U2 or U3: Album Pairs and Album Trilogies

There are at least two possible ways to view U2's discography: As pairs of albums or as trilogies.  This is admittedly entirely speculative at the very least and perhaps a forced taxonomy applied long after the fact with no intentionality on the part of the band itself.  Still, it makes for an interesting listening experience just the same if you want to view things as a musical lineage.


This is how I viewed U2's back catalog when I was a kid.  It's a reflection of U2's working approach more than musical leanings: Every other album appears to be collecting pieces from its predecessor and moving forward with them.  Once the left-over songs were out of their system, the band re-oriented and moved on.  I don't view any of these albums as "throw-away" projects, but U2 always seemed to follow a good studio album with a "we don't give a shit" project, so you'd get a live album or extra songs paired with live tracks or Bono singing falsetto while guest vocalists were up front (e.g., BB King, Johnny Cash, Luciano Pavarotti, or even the
Edge in a couple cases!).

Boy / October - Not really left-overs, per se, but these albums sound a lot alike to me, like they're continuing what they started.  The band is still finding its collective footing, and they haven't discovered all the elements of their signature sound yet.

War / Under a Blood Red Sky - Their first really classic album is followed by live versions of songs that got them to this point.

The Unforgettable Fire / Wide Awake in America - The fourth real album is followed by this EP of a couple live versions of tracks from the previous album plus two unreleased songs.

The Joshua Tree / Rattle and Hum -
The latter re-works several tracks ("I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For" as a gospel number and a live version of "Bullet the Blue Sky") from the previous album as well as a couple live covers of classic rock songs.  It's a bit of everything except the artistically-successful follow-up to The Joshua Tree we all wanted.

Achtung Baby / Zooropa - Four of the tracks on the latter originated from the sessions for the former, with the remainder being recorded during the breaks in the Zoo TV tour.  It's a progression of the heavily effects-oriented sound that began with Achtung, only even farther removed from their earlier style.

Pop / Original Soundtracks 1 - By this point the band had gone off in experimental directions.  These two albums are opposite extremes in one sense (i.e., one embraces dance music; the other drifts into territory staked out by Brian Eno's ambient works in the '70s).  However, whereas Achtung, Baby was a conventional album that worked with new textures, these projects have the band completely off on their own leaving their fans behind in both cases.

All That You Can't Leave Behind / How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb - I don't know that I'd necessarily group these into a pair, but my taxonomy falters here primarily because I'd simply stopped following the group when they returned to their "roots" as a rock band.  Even though I didn't always like their experiments, at least they were experimenting, and I respected them for that.  As far as I'm concerned, what followed when they abandoned that phase was uninspired fan-pleasing cookie-cutter material that they should have left to other, less-talented artists who were just as capable of churning out songs like these.

No Line on the Horizon / Songs of Ascent (unreleased) - No Line on the Horizon was supposed to have a sequel / spin-off album of left-overs (much like how Pink Floyd's The Final Cut consisted of re-worked scraps from The Wall) to have been titled Songs of Ascent.  Unfortunately, the project has never come to light in any form.


These groupings have been pointed out by the fans for quite some time now.  Note that this approach is much cleaner than my "pairings" above in that it doesn't require selective inclusion of EPs or live albums or side projects; this only looks at the full LPs of original studio material (with the exception of Rattle and Hum, which almost everyone would agree still counts as a regular full-length album).

Evidence.  There are several lines of evidence pointing to the validity of these groupings.
Music.  Most important of all is the similarity of song styles.  Both the instrumentation / arrangements of the tracks as well as the genres they draw primarily are specific to the trilogy in question.
Album names.  The titles of each album follow a pattern without much deviation.  George Lucas did something similar in having the episode titles of the Star Wars prequels mirror those of the original trilogy (i.e., A New Hope = The Phantom Menace; The Empire Strikes Back = Attack of the Clones; Return of the Jedi = Revenge of the Sith). 
Band's look.  The band collectively tended toward the same fashions during these respective eras before abruptly switching to a new and distinct style. 
Album covers.  The imagery used has some consistency within each trilogy.

Boy / October / War
Music: Rock albums, pure and simple.  No gimmicks, just good straight-forward songs by good musicians.
Album names: One-word titles.
Band's look: Jeans-and-t-shirt young rockers.
Album covers: The trilogy is bookended by the same boy on their covers.

The Unforgettable Fire / The Joshua Tree / Rattle and Hum
Music: Rise of the delay pedal.  That's what I think of on the first two albums in particular.  It's the most salient feature, and the later album retains it, albeit to a lesser extent.
Album names: Three-word titles.
Band's look: Leather and suede-clad spiritual pilgrims (whether they're looking for Jesus or Elvis).
Album covers: Hard to say that these are part of a series except that the photographer seems to be getting ever closer to the band.  They start off in the distance until they're the entirety of the album cover.

Achtung, Baby / Zooropa / Pop
Music: The experimental era.  They go nuts with effects and radically change their sound to the point that their fans don't know what to make of them anymore by the end of this cycle.
Album names: One-word titles again (with one exception, obviously).
Band's look: Sunglasses and vinyl suits.
Album covers: Collages.  None of their other album covers can be described that way, and that's what all three have here.  It's a reflection of the layered music contained within, full of over-lapping guitar parts and multiple vocal lines running simultaneously throughout.

All That You Can't Leave Behind / How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb / No Line on the Horizon
Music: More mature songs.  There's still some rocking tracks among these albums, but I think these are adult contemporary by comparison with what preceded them, and I couldn't get into them at all.
Album names: Sentences that are longer than the titles of all their previous albums combined.  Seriously.
Band's look: Grown-ups with money.
Album covers: Minimalism.  Just as the music on these albums was a rejection of the comparative chaos of the preceding trilogy, these album covers grow so simple that they almost lack any subject at all, especially by the last.

Copyright 2012 Alexplorer

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