A Closer Look: U2’s “Rattle and Hum” (1988)

“I ran into a juke joint when I heard a guitar scream/The notes were turning blue, I was dazing in a dream/As the music played I saw my life turn around/That was the day before love came to town.”-U2 and B.B. King, “When Love Comes to Town.”

Where to go after the success of “The Joshua Tree”? Why, pack the band up, film a rockumentary and go on a quest into the heart of America to discover just where and how this rock thing came to be!

“Rattle and Hum” does a great job not just as a movie soundtrack, but as a window into U2’s thought process as they travelled across America and learned how to handle their newfound fame. It also shows how they wanted their movie structured–how did they present themselves to their newfound public? Which sides of themselves should they show and why?

This leads to a great collection of live cuts that reveal both rough and tender sides of the men, some tributes to legendary greats that pioneered the musical fields they’re exploring and some new albums tracks created through said exploration.

The album starts guns-blazing with Bono’s declaration of “This is a song Charles Manson stole from the Beatles…we’re stealing it back” followed by a scorching live cover of “Helter Skelter.”

But we quickly switch directions with The Edge taking over for the stripped-back, emotional and melancholy “Van Dieman’s Land,” a tune inspired by the Irish Potato Famine, enduring rises of nationalism throughout Ireland and the 19th century practice of sending “rebels” to Tasmania as a prison sentence.

Edge’s voice swells with longing for a forgotten land and time, a kinder land and time. (Perhaps the mythical one U2 is trying to reach across the span of “Rattle and Hum”‘s run?) From the start, the album is getting it’s point across, mixing live, raw cuts with rootsy and tender moments of Americana and folk.

But the song that really perfectly captures the “rock roots” feel the album exalts is the two and a half minute “Desire,” a tune rife with handclaps and stomps, a harmonica solo, twangy guitars and lines like “Oh sister, I can’t let ya go/I’m like a preacher stealin’ hearts at a travelin’ show/For love or money, money, money.” It’s got attitude, it’s got grit, and good God, I absolutely love it.

The live version of “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” sounds exactly like how the song wants to be performed. The full choir backing the band up, The New Voices of Freedom, gives the song the new layer of spiritual praise and emotional yearning that it shot for on “The Joshua Tree,” bringing in incredible new vocal talents to shine alongside Bono’s.

Honestly, I even like “Hawkmoon 269,” which, if you’ve read “U2 by U2,” you know the joke about 269 being the number of times they tried to mix the track for a decent album cut. Even if it’s a bit long, I think the backing choral vocals give the song an excellent groove. Bono’s rough delivery works to the tune’s advantage, too.

But my favorites on the album are “Heartland,” in which Bono uses the powers of description he was honing since “The Unforgettable Fire” to create a visual and sonic landscape of the American southwest, and “God Part II,” the Lennon tribute turned rant about how wild fame was getting for the band. They perfectly capture both the sweet and emotional side of U2 and the rowdy and wild side of U2 that I love so very much.

The band also journeys to the East Coast, borrowing elements of soul for the love song to New York City and Billie Holiday, “Angel of Harlem.” Lyrically, the song paints a beautiful portrait of Christmas time in New York, the power of music and the continual inspiration it provides to generations, soundtracked by horns and jangly, upbeat percussion.

And the inclusion in some capacity of artists like B.B. King, Bob Dylan and Jimi Hendrix not only adds to the back-to-basics rock history feel of the album, but also pays tribute to these artists by exalting and upholding them as the direct inspiration for the creation of the new songs.

The album ends with a hymn to the power of love with the enduring and heartfelt “All I Want is You.” Bono sounds earnest and gentle as he sings his devotion, and the inclusion of strings helps the song reach a swelling and organic progression before fading out slowly to a moody ambiance to close the album.

Maybe this somewhat unsettling ending is a clue towards the new creative direction the band is about to take, bridging the gap between the earnest “Joshua Tree” and the unpredictable “Achtung Baby”?

Either way, tune in next time after our four heroes go away and dream it all up again…into the wild, dark, industrial, gritty and pure rock attitude of my beloved “Achtung Baby.”

Thanks for reading, and God bless.

-A.L.D.

(Photo Credit: U2/Island Records; retrieved from Wikimedia Commons).

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