Wednesday, March 4, 2009

How to Listen to U2

Much has been made of the atrocity that is, often, the lyrics of U2's Bono, which he makes all the worse by delivering in a voice and style that has made his rugged bust the dictionary illustration of earnest.

This is a high-risk, high-reward approach to singing: when it works it it is powerful, and when it does not work, it is powerfully bad.

So what is the sensible music fan to do?

First, pay guarded attention to U2's -- and especially Bono's -- public appearances in which the group is not performing music. Even listening to the chatter between songs at a concert is rife with risk; avoid liner notes, publicity interviews, press conferences, and gawd help us all, opinion columns penned by members of the group, especially Bono.

Or rather, approach these with caution. There is no possibility of cleanly breaking U2 qua musical entity from U2 qua activist entity; the group does good work in the world, and it is generally worthwhile to pay attention to what they want us to pay attention to. It's a matter of delicacy and judgment.

Meanwhile, listen to the songs. I say this knowing it is, or maybe should be, blindingly obvious, and yet so much of the chatter about U2, as about music generally, underplays the centrality of the question: are the songs any good? Listen to the Edge's guitar, which sounds like no one else's, and has so sounded since the earliest days of U2; and listen to the way his guitar interlaces with the bass of Adam Clayton and the drums of Larry Mullin, Jr. And yes, listen to Bono's vocals -- not in the way you'd read an opinion column or evaluate a treatise on political economy, but in the way you'd appreciate an imperfect but unique singer.

This is how U2 fans have always been made, and it has worked across countless millions of cases since 1980. It's entirely possible for several million people to be wrong, but I think you'll find, if you listen in the right way, we have not been.

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