Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Meet Me In The Sound



Layering a Pixies-ish buzzsaw guitar on top of a conversational litany that recalls "Subterranean Homesick Blues," U2's new single "Get Your Boots On" is a sublime slice of woozy pop-soul whose lyrical optimism and sensuous co-mingling of musical styles make it an apt anthem in this week of the Obama inauguration. Who knew, when the band played the Lincoln Memorial concerts this weekend, that they were about to release a song that, like the Presidential candidate they celebrated, rejects old stylistic binaries in favor of a joy that's at once sincere and sly?

Or maybe that should be Sly, given the way Bono's falsetto evokes early seventies R&B, and the manner in which the tightly knit backing harmonies feel vertiginously psychedelic (in his definitive look at the band, U2 At The End Of The World, music journalist Bill Flanagan described the songs on the band's Zooropa album as sounding like "pop music recorded underwater"; "Get Your Boots On" feels like a bobbing, lurching submarine that's constantly diving down to find new sounds and witty turns of phrase). Early buzz on the forthcoming album made comparisons to the '90s period of innovation that brought forth gems like Pop and Achtung Baby. This first single confirms and dispels those rumors-- it doesn't sound like those records, but it does recall their go-for-broke spirit, and willingness to stretch the band in new directions. I love the forcefulness of Larry Mullen, Jr.'s drumming at the song's beginning, and the pulsing elasticity of Adam Clayton's fuzzed-up bass lines (he's always been the band's secret weapon, the glue that propels the whole project forward, and his work here sounds a little like Paul McCartney's, circa Rubber Soul or "Rain").

It's also a pleasure to hear Bono shift away from the clear, rockish singing that defined the band's last two albums, back towards growling, muffled, muddy vocals (a la "If You Wear That Velvet Dress" or "Hold Me, Thrill Me") that add a real layer of mystery and appealing strangeness to the music. The song references bombs and revolution only to be followed by Bono insistently cooing, "I don't want to talk about the wars between nations." A contradiction? Maybe, but as Sam Shepard wrote in True West, "Right in the middle of a contradiction, that's the place to be." More likely, it's the band remembering that the clear-cut, back-to-basics "authenticity" that was rigidly enforced on the previous two records (All That You Can't Leave Behind and How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb) is a theoretical trap: I like both of those records a lot, but I wouldn't want U2 to stay there forever, churning out boomer-friendly hits until they become (as music critic Greg Kot aptly alluded four years ago) the new Rolling Stones.

No, far better to confuse binaries, and play with the rich field of imagery their "boots" open up (the more the song goes on, the less clear it becomes whether they are singing about boots on a runway or boots in a war zone). In this jumble of war and fashion, party and revolution, the band wisely gives itself up to ecstasy, content to embody the observation of Walter Benjamin that "The eternal is in every case far more the ruffle on a dress than an idea.”