Listening to a new U2 album for the first time is always a heady experience, but I can’t think of a single album that left me as dumbstruck after the first listen as the Passengers album, and that holds doubly true for the first track, “United Colours.” This track really defies easy description. On one hand, it seems to be pure techno, which is simple enough. It has big pounding bass beats, such as what one might expect to hear on the dance-floor, and no vocals or lyrics to distract from the hedonism. On the other hand…it makes me say “Whew!” There’s a lot going on in this track. All kinds of crazy sound effects, including some demented guitar riffing, and some complex percussion. In many ways, this track straddles the gulf between U2’s desire to make danceable, accessible pop music, and their need for experimentation, which I understand keeps the creative wheels greased and turning properly. I have a suspicion that this last statement is especially true for Edge. He seems to enjoy creating inventive, avant-garde soundscapes that are alternative in the truest sense of the word, where he really pushes the envelope of what we think of when we think of words like “song” and “music.”Examples range from the Captive soundtrack to his score for Morleigh’s dance troupe’s Cold Dream Colour. Perhaps this is why U2’s collaborations with Brian Eno have been among some of their most successful and popular…Brian seems to understand that kind of creativity as well as a commercial band’s need to create something for the masses.
I say that U2’s collaborations with Brian Eno have yielded some of their most well-liked results…albums like The Joshua Tree and Achtung Baby…but Brian is also responsible for some of the band’s least commercial projects, things like the Passengers album, and No Line on the Horizon, which I almost consider a kind of Passengers, Part II. These two projects are similar in that they feature the heaviest input from Eno of any of the U2 albums that Brian has been involved in, and both albums contain music that could be considered experimental and, well, strange. I mean seriously, I love “Unknown Caller” dearly. It is one of U2’s most deeply affecting songs for me, but it is undeniably weird. The same is true for “United Colours.” The thing to understand when listening to these tracks is that U2 isn’t attempting to make hits with these two songs. They are following their internal muse, and, to be honest, this music isn’t for everyone. This is music for fans who are willing to make an investment in their listening that goes beyond a trip to the record store to pick up the week’s hot releases. One has to be willing to sit down and make the work the center of their focus for an hour or so, at least…maybe even longer, as Original Soundtracks took me several listens all the way through to begin to get the ideas that were being presented there. The point is, there has to be a kind of meeting of the minds for listeners to truly grasp what U2 and Brian were attempting with “United Colours.” Definitely not what I would call “easy listening.” I hope that if you haven’t listened to the Passengers album in a while, or if you have never listened with the album as the center of your attention, you will sit down this week and devote some time to hearing the record with fresh ears. I know that we are all busy, but it is a worthwhile endeavor.