I have a confession to make: I'm not a big U2 fan.
I mean, I like a lot of their songs, and they've been a constant in my life, but the only album I bought was Achtung Baby (and I think I bought at least two copies after one disappeared).
After playing and listening to their songs intensely for a few weeks, I've had time to think about why the band hadn't really appealed to me -- and why I've come to change my mind.
First, I'm generally not a huge fan of over-processed music. I like playing music, and I like hearing how things are played. The Edge's reliance on delays and other effects pedals (and the subsequent martial beat required of Larry Mullen to keep steady with the electronics) impressed me but never won me over because it was all hidden in a metaphoric black box.
After spending some time with our lead guitarist Chip and Gary Backstrom (formerly Jiggle the Handle, now of the Gary Backstrom Band and the Family Folk Chorale), they helped decipher some of the techniques and I've come to appreciate the simplicity of the playing under the barrage of notes. Lots of new ways to add a 4th to a chord or arpeggio! The chording that opens "Pride" is really clever.
And to be honest, even though I still don't totally understand it, I've always loved that crazy guitar sound that starts "Mysterious Ways," so maybe I was kidding myself about over-processed sounds.
Second, early on I dismissed Bono's lyrics as stridently political. And as much as I appreciated the power of politics, it wasn't something I wanted to sing about. Crowds chanting anthems always kind of freak me out, even when they are chanting something I believe in. That's why I love Achtung Baby -- I can get behind songs of love pretty easily.
I recently found this excellent fan site, atU2, that has a list of all their songs (including minor lyric alterations in recorded live shows) and a published quote from the band (mostly Bono) about what they were writing about. And it turns out Bono and I share the same opinion about some of these lyrics -- heavily emotional and hung on subjects somewhat haphazardly:
"'Pride' started out as an ecstatic rant. We looked for a subject big enough to demand this level of emotion that was coming out. ... There was a lot of emotion there, but to be honest with you, as a lyric it's daft. No, not daft. It's just not deft. It's a missed opportunity. I even get the time of Dr. King's assassination wrong. I said, 'Early morning-April four.' It was early evening." - Bono, Rolling Stone 2005
That site also pointed out to me that "One," which was I always thought was a break-up song, was written about a different kind of relationship: a gay man coming out to his father. That really turns my head around and I've come to appreciate the lyrics even more.
Third, U2 has at times seemed like Bono's band. That's sort of ridiculous since The Edge pretty much defines the sound, but Bono's strong personality and seeming ubiquity can make it seem like a one man show.
This is where Chris Eastburn changed my mind. As usual, Chris did a wonderful job choosing and arranging the songs we are singing, and in doing so he's transformed how I think about the songs. I truly believe that these are some of the best vocal arrangements our group has sung. It may be related to the open, arpeggiated musical backgrounds that they are laid over. It certainly has to do with the songs that hit that pop sweet spot: the balance between simplicity and repetition versus complexity and a sense of the new. Maybe it's because the chorus knows and loves these songs. In any case, hearing fifty voices harmonizing on "40" or "In God's Country" can sound like a church choir.
So, three reasons that kept me from embracing the band are now dismissed. Somehow these very particular songs from particular decades and from a specific European island have become universal sing alongs to me. They really are fun to sing along to and I hope lots of people come out to sing with us on May 6, 2018. Should be a good one.
Jack Cheng directs the Clemente Course in Dorchester, excavates in the Middle East, and writes in Waban, MA.