THE MEMBERS OF U2, THE IRISH rock band – Bono Vox, also known as Paul Hewson, the singer; Dave (the Edge) Evans, the guitarist; Adam Clayton, the bass player, and Larry Mullen Jr., the drummer – are in their mid-20’s. Even before their first album, ”Boy,” in 1981, they had a strong cult and critical following in Britain, and through extensive touring they have developed a critical and now popular following in this country as well.

Their 1983 album, ”War,” marked their emergence into serious contention for ”great band” status. Now they have released their fifth studio album (not counting a couple of partly live, 12-inch mini-albums). It’s called ”The Joshua Tree” (Island 7 90581, all three formats), and in conjunction with a yearlong world tour (due into New York in mid-May), it’s designed to achieve megastatus for this band at last. Robert Hilburn of The Los Angeles Times wrote earlier this month: ”U2 is what the Rolling Stones ceased being years ago – the greatest rock ‘n’ roll band in the world.”

The group won its fans because at a time of punk anarchy, fashion overkill and synth-pop triviality, this was a band that stuck to singer-guitar-bass-drum basics. And solid basics, to boot: Bono was a powerful singer, the Edge played guitar that was both imaginative and soulful, and Mr. Clayton and Mr. Mullen made for a propulsive rhythm section.

In addition, Bono’s lyrics – the music is by the band as a whole – addressed sensitive and interesting themes in a way that was, if not truly poetic, at least evocative and challenging. Those themes started out with self-examination – what it meant to grow up. But soon it emerged that three of the four (Mr. Clayton was the exception) were committed Christians, even if – perhaps out of personal conviction, perhaps out of expediency given the charged situation in Northern Ireland -they adhered to no particular Christian denomination.

In ”War,” they addressed the political tensions in Northern Ireland – they’re from Dublin, and Bono has a Catholic father and a Protestant mother – with real intensity, especially in their anthem, ”Sunday Bloody Sunday” (”And the battle’s just begun, There’s many lost, but tell me who has won? The trenches dug within our hearts, And mother’s children, brothers, sisters torn apart. . .The real battle just begun. To claim the victory Jesus won, On a Sunday, bloody Sunday”). This sort of sentiment, which the band was wise enough to broaden to include condemnations of all sorts of hatred and strife, not just the Irish variant, appealed to the kind of idealistic young person who also admired Bruce Springsteen’s social consciousness. And like Mr. Springsteen, U2 gives a superb live show, easily evoking the sound of their studio records but surpassing those records with rhapsodic extensions of their songs, featuring Bono’s impassioned, athletic leapings about the stage and guitar-playing by the Edge that rarely oversteps the bounds of expression into empty virtuosity. No wonder two live mini-albums have been released.

For their past two studio albums, however, U2 has chosen to work with Brian Eno, the cult-hero English synthesizer wizard, avant-gardist, video artist, producer and reluctant rock star (along with his current producing partner, Daniel Lanois). In ”The Unforgettable Fire” of 1984, this led to an artistically interesting if commercially questionable retreat from the politicized anthems of ”War.” The new direction, as anyone who knows Mr. Eno’s work might have predicted, was toward more elusive, fragmentary songs, potent and unusual instrumental textures, loads of busy detail and washes of synthesizer sound.

The partnership has continued with ”The Joshua Tree.” Mr. Eno is a brilliant, charismatic man, and ambitious younger rock musicians can learn much from him. The talented ones, like David Byrne and Talking Heads, profit from the experience, produce fascinating work with him and go on to great things on their own. But his influence can swamp less individual voices. ”We still had more to learn from them,” said the Edge to Rolling Stone magazine recently, referring to Mr. Eno and Mr. Lanois. ”There was still mileage in the relationship and collaboration.”

But interestingly, three of the 11 songs have been mixed by Steve Lillywhite, the veteran rock producer who did U2’s first three albums. The band explains that Mr. Eno had other commitments and himself recommended Mr. Lillywhite, but the choice also serves to push this new album slightly back in the commercial direction of ”War.” But not too far; this is still audibly an Eno album. Which, one hastens to add, is hardly all bad, artistically speaking. Mr. Eno is no mere producer, in the sense of a glorified recording engineer, helping a band capture its live sound accurately in the studio. He influences the creation of the songs, helps shape the arrangements and participates actively in the playing, along with the more mundane tasks of getting it all to sound right on records.

The title of ”The Joshua Tree” is not the only biblical image on this album, but this is not by any means a hectoring Christian album. Song subjects range from commentary on America’s wealth and hypocrisy to heroin addiction, romantic despair, the loss of a friend, political and economic oppression and totalitarian brutality.

Musically, the band stretches its range here in two ways. One is the inclusion of musical idioms never so overtly explored before on a U2 record, especially the gospel chorus of ”One Tree Hill” and the country blues guitar and harmonica of ”Running to Stand Still” and ”Trip Through Your Wires.” But the most striking effects come when the Edge’s fixation on obsessive, repetitive guitar textures is allied with Mr. Eno’s eerie synthesizer coloration.

Oddly, next to this focused instrumental concentration, Bono’s singing seems to have grown more theatrical. To this taste, his work is marred throughout by sobbing affectation that approaches the cliched bleating rhetoric all too familiar from American ”corporate-rock” bands. One hopes this isn’t a calculated ploy, along with all the songs that refer to the United States, to sell records in this country. But cynical or sincere, it’s a mistake.

There is also a curious loss of individuality to his singing. In concert and in the earlier albums, he projects very much with his own voice. Here, through unconscious or conscious emulation or through Mr. Eno’s influence, he sounds at times like David Bowie, at times like Lou Reed, at times like Peter Gabriel and at times even like Mr. Springsteen. What he doesn’t sound like, often enough, is himself.

If Bono’s vocals represent a miscalculation, so, one imagines, does the pervasively depressed tone of this album as a whole. Once upon a time, rock-and-roll was cheerful music, meant to galvanize teen-agers into dancing or worse. ”The Joshua Tree” puts U2 squarely into the camp of what Jon Pareles last week called ”mope rock.” Mr. Eno was a precursor of this sort of thing in the 70’s, with his first band, Roxy Music, and for all the real appeal of his work on a song-by-song basis, he helps push ”The Joshua Tree” rather too far in that direction. This is not to discount U2’s aspirations to rock greatness, nor to deny any possibility of commercial success for this new album, nor certainly to doubt that U2 won’t perform terrific live concerts during its 1987 tour. Quite the reverse, actually. We know this is a wonderful live band, and the haunting songs on ”The Joshua Tree” should be ideal for the toughening and expansion that concert arrangements can bring to studio material.

One also doesn’t doubt that Mr. Eno has helped these young players grow in musicianship and self-awareness. But for their next album, they’d be better off without him.

Source: New York Times/ John Rockwell

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