U2 couldn’t have made this record any sooner than they did. They first had to make new wave-inflected albums like Boy, the arena-worthy political manifestos strewn across War, stunning musical statements like 1987’s Joshua Tree and 1991’s Achtung Baby, and less than spectacular, enormously ironic albums like 1997’s Pop and all the shifts in image, attitude and understanding that went along with the restlessness that has always fueled Ireland’s most famous musical sons. Had any of that not happened, U2 would likely be mired in a sea of artistic confusion and identity crisis rather than making their 10th album the culmination and ultimate statement of their 20-year long career.
U2 have long operated on a notion that the late Freddie Mercury was never shy about spewing to critics: Albums are just albums. When the new one comes out, you might as well throw the old one away. The records may all be necessary for the grand progression of things to play out, but the only one that really matters now is the one that’s out now. This principle is obvious in U2’s evolution from windswept hair and pirate shirts to male pattern baldness and housefly sunglasses, as well as their having pushed numerous musical styles sometimes beyond their limits, only to shed them like an old skin before moving on to the next one.
All That You Can’t Leave Behind is a re-debut, if such a thing exists. Not a comeback album, but the album that was always in them, just waiting for experience and wisdom to finally win out. Both won big. From the “We Are the World” aesthetic of “Stuck in a Moment You Can’t Get Out Of” to the melancholy, Rattle and Hum hopefulness of “Walk On” and the yearning simplicity of “New York” and “Grace,” All That You Can’t Leave Behind is likely to make a U2 fan out of more than a few malcontents and warm the ever-loving hearts of others who grew up listening to “Sunday, Bloody Sunday.”
Right out of the gate this time, U2 make wondrous use of their signature penchant for memorable melodies—“Beautiful Day” creeps subtly toward its choral climax that comes in the form of a riveting passage of distorted guitar that punctuates a brilliant four-chord progression which underpins the song and sets the stage for the rest of the album. Bono is more relaxed here than on the band’s early work, allowing the most compelling components of his voice to simmer in the context of Adam Clayton’s straightforward bass line and the handbell-like chime of Edge’s guitar work.
Beyond that, the whole affair is a stripped-down tribute to a U2 that now exists only in the memories of fans who graduated high school in the mid-’80s. Bono, Edge, Clayton and drummer Larry Mullen coexist with those memories, but they’ve also left them behind to the extent that shadows of who they once were only hover tentatively above what they’ve become.
This is a different U2, one that’s capable of making compelling records—which they’ve certainly done with All That You Can’t Leave Behind—yet teeters on the verge of reinvention with every note they play. That their progression has resulted in a near full-circle re-entry into the wide world of pop music may not be entirely clear to them at this stage. They’ve simply managed to produce an album that takes their past into account, updating it the way only old hands can.
Edge, in particular, seems to have settled into a role that requires more sparse textural input than the swirling sheets of guitar anchoring much of the band’s previous work. Bono sounds far less desperate than before, having traded youthful yearning for a newfound intensity. As a result, the new record is more effective than anything they’ve recorded in the past. Also key to that effectiveness is the fact that the album’s production—courtesy of Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois, who also contribute airy additional guitar and keyboard work—isn’t overboard. In fact, there’s only enough knob-twisting present to make the organic feel of the songs more definitive. All That You Can’t Leave Behind is a pure pop record hinged on extraordinary songwriting and thoughtful arrangement.
The Mermen The Amazing California Health and Happiness Road Show (Mesa/Bluemoon)
It’s been 33 years since Jimi Hendrix uttered the famous—and thankfully untrue—quip on Are You Experienced?: “You’ll never hear surf music again.” It’s been 12 years since a San Francisco garage band with a decidedly surf-heavy sound adopted their name from that very same Hendrix, Electric Lady Land’s “1983 ( ... A Merman I Shall Return),” and set their sights on the Bay Area club scene. It’s been six years since their first CD, Food for Other Fish, and almost five since anyone last heard a peep from them on record (the six-track EP Song of the Cows). And it seems like forever has come and gone between then and now.
The Amazing California Health and Happiness Road Show is the Mermen’s third long player, and it’s just as ocean-inspired as any of their previous work. But while Food for Other Fish and 1995’s A Glorious Lethal Euphoria were keenly focused explorations into the layered realms of psychedelia, the new platter provides intoxication on many other levels. Still apparent here are all the signatures that have made the Mermen surf-rock favorites in cult circles for nearly a decade, but the Mermen have never been your little sister’s “Wipe Out” band, and that’s never been more clear than on Amazing California.
Guitarist Jim Thomas, who’s been variously described as a genius, a nut or both, is, in fact, a master of the ethereal, infusing his playing with textures from all corners of the progressive rock kingdom. To do that, he is required to exist on a very different spiritual plane than most of the rest of us, and that translates into sporadic record making, even more sporadic touring and long periods of downtime. But now, as before, the results are well worth the wait. Just as surfers employ a learned patience coupled with innate knowledge to catch the perfect wave, Thomas is at one with his artistry, allowing his creative instincts—as vast as the sea itself—to guide him into new musical territory.
Bristling sheets of guitar swell, then recede, then swell again, sometimes crashing in foamy sprays of feedback onto craggy rhythms, other times simply rippling toward the horizon on convoluted streams of reverb. The Mermen have long preyed on the power of the cinematic, but here they’ve obviously become more taken with the oceanic depths of subtlety than with the sheer power of breadth. Amazing California lingers just below the surface of consciousness and perception, a place where turgid pressure is the lone enforcer of reality, where a single nudge could result in cacophony. But Thomas’ virtuosity doesn’t allow for chaos–it allows only for boundless beauty, awe-inspiring composition and a startling inspiration. To see the ocean through his eyes is to see it for all its mysticism, and to hear it from his perspective is to truly understand the musicality of its ebb and flow.
Damon and Naomi With Ghost (Sub Pop)
When guitarist Dean Wareham abruptly left Galaxie 500 in 1991 for more Luna-r landscapes, he bankrupted one of the late ’80s’ most compelling, promising bands, and left his bandmates, Damon Krukowski and Naomi Yang, blowing in the wind. That very same year, Krukowski and Yang released their first EP as a duo (under the moniker Pierre Etoile—“rock star” in French) and subsequently began recording as Damon and Naomi the next year. Unfortunately, as their band name suggests, the duo have consistently undertaken the task of emulating the magic of Galaxie 500 over the course of three albums since. Sans Wareham, the material thus far has been as limp and wet as a used bath towel. With Ghost is no exception.
The newest collection of songs is again based heavily on their Galaxie glory days, but Wareham’s presence is, even still, sorely missed. Yang’s high-register vocals suffer from a decided lack of Wareham-penned melodies, and his pensive, simplistic guitar work has been replaced once more by parody rather than deft recapturing or artistic growth.
Damon and Naomi would do well to redefine themselves as artists rather than rest on and repeatedly attempt to replicate their laurels. On With Ghost, their talents are once again squandered on days long gone, when an unmatched and impossible-to-recapture chemistry made them charter members of a band they now only manage to echo.
John McCusker Yella Hoose (Temple)
The first solo album from the Battlefield Band’s John McCusker is a foray into traditional Scottish music that’s nearly unmatched in its depth and devotion to the past from which it’s hewn. McCusker, who, at 17 years old, replaced the Battlefield Band’s fiddling founding father Brian McNiell for 1991’s New Spring (Temple), has successfully nailed the traditional folk aesthetic of his forefathers and brought a bristling, youthful twinge to the music without compromising its roots.
Most of the 11 tracks that comprise Yella Hoose were penned by McCusker, who also went to great lengths to explain the inspiration behind each tune in the album’s liner notes. Whether having come out of reverence for other bands (the Boys of the Lough-inspired “Boys of the Puddle/The Scullion’s Wife”) or from other musicians themselves (Vässen’s Roger Tallroth contributed “30 Year Jig”), McCusker displays great breadth and impeccable fiddle prowess, as well as a remarkable knack for arrangements that seethe alternately with pure joy and poignant melancholy. Joined here by a huge cast of gifted players, including vocalist Kate Rusby and Battlefield Band cohort Iain MacDonald on whistle, small pipes and jaw harp, McCusker appears to have found the perfect setting for exploring the lighter side of Celtic music. And while his solo material isn’t quite as dense as some late model material by the Battlefield Band, it’s every bit as compelling. Yella Hoose is an album best enjoyed by firelight, but regardless of your surroundings, it’s an album that’s quite likely to light a fire in your heart.