Cool or not, Bono and co. have done quite well for themselves. They’ve sold a gazillion records, have been the no. 1 live act for a few decades, were elected into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in their first year of eligibility, and are globally unavoidable—advocating for U2 is like telling someone to pay more attention to Steven Spielberg. This fall marks the 20th anniversary of their best and most important album, Achtung Baby. A remastered, deluxe box set of the album drops this week, and Showtime will debut the Davis Guggenheim documentary From the Sky Down, which revisits that album's tumultuous recording sessions. With R.E.M. recently giving up the ghost, U2 is basically the last band standing from the Album Oriented Rock era. Inspired by punk but drawn to pomp, suckers for abstract textures but addicted to pop, the band has straddled the realms of art and commerce more audaciously than any other in rock's history. They've sincerely tried to change the world and have strived to remain the best band in the world—differently ambitious, equally dubious pursuits. Yet for the moment, let’s put aside Bono's blathering public persona—his extra-musical forays into politics, policy, and wraparound-specs addiction—and just talk about the music and its impact on the culture.
In the era of 99 cent downloads, U2 continues to conceive of albums as long-form journeys, with individual songs—like chapters in a novel, scenes in a film, or members of a band—contributing to a greater whole. They’ve always thrived on both consistency and change, applying a surprisingly strict formula to their albums while challenging one another to evolve, adapt, and reinvent their sound. And rather than choose between art and commerce, they’ve almost naively struck a course between the two. Especially today, with music acts either serving the marketplace or accepting their niche, U2 has no peer. I listened to every album, B-side, and soundtrack song, watched every music video, movie, live clip, and costume change. If you’re a fan, let’s compare notes. It you’re not, I’ll tell you what you’ve missed.
Every U2 record begins with a march, and most of them end with a hymn. It's a formula, but also a moral outlook. Entering with "Onward, Christian Soldiers,” we arrive at "Ave Maria." From chaos, the band battles to transcendence. The path is consistent, but the ride keeps changing. The marches (“Sunday Bloody Sunday,” “Where the Streets Have No Name,” “Beautiful Day”) are up-tempo, uncertain pursuits through landscapes, forward-leans into the unknown. After peaks, valleys, and digressions, the albums conclude by tilting skyward in nakedly confessional prayer (“40,” “MLK,” “The Wanderer,” “Grace,” “Yahweh”). What changes is the nature of the landscape and the reasons for (and intensity of) the confession.
During the band’s first phase, the Irish-urchins-for-Jesus records, from Boy to October and War, producer Steve Lillywhite presided over a sound that cribbed an itchy urgency from punk and New Wave but forsook anarchic and ironic flair in favor of sincerity and stridency. The very makeup of the band spoke of contradiction: The sturdy