I really dig U2. Pound for pound, they’ve done interesting things for thirty years, even when those things are colossal missteps. But no one is ever going to call them spontaneous. In fact, ‘overwrought’ comes to mind. Time and again, whenever a new CD comes out and there’s the usual articles in Rolling Stone, Spin, etc, the band talks about working endlessly on every track, over and over, for weeks and months. For example, for their latest CD, No Line on the Horizon, co-producer Brian Eno showed to Rolling Stone his iTunes, which had “hundreds of discarded songs and alternate takes.”
For prior LPs, some of those outtakes and alternate versions made their way to the bootleg circuit, and when the sound quality is adequate, you get a real glimpse of their creative process. You can hear the rough edges, the beautiful mistakes and crunchiness they tend to vet out of the end result.
The most legendary of these collections is Salomé (The Axtung Beibi] Outtakes, a 3 CD set that’s floated around since Achtung Baby was released in late ’91. These sessions have been described as “The sound of four men chopping down a Joshua Tree,” and they certainly sound like a band in transition.
When listening to the bursts of energy, clipped songs and studio chatter, I think of that passage from Six Degrees of Separation where Flan Kittredge says, “I remembered asking my kids’ second-grade teacher: ‘Why are all your students geniuses? Look at the first grade – blotches of green and black. The third grade – camouflage. But your grade, the second grade, Matisses, every one. “ I’ve always read this as meaning that children at that age have enough control to present themselves, but not enough smarts to edit themselves.
These songs are in the second grade. And while I wouldn’t recommend this set for the casual listener—how many of you really want to here 9 versions of a future b-side called “Salomé”?—there is one standout track that sums everything up. It’s called “Take You Down.”
Sure, it sounds like a U2 song; in fact, it sounds like three U2 songs (parts of this workout ultimately got folded into the songs “Ultraviolet,” “The Fly,” and the b-side “Lady with the Spinning Head.”) But you can also hear a passionate sloppiness, such as two simultaneous tracks of Bono’s mumbly stream of consciousness ‘lyric writing’ or a moment when he tells the band where he’s going to sing next.
It’s basically a shitload of ideas, phrases, garbled melodies and hooks, with a bunch of overdubs and all the faders up—exactly the kind of thing you don’t get on a finished U2 CD.