Sunday, January 22, 2017

The Joshua Tree vs. Achtung Baby

Arguably the two best albums by U2 are The Joshua Tree (1987) and Achtung Baby (1992). Not only do these albums top lists by fans who love the band, but both top multiple lists as two of the best albums of all time. And of course there's a U2 Joshua Tree tour right around the corner, so these albums remain in the public eye. So...

which album is better?


This definitive, head to head, song by song comparison will put the debate to rest.

To make this entirely objective assessment, I base my conclusion on the following credentials and anecdotes:

  • My Ph.D. is in Chinese Film Studies which makes me an ideal candidate for this arduous task.
  • I thought of this while enjoying a paid beverage on an airplane flight, which subsequently put me into a deep sleep in which I saw a vision of The Edge who told me that my conclusion is truthful. The smile that contorted my face soon after was misunderstood by flight attendants who wanted me to stay seated during the descent into Los Angeles.
  • While listening to each album 1 zillion times I have on occasion interrupted my closest friends and family members--while they try to tell me important bits of wisdom, such as why I shouldn't do a Ph.D. in Chinese Film Studies--to be real quiet during the howl in "With or Without You" or the guitar solo in "Even Better Than The Real Thing." Then I look at them as if to say: "did you feel that?" "Yes," they nod. (At least that is what I imagine they do, because my eyes are usually blurred with tears like Rey's).

Like all forms of assessment these days, I use a rubric. The difference between my rubric and the rubrics typically forced upon educators by for-profit companies is that I designed my rubric without a profit motive. Taking money out of the equation allows me to retain my personal subjectivity and intellectual objectivity. However, feel free to click on any of the adds on this page--earnings on this blog over the last year have only totaled $2.81.

Here it is. Each song is awarded points from 1-20 in 5 categories so that, in total, each song is worth 100 points. 100s aren't passed out like candy. In fact, I only rate 2 songs out of U2's entire catalog as 100s.

20 points     Lyrics (substance, quality)
20 points     Bono/ Vocals (delivery, sound, passion)
20 points     Edge/ Guitar (complexity, tone, expression)
20 points     Adam & Larry/ Bass + Drums (energy, foundation)
20 points     Intangibles (essence or Tao--that which can't be named)


"Hold Me, Thrill Me, Kiss Me, Kill Me"
The Beginning: Tracks 1-4
Where The Streets Have No Name Zoo Station
20 Lyrics
20 Bono/ Vocals
20 Edge/ Guitar
20 Bass + Drums
19 Intangibles
99
18 Lyrics
18 Bono/ Vocals
18 Edge/ Guitar
17 Bass + Drums
10 Intangibles
81
OK, we're dealing with one of the best songs by U2, one of the best concert openers of all time: "Streets." And we're comparing that with a song that efficiently initiates an important change in direction in U2's career and sound. But like "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band," "Zoo Station" does its job, but it's no "A Day in the Life."
Winner: The Joshua Tree

I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For Even Better Than The Real Thing
19 Lyrics
20 Bono/ Vocals
20 Edge/ Guitar
20 Bass + Drums
19 Intangibles
98
20 Lyrics
20 Bono/ Vocals
20 Edge/ Guitar
20 Bass + Drums
20 Intangibles
100
This will probably be the most controversial decision in this entire comparison, but it's alright, it's alright, it's alright--"EBTTRT" moves in mysterious ways. One song is about something that has not yet been found (let's call it a "1" in an infinite series of combinations of "1's"), while the other song is about something even better than the best thing that can be found (let's call it the "Real," "0", the ex nihilo "out of nothing" from which creation emerges within Catholic theology). If you're upset by this rationale, just "give me one more chance and you'll be satisfied."
Winner: Achtung Baby


With Or Without You One
20 Lyrics
20 Bono/ Vocals
20 Edge/ Guitar
20 Bass + Drums
20 Intangibles
100
20 Lyrics
20 Bono/ Vocals
20 Edge/ Guitar
20 Bass + Drums
19 Intangibles
99
It is fascinating to listen to U2 shows soon after both "With or Without You" was released in 1987, and "One" in 1992. In both cases, these songs were featured before the encore (in the first leg of the Joshua Tree tour), and "One" was early as song six on the Zoo TV: Live from Sydney DVD. Yet over time, these transcendent songs became encores, where they belong. I'd say there is only the slimmest of margins that separate the two--according to this "objective" model, and the criteria listed above, "With or Without You" is a perfect song. It can't be ruined by over-playing it. "One" is nearly a perfect song. We're talking a one point difference.
Winner: The Joshua Tree


Bullet The Blue Sky Until The End Of The World
20 Lyrics
20 Bono/ Vocals
20 Edge/ Guitar
20 Bass + Drums
18 Intangibles
98
20 Lyrics
20 Bono/ Vocals
19 Edge/ Guitar
20 Bass + Drums
18 Intangibles
97
It would seem like these scores are low, but think about the songs they follow. After the unparalleled third tracks on both albums, these songs are clearly a dip in quality. Which is crazy: Bono's rant in "Bullet" and his characterization of himself as Judas in "UTEOTW," like Rembrant's self-portraits depicting himself nailing Christ to the cross, would seem seem like 100s on other albums, both by U2 and other artists. But these songs stand alongside perfection which reveals their shortcomings.
Winner: The Joshua Tree

At this stage, here's how the albums stack up:
The Joshua Tree (3-1)
Achtung Baby (1-3)

Like the beginning of films with great opening acts--for example, the first 15 minutes of Wong Karwai's In the Mood for Love (2000)--we know we're in the presence of greatness, but there's still a long ways to go.

One of the most beautiful films of all time: In the Mood for Love

"Silver and Gold"
The Middle: Tracks 5-8
Running To Stand Still Who's Gonna Ride Your Wild Horses
19 Lyrics
18 Bono/ Vocals
17 Edge/ Guitar
18 Bass + Drums
18 Intangibles
90
17 Lyrics
16 Bono/ Vocals
15 Edge/ Guitar
15 Bass + Drums
15 Intangibles
78
We've arrived at the lowest point total for both albums; namely, the 78 earned by "WGRYWH," a song that is ultimately redeemed by an awesome bridge, but not enough to make it into "superior score" territory. Meanwhile, "Running"'s 90 initiates a free fall on The Joshua Tree that requires exactly what was expected of Jek Porkins in Episode IV.
Winner: The Joshua Tree


Red Hill Mining Town So Cruel
17 Lyrics
18 Bono/ Vocals
16 Edge/ Guitar
16 Bass + Drums
18 Intangibles
85
18 Lyrics
19 Bono/ Vocals
16 Edge/ Guitar
17 Bass + Drums
18 Intangibles
88
The Joshua Tree and Achtung Baby are remarkably similar in structure and presentation. This seems more evident today than when Achtung was released and seemed so different. Both begin with classic album openers, move to their most memorable tracks by track three, sustain the energy from the opening tracks through track four, then come down on track five. Here again we find another similarity at track six: narratives, about labor and love respectively. The way the chorus punctuates the poetry of love lost in "So Cruel" pushes it into the lead.
Winner: Achtung Baby


In God's Country The Fly
18 Lyrics
17 Bono/ Vocals
18 Edge/ Guitar
17 Bass + Drums
19 Intangibles
89
18 Lyrics
18 Bono/ Vocals
20 Edge/ Guitar
18 Bass + Drums
18 Intangibles
92
Comparing the rifts of each songs is not always a sure-fire way to assess song quality, but in this case it's quite effective. The guitar strumming at the beginning of "In God's Country" matches U2's "Pride" so it retains a niche in the U2 pantheon, but "The Fly" bites as if from a different galaxy. Radical variations of "The Fly" like the one on the "Veritigo" tour ensure its timeless status. As far as this comparison goes, it's the first score on either album to achieve a 90+ since "Running" on The Joshua Tree.
Winner: Achtung Baby


"The Fly" circa 2005, posted on YouTube
Trip Through Your Wires Mysterious Ways
15 Lyrics
18 Bono/ Vocals
18 Edge/ Guitar
19 Bass + Drums
15 Intangibles
85
18 Lyrics
18 Bono/ Vocals
18 Edge/ Guitar
18 Bass + Drums
17 Intangibles
89
In a way, both albums come unhinged on track 8. Bono starts playing a harmonica in "TTYW" and sounds the way he looks in the video for "Mysterious." Coming unhinged isn't a criticism. Some of my favorite songs like Radiohead's "The National Anthem" are (insert synonym for "unhinged" here: demented, unglued). It's just what happens on these albums.
Winner: Achtung Baby

Pretty mysterious, right?

After eight tracks, the albums are neck and neck:
The Joshua Tree (4-4)
Achtung Baby (4-4)

It's clear at this point that we're dealing with a mammoth set of narrative twist and turns, like Zhang Yimou's early films before he gave his heart to the CCP and directed the 2008 Olympics opening ceremony. His must-see 1994 film To Live remains a definitive account of inter-generational experience in 20th century China.

Zhang Yimou's use of sound in To Live is world class


"Is That All?"
The End: Tracks 9-12

OK, so there is a discrepancy here because The Joshua Tree has 11 tracks and Achtung Baby has 12. To manage this difference I've decided to place the last track of The Joshua Tree, "Mothers of the Disappeared" in a straight up head-to-head against the mean (average) score of Achtung's final two songs, "Acrobat" and "Love is Blindness." But first, track nine:
One Tree Hill Tryin' to Throw Your Arms Around the World 
19 Lyrics
19 Bono/ Vocals
18 Edge/ Guitar
17 Bass + Drums
19 Intangibles
92
17 Lyrics
19 Bono/ Vocals
17 Edge/ Guitar
17 Bass + Drums
18 Intangibles
88
The Joshua Tree returns to its winning ways, after three straight defeats to the mighty Achtung Baby, with the moving "One Tree Hill," a song written in memory of a friend. In contrast, the perfectly delivered monologue in "TTTYAATW" which on its own terms might fit into a "best of genre" category for its particular presentation style, just doesn't have enough weight to compete with "One Tree Hill" once both songs are placed in the same ring.
Winner: The Joshua Tree

Exit Ultraviolet (Light My Way)
18 Lyrics
18 Bono/ Vocals
19 Edge/ Guitar
19 Bass + Drums
19 Intangibles
93
19 Lyrics
19 Bono/ Vocals
19 Edge/ Guitar
19 Bass + Drums
18 Intangibles
94
Both albums ramp back into high gear as they race towards their respective grande finales. I've always wondered if "Exit' is the sound of a young writer attempting to sound mature beyond their years, which occurs when struggling writers try to achieve an aesthetic beyond their grasp, or if it is the sound of a writer fully in control of their element. In any case, it's the song I look forward to hearing the most in the upcoming The Joshua Tree tour 2017. But "Ultraviolet"'s combination of sound and lyrics ("there is a silence that comes to a house where no one can sleep") takes the cake. Look at what we have here: the albums are tied 5-5 heading into the final round.
Winner: Achtung Baby


A variation on a theme, "Ultraviolet" performed in 2010, posted on YouTube
Mothers of the Disappeared Acrobat + Love is Blindness
19 Lyrics
19 Bono/ Vocals
19 Edge/ Guitar
20 Bass + Drums
19 Intangibles
96
19 Lyrics                 19
19 Bono/ Vocals     20
19 Edge/ Guitar      20
19 Bass + Drums    19
19 Intangibles         19
95 + 97 / 2 = 96
"Mothers of the Disappeared" begins with an ethereal drum machine soundscape that takes one to the place where the song will live, and probably outlive, all of the other songs on both albums. Stunningly, the appeal for justice which stretches horizontally over a vast geographical space in "Mothers" is somehow matched by the pathos which descends deep into the bottomless internal, psychological space represented in "Acrobat" and "Love is Blindness." The call to action in "Mothers" achieves an intangible quality equaled by a description of shared individual experience at the conclusion of Achtung.
Winner: tie

In the final assessment, The Joshua Tree and Achtung Baby tie in terms of a song by song comparison.

The Joshua Tree (5-5-1)
Achtung Baby (5-5-1)

However, The Joshua Tree wins in terms of total points.

The Joshua Tree: 1025 pts.
Achtung Baby: 1002 pts.

Although there is a series of songs in the middle of Achtung Baby which is stronger, ultimately "Zoo Station" and "WGRYWH" work against its overall score.

The albums are either similar or different in quality depending on the vantage point. Maybe the only way to assess an album as "better" than another is to choose one particular vantage point and then stick to it alone. Yet once multiple frames of reference are used, a clear-cut resolution is tough to come by.

It reminds me of one of the best films by Taiwan director Hou Hsiao-hsien, the 2003 work Three Times. It covers nearly 100 years of history in three separate vignettes performed by the same two actors. The world changes all around them while the perspective stays the same, leading to an endless series of interpretive possibilities.

Hou Hsaio-hsien's Three Times

No comments:

Post a Comment