U2: All That Matters
A brief history of U2: Act 1 (the 80’s): Irish band adds dynamism to the chill of British new wave; eventually steals righteous “only band that matters” mantle from self-destructing Clash. Band loudly makes bid for messianic world significance à la the Beatles. World surrenders, only to watch band become enveloped in the Rattle and Hum of its own hubris. The music suffers, and world becomes profoundly sick of band.
Act 2 (the 90’s): Band changes strategy, forsaking Irish heart-on-sleeve nature for an “ironic” stance. Releases masterpiece album, Achtung Baby , and adopts dance music, satellite-TV visuals and “glam” effects in order to bring stadium rock up-to-date. The world surrenders, only to watch band go Pop . Band embarks on extraordinarily ill-advised promotional and touring campaign. The music suffers, and world becomes profoundly sick of band.
With the release of U2’s latest album, All That You Can’t Leave Behind (Interscope), comes Act 3. And even though the cycle is just beginning, I can’t foresee any global nausea, given how good the band sounds this time around.
U2 does not appear to be laboring under any overarching concept on All That You Can’t Leave Behind. There’s no agenda to save the planet or to embrace irony as a corrective. The group’s charismatic front man, Bono (né Paul Hewson), even restrains himself from mentioning his latest crusade: to cancel the debt of all Third World nations. For once, U2 have focused strictly on making exquisite, considered songs.
They succeed, and you can tell that this pleases drummer Larry Mullen Jr., who seemed acutely uncomfortable with the undercooked stratagems of U2’s last effort, Pop . The band’s first single, “Beautiful Day,” begins as a gentle reverie, but Mr. Mullen’s drum work pushes the song to a thrilling crescendo. The song also finds the band’s guitarist, Dave Evans (who goes by the nom de rock “The Edge”), reclaiming his signature innovation: reverbed clarion arpeggios. Here, and on much of All That , the Edge’s six-string stylings are largely free of the electronic processing that passed as a modernizing agent in the 90’s. All I have to say about bassist Adam Clayton is the same thing that I’ve always maintained about him: He and Van Halen’s bassist, Michael Anthony, have long been in a dead heat for the title of Luckiest Man in Rock.
The implicit message of “Beautiful Day” is that U2 knows who they are now. And, arguably, no one in all of pop music benefits more from this knowledge than Bono. After a decade of hiding behind all sorts of flashy but half-baked personae, he emerges as simply one of rock ‘n’ roll’s finest, grandest and most soulful singers. All That is even low on the Bono boners that have plagued some of U2’s past albums (see “Miami” and “Staring at the Sun” on Pop ). The gaffes are mostly limited to the track “New York,” part of the dopey, cliché-prone genre of “ain’t Gotham-a-crazy-place” tunes that P.J. Harvey fell victim to on her latest, Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea . “The Irish have been coming here for years,” Bono babbles. “Feel like they own the place / They got the airport, city hall, concrete asphalt, they even got the police / Irish, Italian, Jews and Hispanics.” Thanks for the archaic civics lesson, Mr. Pop Star.
Otherwise, Bono’s at his most engaged and sympathetic on a pair of soul ballads, “Stuck In a Moment You Can’t Get Out Of” and “In a Little While.” Only “Elevation,” a cut-rate variation on Achtung Baby ‘s “The Fly,” seems like a misstep. “Wild Honey” is more jaunty and carefree than anything the band has ever recorded, and a brace of full-on anthems–”Peace on Earth,” “Walk On,” “Grace” and “Kite”– display a gravitas that was often off-putting in the 80’s but now seems earned. That’s one of the few assets of getting older in rock ‘n’ roll, and U2 wears it well.
In “Kite,” Bono croons about “the last of the rock stars / When hip hop drove the big cars.” Talk about three chords and the truth: Today, hip-hop is in the driver’s seat, and U2 remains one of the last ambitious, world-straddling rock ‘n’ roll bands making committed, emotionally invested music. Even if they don’t squander this latest comeback, we will not see their like again. Which is what makes All That matter.
Twilight Singers: Hello Dulli
Twilight and melancholy are words so frequently found together, especially in pop-music criticism, that one has practically become an emotional synonym for the other. And so it’s not much of a surprise to find that an album called Twilight as Played by the Twilight Singers (Columbia) is composed of moody ruminations on past loves gone bad or present relationships burning out. In the world conjured by the Twilight Singers, even the bird that twitters at the close of day “sounds as though he’s weeping for his long-lost lover.”
The choice of subject matter here will hardly shock those already aware that the Twilight Singers are the brainchild of Greg Dulli, more commonly known as the leader of the Afghan Whigs. Since their formation in Cincinnati in the late 80’s, the Whigs have evolved from a rather despicable brand of angst-ridden post-punk into an admirable hybrid of indie rock and old-school R&B– and through it all, Mr. Dulli has left little doubt of his experience in the troubled-relationship area. The band’s six albums teem with emotional dysfunction; pick one at random–say, 1993’s Gentlemen –and you’ll find song titles such as “What Jail Is Like” and “My Curse,” and lyrics like: “Tonight I go to hell for what I’ve done to you” (“Debonair”).
What longtime fans of Mr. Dulli’s previous work may not be prepared for is the largely subdued atmosphere of his side project: a subtle blend of acoustic and electronic sounds that’s a far cry from the Whigs’ revved-up approach. “The Twilite Kid” opens the album with a hushed electric-guitar strum, cocktail piano arpeggios and overripe Mellotron strings, which are soon joined by a slinky hip-hop beat and polite funk bass line. Here as elsewhere on the album, Mr. Dulli’s raspy voice is offset by the throatier, more mellifluous tones of Harold Chichester and Shawn Smith (of Howlin’ Maggie and Pigeonhed, respectively; both have appeared on past Afghan Whigs releases). Forgive the radio-format speak, but it’s all very adult-alternative.
Put that down, at least in part, to the contributions of Steve Cobby and Dave McSherry, a.k.a. Fila Brazillia, an ambient-electronic production duo based in Hull, England, who co-produced all but three of Twilight ‘s 12 tracks. Before they got involved, the album had been a more straightforward acoustic singer-songwriter endeavor. Mr. Dulli originally recorded these songs three years ago in New Orleans, at the height of the Afghan Whigs’ business difficulties with their former label, Elektra. Although Elektra refused to release Mr. Dulli’s solo songs, they were extensively bootlegged. Partly in response to the bootlegs, Mr. Dulli decided to revamp the songs for the Whigs’ new label, Columbia, and he brought in Fila Brazillia, who lent a techno sheen and a dub-inflected low end to the generally morose music.
Results are mixed. The relatively boisterous “Last Temptation,” which features Mr. Dulli yowling “Get your hands up off me, girl” over a conga-driven groove, does not resemble twilight so much as a crowded nightclub at 1 a.m. There’s nothing wrong with that, but it doesn’t fit the album’s overall feel. On slightly gentler songs like “Love” and “Twilight,” however, Mr. Dulli’s songwriting and Fila Brazillia’s production achieve an evocative synthesis. The former combines angelic harmonies with a beefy reggae beat, while the latter incorporates a stop-and-start drum break that’s completely unexpected yet absolutely perfect.
The only serious problems on Twilight occur when Mr. Dulli’s emotions become too much for the music to support. The prime offender is “King Only,” where he sings about having a dramatic dream in which “I fell far enough / To touch the hand of Lucifer / Stripped of all His glory / When He sat beside the King and was denied.” Heavy stuff, but it’s hard to take seriously when backed by muted horns and lightly clattering percussion that wouldn’t sound out of place as the soundtrack for a double latte at Starbucks. Still, let’s be fair: The Twilight Singers may not be fully equipped to plumb the spiritual depths, but when they stick with tuneful melancholia, they hit their target right in the center of its broken heart.
Limp Bizkit leader Fred Durst goes to great lengths on his records to detail how hated he is. And he’s correct. Most musicians, rock critics and music-industry toilers that I know despise Mr. Durst with an uncommon fervor.
If you ask me, Mr. Durst is a victim of class bias. He embodies a paradigm of performer that has displaced the college-rock archetype on which most of today’s older rock writers cut their teeth. Their idea of nirvana was, well, Nirvana, especially Kurt Cobain, who embraced the correct influences–the Vaselines and the Meat Puppets–and displayed the appropriate ambivalence about his rock-star status.
Mr. Durst, on the other hand, is the prime exponent of rap-rock, which (save for Rage Against the Machine) has sprung from a lumpen proletariat that’s unacquainted with college-radio aesthetics. In the eyes of elitist rock critics, Mr. Durst is a mook who courts the kind of uncouth fans that Cobain disdained. He’s always wearing a backwards baseball cap, shorts and sneakers. He’s a nakedly ambitious, unapologetic careerist who holds a senior vice president title at his label, Interscope. He has dated Carmen Electra and other B- and C-level starlets. And he brags of having never read a book in his life.
You can almost hear the sound of all those aging college-rockers’ eyeballs rolling back into their craniums. But Mr. Durst doesn’t need them. The teenagers whose tastes were forged in the dual furnaces of Metallica and N.W.A. now call the shots in rock ‘n’ roll, and they–the more than 6 million who bought Limp Bizkit’s last album, Significant Other –have made Mr. Durst one of the most influential rock artists of the moment. He is their Puff Daddy, their David Lee Roth. He has the world by the balls, and he’s tugging down hard.
So it’s tough to figure why Mr. Durst has an almost Nixonian chip on his shoulder. Limp Bizkit’s new album, Chocolate Starfish and the Hot Dog Flavored Water (Interscope), which is No. 1 on the Billboard charts as of this writing, is shot through with invective directed towards his “haters.” But compared to his pal Eminem’s artful way with bile and self-pity, Mr. Durst’s rants sound pedestrian and, ultimately, tedious. The track “Hot Dog” throws Nine Inch Nails lyrics back at Trent Reznor, who had the temerity to poke fun at Mr. Durst in his video for “Starfuckers Inc.” “Full Nelson” begins with Mr. Durst whining “Why is everybody always pickin’ on me?”–an update of the refrain from the Coasters’ “Charlie Brown.” “Take A Look Around” finds Mr. Durst declaiming, “I know why you wanna hate me, ’cause hate is all the world has seen lately,” before the band detonates the tune’s chorus riff.
Chocolate Starfish , which belongs on a short-list of the worst album titles in history, does have some welcome non-bilious moments. These usually occur when Mr. Durst, in violation of the unwritten code of rap-metal conduct, acknowledges that he has, indeed, experienced good times. “Livin’ It Up” details a life lived large by, as Mr. Durst refers to himself, a “redneck motherfucker from Jacksonville,” replete with coverage on Access Hollywood and quality time with “Miss [Christina] Aguilera.” Over a sample of the Eagles’ “Life in the Fast Lane,” the credibility-conscious Mr. Durst unveils a motto of sorts for keeping it real: “Keep my pants sagging, keep a skateboard, a spray can for the taggin.”
The monochromatic aspects of the record are relieved by such songs as “Getcha Groove On,” a cut that employs Ruff Ryders beatmaster Swiss Beatz, for one of his trademark oppressive-yet-rinky-dink soundscapes, and the rapper Xzibit. And “Rollin’ (Air Raid Vehicle)” is the closest Limp Bizkit has come to achieving the celebratory release of hip-hop.
Unfortunately, most songs on Chocolate Starfish wander around moodily during the verse and then–blam!–Mr. Durst & Co. have a tantrum in the chorus. And when Mr. Durst chooses to sing instead of rap, he pretty much comes up with the same listless melody.
There’s no denying that Limp Bizkit is the one true powerhouse of rap-metal, leagues above the likes of Papa Roach, but you wish the band’s avant-rock-savvy guitarist Wes Borland would push the rest of Biz-kit somewhere more ambitious and, in the case of Mr. Durst, less dysfunctional.
Contact Manhattan Music at fdigiacomo @observer.com