The best parts of Rattle And Hum show U2 at their high point, a band who has reached the mountaintop and are using their platform to reach as high as they possibly can. There are some amazing moments on the album that will not be denied. Unfortunately it also contains moments of U2 at their absolute worst. All of the accusations of pomposity, sanctimonious posturing,and arrogance that defies explanation, all of those are on full display here. There aren’t many albums from well-regarded artists that sold so well (14 million copies!) that are regarded so poorly. It’s a strange beast indeed.
At least some of the reputation comes from a loss of original context. Rattle And Hum wasn’t intended as a standalone album, but as a soundtrack to U2’s concert film of the same name. The original film isn’t very good, but it does at least explain the format of the album. Rather than ten or eleven new studio tracks, it combines those tracks with live cuts that were in the movie. It serves as a sort of documentation of The Joshua Tree Tour, when U2 could for the first time really claim to be the biggest band in the world. The Americana they embraced on The Joshua Tree is now in full force, to the point where it threatens to overwhelm all of the U2ish elements.
Nowhere is this more evident than on the live version of “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For.” As a song it had some gospel leanings, but the live version draws a circle around those leanings and underlines them just to make sure we pick up on them. The gospel choir in that cut is very typical of Rattle And Hum, a performance filled with big obvious musical flourishes that are mostly empty. Other live tracks have similar issues. It doesn’t help that the leaden version of “Helter Skelter” that opens the album begins with Bono’s posturing statement: “This is a song Charles Manson stole from the Beatles. We’re stealing it back.” All of the criticisms of Bono as a frontman are on display here. His windbag stage patter mars generally worthy versions of both “Bullet The Blue Sky” and Joshua Tree b-side “Silver And Gold.” He also manages to mangle “All Along The Watchtower” with his overwrought performance. The only live track that really works is “Pride,” partly because they mostly leave it alone, and partly because it’s just that good a song.
The studio tracks generally come across much better. “Desire” is one of my favorite U2 singles, and the band was rewarded with their first number one hit in the UK. The overwrought pomposity of many of the live tracks is still evident here and there, but for the most part the grandeur plays better without stage chatter and with studio magic. Indeed, some of the more epic songs are highly underrated. “Love Rescue Me” is a fun duet with an almost-inaudible Bob Dylan, and “Heartland” is lovely song that approaches the beauty of The Joshua Tree. Rattle And Hum produced plenty of hits, including the soulful “Angel of Harlem,” and the endearingly gawky “When Love Comes To Town,” a bizarre duet with B.B. King. And I’m not sure U2 ever had as good an album closer as “All I Want Is You.” It’s one of several places where the American influences really gel into something special, and the wonderful string arrangement by Van Dyke Parks allows Rattle And Hum to end on a far more graceful note than it began.
With the advent of playlists and MP3s, it’s become a pastime of many U2 fans to try to build a version of Rattle And Hum that works better than what actually got released. This is a fun exercise, but it underlines a key problem with the album: it feels like a creative dead end. While the heights are certainly high, U2’s attempts to find the roots of rock music take them too far from their own roots. There seems to be something dishonest about their attempts to line themselves up in the pantheon of “classic” rock bands, because they were never from that generation of bands in the first place. Their contemporaries were not The Rolling Stones and Bob Dylan, but rather R.E.M. and Joy Division. They were much bigger than their peers, but they came from a similar milieu. At its worst Rattle And Hum feels like the band is pretending to be part of a different crowd so they can fit into the history of the genre.
A lot of fans have very fond memories of Rattle And Hum, and I certainly don’t begrudge them that. Even the parts that fail do so because the band is trying really hard, which makes for something that is still kind of compelling. There’s a temptation to treat Rattle And Hum like a dud, but it has proven to be a necessary step for the band. Without its mixed results U2 may never have felt the need to regroup and produce some of the best music of their career. But on its own it still feels lumpy and bloated. Being a U2 fan means you have to suppress the need to roll your eyes now and then, and no album makes that more difficult than Rattle And Hum.
Into The Heart
In which Nate explores his personal connection to each U2 album.
My first exposure to U2 was on their Best of 1980-1990 collection, and it was the four tracks from Rattle And Hum that drew me in the most at that early stage. I didn’t get around to the whole album until later on, but that at least shows the good side of big obvious songs. For those wondering, I also built my own playlist of Rattle And Hum Redux, using tracks from the album and a couple of b-sides from that era. Here’s the running order I’m working on right now, though it’s gone through a few iterations and might have some more to come: “Desire,” “Silver And Gold” (the studio version from The Joshua Tree Sessions), “Angel Of Harlem,” “Hawkmoon 269,” “When Love Comes To Town,” “Love Rescue Me,” “Hallelujah Here She Comes,” “Heartland,” “A Room At The Heartbreak Hotel,” “All I Want Is You.”
From The Sky Down
In which Nate ranks all of U2’s albums in order of his favorites.
1. The Joshua Tree
3. The Unforgettable Fire
5. Under A Blood Red Sky
6. Rattle And Hum