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Forgettable Fires

 

U2: The Best of 1990-2000

Island/Interscope

Rating: 2.7

 

 

Posted: November 17, 2002

By Kevin Forest Moreau

In the mid-late 1980s, with the release of the breakthrough The Joshua Tree, U2 parlayed a wide-eyed obsession with rock and roll and an earnest, impassioned love for political causes (a trait shared by fellow era icons Sting, Peter Gabriel and Bruce Springsteen) into a no doubt gratifying but also stifling status as the world's biggest rock band. By the time of the media hoopla surrounding the 1988 film and album Rattle and Hum, the characteristics that had made U2 popular were becoming detriments; the band seemed to be buying whole-hog into the whole rock star ethos to which it had once proved a refreshing counterpoint.

1991's seminal Achtung Baby, a jarring and (for many fans) off-putting change of direction, was a brilliant move in many ways: stuck in a strident musical style it couldn't get out of, the quartet evolved beyond its rousing anthems, opting for a stark, industrialized sound influenced by the clamor and clatter of a post-Berlin Wall world, delving deeply into the politics of the personal (as opposed to the strictly political). At the same time, image-wise, the band wisely surmised that the way out of the bloated self-absorption was not to found in retreating back to its earlier, more ragged, approach, but instead through taking the piss out of its own creation. The Zoo TV tour, with Bono's morphs into the rock-excess personas of The Fly and MacPhisto, deconstructed the somber cult of sincerity of Rattle and Hum by amping up its ridiculousness to purely comic levels. Yes, we know we're a bit ridiculous, Bono seemed to say nightly. That's the point: it's all ridiculous, isn't it? But just as U2's first really, really good album, 1983's War, led into the beautiful but too-esoteric-for-the-mainstream miasma of 1984's The Unforgettable Fire, the band's post-Achtung material failed to capitalize on the best parts of that record. As a result, the rest of U2's '90s output was as a result met with increasing disinterest, the PopMart Tour in particular repelling the faithful in droves.

Where U2's new "hits" compilation, The Best of 1990-2000, goes astray is in its failure to hold onto, or articulate, that early '90s sense of the band's savvy winking at itself and its audience. A straight chronological track list, contrasting the band's stirring Achtung work with the belabored, over-reaching dead horse-beating of 1993's Zooropa and 1997's Pop, and wrapping up with 2000's streamlined All That You Can't Leave Behind, would perhaps have helped to put U2's past decade into some perspective. Instead, a hurly-burly listing that ping-pongs from '91 to '00 and into the "okay, guys, we get it already" excesses of the mid '90s seems a tacit admission that the weaker middle-period material needs to be subtly slipped in between stronger numbers. In fact, four of the six tracks culled from the Zooropa and Pop albums are actually new mixes, a damning acknowledgment that the material doesn't hold up well on its own.

If U2's refusal to admit that its mid-'90s work belonged in the pile of all that it could leave behind were Best of's only flaw, one could chalk it up to tunnel vision and the need for time to lend a larger perspective. But even leaving that aside, the collection adheres to a questionable definition of what constitutes the band's "best" work. Obviously, "best" means "hits" on such a record, and that's born out by the obvious selections of "One," "Beautiful Day" and "Mysterious Ways." But Leave Behind's "Elevation," a ubiquitous hit, is puzzlingly absent, as is "The Fly," which preceded "Mysterious Ways" as Achtung's first salvo to radio. The inclusion of the indulgent "Hold Me, Thrill Me, Kiss Me, Kill Me," from the Batman Forever soundtrack, is understandable from a completist standpoint, as is "Miss Sarajevo," from the band's little-heralded Passengers: Original Soundtracks 1 1995 side project with producer Brian Eno. But padding things out with "The Hands That Built America," from the soundtrack to the upcoming film Gangs of New York, is shameless huckstering, a bit of product placement that smacks of exactly the kind of clueless rock-star shenanigans the band often claims to be making fun of. Likewise, the inclusion of "Electrical Storm," a brand new song copyrighted 2002, is questionable: these two tracks, listenable but hardly essential, take up valuable real estate that could have gone to "Elevation" or "Walk On." Given that Zooropa's "The First Time" and Pop's "Gone" already crowd out bona-fide hits, these tacked-on additions prove especially frustrating.

A limited-edition bonus disc of B-sides is diverting, if non-essential: tracks like "Summer Rain" and "Lady With the Spinning Head" are pleasant enough explorations, but a plethora of remixed Zooropa, Pop and even Achtung numbers proves interminable.

It's admirable that the members of U2 still stand by the grand, over-many-of-our-heads "statements" that Pop and Zooropa represented: the only thing worse than refusing to ditch said period would be to run screaming from it, as if pretending it never occurred. But in its refusal to allow some candid objectivity about that period, and in its selective and arbitrary track listing, The Best of 1990-2000 comes across as just another jaded joke, more a continuation of its winking excess than an honest accounting of its artistic and commercial successes of the past decade.

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