Since the full-scale reinvention of U2’s tours as an electro-savvy stadium extravaganza with the 1992-93 "Zoo TV” tour, the chatter about each worldwide venture centers on the new set. Most major touring bands now rely on massive fiber-optic screens that can shift settings with every song. But U2 are still big believers in the breathtaking tour colossus, whether it’s the giant arch and 40-foot lemon on the "Popmart” tour or the so-called "claw” that dominates the "U2 360” stage, which arrives Sunday in Norman at the Gaylord Family-Oklahoma Memorial Stadium. But as U2 descends on Oklahoma for the first time in 26 years, the most important reason to attend the "U2 360” concert is the same as it was back in 1983 at the Lloyd Noble Center: the songs. The following is a study guide for all that you can’t leave behind.
"Boy”U2 had already released a three-song EP titled "U2 Three” in 1979 on CBS’s Irish label, but that modest recording did little to herald their 1980 Island debut "Boy,” and not many bands premiere so fully formed as U2 did with the opening track and first single, "I Will Follow.” Influences can be clearly heard (Public Image Ltd., The Clash, Joy Division), but U2 ably synthesized those sounds on "Boy” to create possibly the most identifiable sonic template of the post-Beatles era. But it’s not just the early anthemic sound of U2 on display: The band laid the groundwork for the atmospheric adventurism of "The Unforgettable Fire” with "The Ocean” and "Shadows and Tall Trees.”
"October”U2’s big, reverb-laden sound was perhaps even more fully realized on "October,” as shown by the dramatic opener "Gloria,” but U2’s second disc was botched when in 1981 someone stole a briefcase holding Bono’s lyrics notebook at a Portland, Ore., concert. "October” is the work of a great orator robbed of his script — the sound and fury is there, but it signifies nothing. Incidentally, the briefcase was returned to Bono five years ago, but since no songs from "October” make it into current U2 set lists, do not expect revisions anytime soon.
"War”Purists often cite 1983’s "War” as U2’s greatest achievement, beginning with the martial protest epic "Sunday, Bloody Sunday” and carrying on to the great singles "Two Hearts Beat as One” and "New Year’s Day.” Steve Lillywhite’s production on "War” is almost a textbook case on showcasing the gifts of a superb four-piece band, and Clayton and Mullen deliver the Irish funk on "Seconds,” "Refugee” and "Red Light.” "War” capped off the early period by fully encapsulating the band’s passions, politics and youthful energy in what resulted in U2’s first classic.
"The Unforgettable Fire”Released only 19 months after "War,” "The Unforgettable Fire” signaled a major sonic departure in which texture and nuance held as much sway over U2 as military-precise rhythms and flag-waving anthems. Produced with an ear toward expanse and mystery by Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois, "The Unforgettable Fire” channeled U2’s signature sounds into more adventurous territory, whether it was the frenetic "Wire” or the slow-building tension of one of the band’s greatest ballads, "Bad.” It also was the first collection in which Bono’s increasing obsession with American iconography found center stage: "Pride (In the Name of Love),” "Elvis Presley and America” "MLK” and "Fourth of July” all featured heroes and images from the country that U2 was preparing to culturally dominate in the next few years.
"The Joshua Tree”This is where it all happened: U2 streamlined its melodies, and Bono’s lyrics became more direct. When the album first appeared in the spring of 1987, central classics such as "With or Without You,” "Where the Streets Have No Name” and "I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” almost sounded too simplistic. In truth, U2 was just aiming at bigger, worldly concepts of identity and belonging, and running them through their (temporary) immigrants’ view of America. Whether they were critiquing U.S. military might ("Bullet the Blue Sky”) or reveling in roots-rock textures ("Trip Through Your Wires,” U2 was in fertile territory. For a segment of U2 fans, "The Joshua Tree” will always be the quintessential U2 album, the record that made them the biggest band in the world.
"Rattle and Hum”The flip side to the acclaim and gigantic audience for "The Joshua Tree” is that it created a monster. U2 became so enamored with being that biggest band in the world that its members, and Bono in particular, lost their ever-loving minds playing soul music pastiches ("Angel of Harlem”), glomming onto B.B. King for blues credibility, recasting "Still Haven’t Found” as a gospel song, covering Bob Dylan and/or Jimi Hendrix, answering a John Lennon song (the atrocious "God, Pt. 2”) and claiming with righteous bravado to take back the Beatles’ "Helter Skelter” from Charles Manson. On the plus side, "Rattle and Hum” ends with one of U2’s best, "All I Want Is You,” but by the time this disc ran its course at radio, U2 had nearly worn out its welcome. Something needed to be burned down and rebuilt.
"Achtung Baby”Berlin, Germany, is the place where Eno helped David Bowie commune with desolation on "Low,” "Heroes” and "Lodger,” and 15 years later, Eno immersed U2 in icy European rhythms and imagery for "Achtung Baby,” one of the most successful reinventions in rock history and arguably the band’s masterwork. Released in November 1991, "Achtung Baby” featured U2 as post-modern sonic adventurers armed with some of their best songs, including "One,” "Mysterious Ways” and the Judas Iscariot anthem "Until the End of the World.” But it is designed for start-to-finish listening where hidden gems such as the gorgeous "So Cruel” and the beautifully propulsive "Ultra Violet (Light My Way)” get a fair shake next to the recognized classics on this essential album.
"Zooropa”Often placed in the shadow of "Achtung Baby,” 1993’s "Zooropa” has even sharper kraut-rock edges than its predecessor — a U2 song as cold and bracing as The Edge’s robotic "Numb” was unimaginable just a few years before. This was U2’s transformation made complete: The nightmarish trust-fund anthem "Daddy’s Gonna Pay for Your Crashed Car” is all clangs, clanks and confused sensuality, and "Dirty Day” is among the band’s darkest visions fully realized. But there are moments of great beauty such as "Stay (Faraway, So Close),” "Lemon,” and the hypnotic "The Wanderer,” featuring Johnny Cash on lead vocal before Rick Rubin officially ushered in the Man in Black’s comeback.
"Pop”Widely considered U2’s worst album, 1997’s "Pop” is not the disaster as advertised — "Do You Feel Loved?” and "Gone” are strong U2 rockers filtered through trip-hop beats and seductive chord changes. The problem is not with dance rhythms or the replacement of Eno by Nellee Hooper and Howie B, it’s the lack of inspired material. U2 was falling back on "Joshua Tree”-era explorations of America on "Miami” and "The Playboy Mansion,” which was rarely the band’s best form. Most other bands could be proud to release "Pop,” but in Beatles terms, this is "Let It Be,” and in Rolling Stones terms, this is "Dirty Work.”
"All That You Can’t Leave Behind”"All That You Can’t Leave Behind” is the 2000 album that ushered in U2’s classicist period, in which the group consolidated its strengths and made music that played to the rafters, evoking nothing other than U2 in all its U2-ness. "Beautiful Day” marries the electro-pulse of "Zooropa” to a soaring chorus reminiscent of the band’s flag-waving early period, and the ringing guitars on "Walk On” are what a fan might play a recently landed alien as an example of the U2’s essential aura. This is U2 at its least ironic, and when the band can produce a song as simply beautiful and guileless as "Wild Honey,” that is an entirely defensible position.
"How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb”Essentially a stylistic sequel to "All That You Can’t Leave Behind,” 2004’s "Atomic Bomb” has almost nothing arch or boundary-pushing, and there’s much to suggest on songs such as "All Because of You” and "City of Blinding Lights” that, during this period, U2 was actively denying the experiments of the ’90s. But even if U2 was settling into comfortable musical settings, soulful turns such as "A Man and a Woman” and the insistent hooks of "Crumbs From Your Table” made "Atomic Bomb” a pleasant if non-essential addition, but a slightly worrying signal of a holding pattern.
"No Line on the Horizon”Perhaps noticing that the past two albums were stuck in a moment, U2 got out of it with 2009’s Eno- and Lanois-produced "No Line on the Horizon,” but rather than staking out new territory, returned to the atmospheric glories of "The Unforgettable Fire.” The problem here is that the band merely dressed themselves in the sonic finery of 1984 without offering anything new to fill those clothes: Songs such as "Magnificent” sound, well, magnificent, but say precious little, but "Fez: Being Born” and the chaotic "Breathe” indicate that this mildly disappointing collection might be a prelude to U2’s next reinvention. After 30-plus years, even the best artists revisit and refine, and U2 could do far worse than an imitation of its best self.