I don't actually get up in the morning, look in the mirror and convince myself to be more contrarian or grumpy than a day earlier. It just works out that way some days. What I do seem to have less and less time for when I over analyze insignificant concepts like the best band in the world, are notions that arise from short cuts to reasonable thought or consensus through strong marketing or pack mentality. Basically, just because a lot of people like to call U2 the greatest band on earth, don't make it so.
I don't hate U2. Okay I might...but I didn't always, and I still have a special spot in my mental musical vault for all the wonderful art they created when they truly were brilliant. Those who remain hardcore fans will debate what are the truly great moments in U2 sonic history in similar fashion, even if they include some of the output that a critical eye might be quicker to call crap. I'm not so obnoxious to suggest that Boy or October is U2 at their best. Even I have some boundaries for naturally latching onto a band's earliest work and clinging to some notion of that being "their real stuff". However, save some bright spots along the last 25 years, I still contend The Unforgettable Fire was the band's last true masterpiece. It bridged the grit of the previous three albums with a melodic capability they've only showcased sporadically since.
So why does older U2 resonate so much more favourably for these ears? I think it lies within what so many bands struggle with after about five albums and that's legitimacy. Particularly if they create such a noteworthy splash that the bar is set forever at a height that's unrealistic. To varying degrees, those first four albums by U2 have a raw, reckless abandonement they'll never match again. The birth of the band amidst late 70's punk and their beginnings as key players in early 80's post-punk were moments in time that would actually seem forced if they even tried to recreate a similar vibe today. The passion of their words, bundled in youthful naivete. Bono's voice, so ridiculously powerful not even he really knew what direction it might fly, often teetering on the brink of cracked notes. The collective sum of their parts demanded to be heard, because they had something fresh and interesting to say with their words and sounds.
On The Unforgettable Fire you hear that proverbial band coming of age. Much has been made of the Eno/Lanois production partnership over the years, but to me, nowhere is it more evident than on this album. For years I stuck with the idea War was their best work, probably because they were the first singles I heard as a kid. Admittedly, The Joshua Tree suffers from my own self imposed overplay fatigue. Still, it doesn't have the same curiousness coupled with the urgency of its predecessor. In general, Coldplay make much better U2 albums these days than U2 do, largely because they have such love and respect for The Unforgettable Fire (not sure how much they openly admit it, but come on!).
I have not seen U2 live, and I'm sure again most diehards will suggest that is at the very core of what makes them the greatest. It is fair that in many ways U2 find themselves in a number of no win situations. When they played the Verigo tour and opened shows coming on stage with the lights on and a much stripped down stage than on previous tours, it was deemed to be both refreshing and contrived. I'm guilty of saying for years they should go back to Lillwhite's production to recapture some rawk, and when they did, it was one of their worst albums (That Atomic Bomb foolishness that gave us a cool iPod commercial for our trouble and a quick Spanish counting lesson. Still better than this most recent Crazy Tonight disaster that Blackberry paid for). The one thing I'm certain of, is no matter how big this silly thing is , it still isn't large enough to fit Bono's ego inside. I saw Depeche Mode this summer, and for a band of similar vintage, it was cool to see them act their age for the 20,000 faithful and to play new material that was still fresh and relevant in 2009. Unlike U2 , who are now fortunate enough that they get to close concerts for superior bands like the Arcade Fire.
So, I'll give them "Beautiful Day", "The Fly" from Achtung Baby and a few other tidbits since The Unforgettable Fire (pretty hard to carve up "With or Without You", so I'll refrain, and Zooropa and Pop were at least admirable in principal if not execution I suppose), but if you step back with a truly balanced view and evaluate U2's collective output, it truly is weighted heavier toward those first four albums. You could even offset their first two with their most recent two and focus in between, which would leave you with 1983-1987 as the signature years. In fairness, this is one of the purest historical stretches for creative music and if you did a similar exercise for say New Order, it would play along the same lines. New Order however, never had the good or bad fortune of being the self proclaimed best band in the world, even at a point when they might have been. They did however do us the favour of breaking up before they could release anything as completely unecessary as "I'll Go Crazy If I Don't Go Crazy Tonight". I'll go crazy if one more person calls U2 the greatest band on earth just because they've heard fifty other people say the same thing.