Puberty is a bitch. But then again, so is Bono.
So it’s not all together surprising that in U2’s second decade, 10 years that rarely agree with anyone, the band churned out some of its most inventive and impressive material. The na*ve yet earnest “We can change the world” motto that was carved in a heart of a Joshua Tree was gone in a flash of wrap-around shades and 40-foot lemon-shaped mirror balls.
U2’s Best Of 1990-2000 showcases the band’s journey through its own adolescence, as the members stylishly stumble with electronic music, flirt with the idea of rebellious rock, endure fantastic musical growth spurts (notably Edge’s guitar work) and eventually find themselves again, trying to change the world.
The first disc starts out with the sly smiles of “Even Better Than The Real Thing” and “Mysterious Ways” from ’91s Achtung Baby. But then bucking all chronology laws, it jumps into the feelin’ warm and fuzzy anthem of 2000, “Beautiful Day.” This ain’t no history lesson. Nor is it a collection of singles and money-makers.
Instead, the band opts to tell the story of unfaithfulness all over again. After the three-track fling, U2 wraps the listener, unsuspectingly at first, into the couple’s fight with melodic and haunting new track “Electric Storm.” Initially, the song seems somewhat of a throwaway, a bone thrown to loyal fans that have no real use for Best Of otherwise.
Lyrics like “Coffee’s cold but it’ll get you through / Compromise, that’s nothing new to you” and “The air is heavy, heavy as a truck / We need the rain to wash away our bad luck” aren’t Bono’s typical mind-blowing prose, instead perhaps taken from the diary of a 12-year-old. But the song, elevated by Edge’s raucous guitar and Bono’s inevitable emotional wailing, grows on you and pivots the course of the album perfectly.
From there, “One,” U2 at its finest, has the ailing couple reconciling, but not completely. Aside from “Miss Sarajevo,” a soothing, operatic ballad and the only offering from 1995’s Passengers, the next fourth of the album is vastly different in sound (coming from four different albums) but stunningly similar in theme.
“Stay (Faraway, So Close),” “Stuck In A Moment,” a cleverly revamped “Gone” and “Until The End of The World” all have their protagonists failing to keep good on a promise to themselves to get the hell outta town. And, as always with this group, “town” can be U2-ese for just about anything.
“The Hands That Built America,” written for Martin Scorsese’s long-delayed “Gangs of New York” and the album’s only other new song, is an atypical piano-laden tune that is not altogether special and merely provides a good soundtrack for exiting a theater or reading credits.
The rest of the album then finds the couple working through the hangover of infidelity. Whether its avoidance (a “Discotheque” that has been reworked in the less-is-more philosophy of All That You Can’t Leave Behind), denial (in “Hold Me, Thrill Me, Kiss Me, Kill Me” and a retooled, breathy “Staring At The Sun”) or hopelessness (in yet another remixed “Numb” and finally acceptance in the beautifully simple “The First Time”), the affair and the band have come full circle.
Both have worked through their rebellion, learned from their mistakes and emerged even better than before.