying to turn this iconic anthem into a folk song, but could someone please lend Ms. Smith a metronome? Please? Seriously.
Who’s gonna ride your wild horses?-(Garbage)I have a soft spot for Ms. Shirley Manson and her Garbage, so I was delighted to see that Garbage contributed a song to this CD too. A few weeks ago, Garbage was playing on David Letterman and I jumped up to my CD collection and proudly produced a couple of mid 90’s Garbage discs to prove, in fact, that I am not a “Johnny Come Lately” to this band. My wife and our friend did not seem as excited as me, but I considered it a shining moment. In fact, if we were friends in the mid 90s and I liked you and I made you a mixtape, there would have been an excellent chance that “I’m only happy when it rains” would appear on there. I really love Garbage’s version of “Wild Horses”. On the original album, this song always struck me as one of the least “produced” of the songs, in a good way, and I had the great fortune to hear U2 perform it acoustically as a surprise encore in Milwaukee in 2005. Shirley Manson turns this into a torch song, and she smolders her way through it as if it were a Bond theme. The song kicks into high gear for the choruses but returns to slow-jam smoulder mode for the verses. She really makes it her own and it may be my favourite cover on this album.
So Cruel-(Depeche Mode) I wonder if Depeche Mode and U2 are friends? They both were formed around the same time, in similar conditions. Both have stood the test of time, and although Depeche Mode may have not reached the same heights of super-stardom as their Irish counterparts, they have a loyal following and are not content to rest of the laurels of their huge 1980’s hits. They have the misfortune of being assigned “So Cruel” which has been scientifically proven to have been perfectly recorded by U2 the first time. So there isn’t really much they can do about that. It doesn’t seem to bother them, as they gamely went ahead and made a quality recording anyway, which is JUST FINE and the best you could hope for considering the circumstances. While nothing compares to the Edge’s guitar over the “You don’t know if it’s fear or desire” line, Depeche Mode’s rumbling bass keeps the rhythm going. To get the best out of this version, you have to play it LOUD.
The Fly-(Gavin Friday) Really great that they got Gavin Friday to do “The Fly” as Gavin Friday was Bono’s alter ego growing up in Dublin, and in many ways perhaps an influence for “The Fly” character. When Achtung Baby came out, more people were buying it on cassette and vinyl than on CD. I still think of the album as having two sides, with “The Fly” being the first song on side 2. Both sides of this album are mirrors of one another. They both start defiantly (Zoo Station and The Fly, respectively) and both sides move their way through love and loss. Where side 1 ends with heartache (So Cruel), side 2 ends with blind acceptance, a “falling to the knees” kind of surrendering in “Love is Blindness”. All I know is that when Love is Blindness would end, I would flip the cassette over eagerly to hear the opening blasts of “Zoo Station” once again.
Mysterious Ways-(Snow Patrol) This song, and the next three, are all covered by bands that have opened for U2 at one time or another. I like Snow Patrol, and Gavin Lightbody turns on his delicate Ulster charm for “Mysterious Ways”. This is a dance song. You can help but move and flop around when you hear the original’s Edge’s guitar bursts at the beginning. In fact, I remember in high school arriving one day and my girlfriend at the time told me she heard a new U2 song on the radio that morning. “Oh yeah? What did it sound like?” I asked. “It was weird. It didn’t sound like U2 at all,” was her response. This was probably just a few weeks after Ed and I saw “The Fly” video in my basement. I eventually heard “the new song” later on that week, and it was “Mysterious Ways”. Yep, not like U2 at all, but I was learning to accept that “New U2” was nothing like “Old U2” and I was starting to be okay with that. There was enough of the same DNA in there that I was willing to go along for the ride. But back to Snow Patrol’s version: Snow Patrol strips away all the dance qualities that make this song what it is, and you wouldn’t be wrong to call this one the “Weaksauce Remix”. I know it’s impossible, but I would love to hear “The Postal Service” do this song. Can you just imagine Ben Gibbard’s mournful tenor soaring above some energetic beats from that other dude whenever he stops playing “Angry Birds”? I don’t know what it would sound like, but at least it would give the song much needed “pep”. Can we get a “kickstarter” started for this somewhere?
Tryin’ to Throw your Arms around the World-(The Fray) I’ve always thought of this song as the story of someone trying to make up with their girlfriend after being a bit of an ass. Someone’s done something stupid and they are trying to use charm and humour to get back “in the good books”. I can relate. I sure many of us can. The song strikes a playful tone and their live versions of this during “ZOO TV” take it up another level, with champagne toasts and concert-goers being dragged on-stage to videotape the band, etc. The Fray sing this one like a straight power ballad, and it loses a lot of its playfulness. If I didn’t know it was “The Fray” I would have guessed that it was “Mouse Rat“, which would have been awesome.
Ultraviolet (Light my Way)-(The Killers) The opening of this song is all quiet and introspective, and my first thought was, “Holy cow! They got Billy Joel covering Ultraviolet???” But as soon as the main part of the song kicks in, you recognize that the Billy Joel doppelgänger is actually Brandon Flowers of The Killers, and this song provides a wonderful platform for Flowers to show off his range and can do some pretty convincing “Bono wails” on the “I remember…” verse.
Acrobat-(Glasvegas)Woah. I know nothing about Glasvegas, but they give it their all on this track. It’s as if they are sitting across from a table of producers at an audition and one of the producers says, “Impress us”. They leave it all up there on the recording and I almost had to pull the car over and climb under the seats until it was safe to come out. I’d like to get to know this Glasvegas band a bit better. Will I end up using my $15 iTunes gift card to download an album, or will I use it to upgrade to Scrabble HD for my iPad mini? Stay tuned!
Love is Blindness-(Jack White) Perhaps the strongest, most unique track on the whole album? This last track has always had a prayerful quality to it for me. It’s the aftermath of the violence in “Ultraviolet” and the hurt and betrayal in “Acrobat”. Love wins because Love is Blindness. To paraphrase T.S. Eliot, it’s the “Whimper” to Zoo Station’s “Bang”. Jack White takes a different approach, with some muscular guitar sounds and trademark distortion. It was also used in “The Great Gatsby” trailers and soundtrack to great effect. It probably ties with Garbage’s “Wild Horses” as my favourite interpretations on this album.
Well, there you have it. 12 bands (11 if you don’t count the U2 Remix), each one taking on a different track from a landmark album. I love this idea,and would love to see it done with another U2 album. It’s the 20th anniversary of Zooropa this year, guys. Think about it! Is THIS where we could get a “Postal Service” version of “Lemon”? How about a ukulele version of “Stay”? I can already hear “The Decemberists” singing “Some Days are Better than Others” in my head…..(and so on, and so on….)