Tuesday, September 12, 2017

U2's Forgotten Masterpiece


Are there any "forgotten" songs by U2?

It has taken me several weeks to write about what I believe to be one of the greatest songs of the 1990s and what is easily U2's own forgotten masterpiece.

I'm speaking of the song So Cruel from Achtung Baby, which is an album millions of people own. How can it be forgotten if it is in so many hands? Untold millions stream their work on Spotify and whatnot. I think there is no chance that So Cruel has been forgotten but, perhaps, a little misplaced in relation to the band's output. 

If you're going to select something from that era, One is probably the song. I think there are sentimentalists who would say that Mysterious Ways was more revolutionary and Even Better Than the Real Thing had more punch than anything else on the album. The nihilism of The Fly is ever present. Was it acknowledgement that a decade spent in Christian and political repose had to come to a crashing end? There are so many great songs on Achtung Baby that it took six CDs to properly honor the album when the deluxe reissue came out a few years ago. I called it the greatest comeback album ever, and now I would like to drill down into what makes the album as grounded and as relevant as ever.

Did you know that So Cruel has its own massive Wikipedia page:

"So Cruel" is a song by rock band U2. It is the sixth track on their 1991 album Achtung Baby, concluding side one of the album. The song was written at Elsinore in Dalkey. While audio engineer Flood changed reels to listen to a demo of another song, lead singer Bono began to improvise a song on guitar. The rest of the band quickly joined in, creating the first take of the song. It was developed as an acoustic track, with Flood adding overdubs and additional elements later. Bassist Adam Clayton and Flood noted that the technology in the studio was crucial in transforming the acoustic song into the final mix.

There's this myth that the album was crafted entirely in Berlin amidst the decadence of modern history and between the shattered remnants of the Wall. Much of the album came together at home with the lads sleeping in their own beds, or in borrowed beds, depending on their personal situations. I was always led to believe that it was written and recorded entirely in Hansa studios, but the majority of the output from those sessions ended up being shelved in favor of the work done in Ireland.

So Cruel is the sound of Dave "The Edge" Evans' marriage crumbling. You can be a successful musician with millions in the bank and your whole world can unravel just the same as anyone else. A miserable heart doesn't care what's in your accounts when it shatters all over the place. Capturing it in a song, well, leave that to your lifelong songwriting partner.

I think there is a companion piece to it that should not be ignored. What created the need for a comeback was the disastrous Rattle & Hum album, which was so poorly received in America, U2 chucked the idea of touring it in the states. They went everywhere else, most notably Australia and New Zealand, and it was received with rapture and praise from audiences used to being neglected by superstar acts. I think you can draw a straight line from All I Want is You to So Cruel, and you can see that they are linked by a common desire to understand love, longing and loss in a way that the superficial music of the era couldn't fully compete with. Listen to them both, side by side, and you can see that there is a mash-up out there waiting to happen. 

It's easy to dismiss an album track, but there's no reason why it couldn't have been a single. I don't know what the thinking was in 1991-92 as far as the marketing of the singles and the strategy for getting the album into the hands of people who weren't already fans.

How does this change the way that Achtung Baby is regarded as an album? My guess is that it doesn't change a thing. You could make the argument that making So Cruel the sixth (!) single would have been overkill if Island Records already believed it had run its course and was not going to do well; I don't know. It's hard to make the case that it was a criminal act not to release it as a single since the band has only played it live a handful of times. But it is my belief that it is easily the strongest "album" track ever.

Most bands would kill to have a song like So Cruel; for many, it would be their defining single and a permanent fixture of their live shows. For U2, it's just one of many.

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