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
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
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
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.
Under a Blood Red Sky - Their first really classic album is
followed by live versions of songs that got them to this point.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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
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
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.
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
to have been titled Songs of Ascent.
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
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.
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).
look. The band collectively tended toward the same
fashions during these respective eras before abruptly switching to a
new and distinct style.
covers. The imagery used has some consistency within each
Boy / October / War
Music: Rock albums, pure and
simple. No gimmicks, just good straight-forward songs by good
names: One-word titles.
look: Jeans-and-t-shirt young rockers.
covers: The trilogy is bookended by the same boy on their
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.
names: Three-word titles.
look: Leather and suede-clad spiritual pilgrims (whether
looking for Jesus or Elvis).
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
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
names: One-word titles again (with one exception, obviously).
look: Sunglasses and vinyl suits.
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.
names: Sentences that are longer than the titles of all their
previous albums combined. Seriously.
look: Grown-ups with money.
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.