Rattle and Hum is an expression of U2’s urge to have it both ways. A sprawling double album that incorporates live tracks, cover versions, collaborations, snippets of other people’s music and a passage from a taped interview, the record is an obvious effort to clear the conceptual decks and lower expectations following the multiplatinum success of The Joshua Tree.
But ambition has always been U2’s gift and curse, and the band clearly doesn’t feel fully comfortable with its sights lowered. Consequently, if amid the rather studied chaos here, you feel moved to draw comparisons with masterpieces of excess like the Beatles’ White Album or the Rolling Stones’ Exile on Main Street, you can be sure that Bono, the Edge, Adam Clayton and Larry Mullen Jr. won’t mind a bit.
This record doesn’t quite ascend to those heights, but U2 does win half the prize. In its inclusiveness and rollicking energy, Rattle and Hum caps the story of U2’s rise from Dublin obscurity to international superstardom on a raucous, celebratory note. At the same time, it closes off none of the options the band might want to pursue for its next big move — and, possibly, the album even opens a few doors.
Despite Bono’s insistence in the blistering “God Part II” that “I don’t believe in the 60’s in the golden age of pop/You glorify the past when the future dries up,” Rattle and Hum is in large part a paean to the tradition of Sixties artists that U2 reveres. “God Part II” itself is Bono’s personal extension of “God,” the dramatic track on Plastic Ono Band in which John Lennon shed the Sixties, his identity as a Beatle and all the idols he had worshiped. Bono’s update includes a pointed attack on Albert Goldman, whose book The Lives of John Lennon paints a bitter, unflattering portrait of the ex-Beatle: “I don’t believe in Goldman his type like a curse/Instant karma’s gonna get him if I don’t get him first.”
Rattle and Hum evokes the Beatles right off the bat when it opens with a corrosive live version of “Helter Skelter,” a song that originally appeared on the White Album. “This song Charles Manson stole from the Beatles; we’re stealin’ it back,” Bono announces portentously before U2 tears into the tune.
Bob Dylan sings on one track (the meandering ballad “Love Rescue Me,” which Dylan also co-wrote) and plays organ on another (“Hawkmoon 269”). He is further acknowledged when U2 ignites a live rendition of “All Along the Watchtower.” Jimi Hendrix, the third member of U2’s Sixties trinity, is resurrected when the version of “The Star-Spangled Banner” he performed at Woodstock introduces U2’s searing live take on “Bullet the Blue Sky.”
U2 certainly holds its own while flirting with the greats, but Rattle and Hum is most enjoyable when the band relaxes and allows itself to stretch without self-consciously reaching for the stars. The New Voices of Freedom choir joins the band onstage in New York for an electrifying gospel-style rendition of “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” that finds new depths in a song that was gripping the first time around.
Guitarist B.B. King teams up with U2 at Sun Studio, in Memphis, and together they tear up “When Love Comes to Town,” a rousing blues rocker about the redemptive power of love. While in Memphis, U2 also brought in the Memphis Horns to help out with a soulful tribute to Billie Holiday titled “Angel of Harlem.”
U2 flexes its rock & roll muscle on the Bo Diddley-inspired single “Desire,” the fierce “Hawkmoon 269” and a raucous live rendition of the anti-apartheid “Silver and Gold,” which first appeared in a studio version on the Sun City protest album organized by Little Steven Van Zandt. A tough live performance of “Pride (In the Name of Love),” U2’s anthem in honor of Martin Luther King Jr., captures the group’s onstage might at its inspirational peak.
But the quieter songs on Rattle and Hum provide the record with introspective moments made all the more effective by the generally boisterous context of the album. The Edge turns in a fine lead vocal and accompanies himself on electric guitar and keyboards on the hymnlike “Van Diemen’s Land,” about an Irish nationalist poet who was exiled to Australia. “Heartland,” on which Brian Eno plays keyboards, summons up a dreamscape reminiscent of the drifting, poetic songs on The Unforgettable Fire. And Rattle and Hum eases to a close with the ballad “All I Want Is You,” a stirring statement of unsatisfied desire that features an eloquent string arrangement by Van Dyke Parks.
As its title suggests, Rattle and Hum is meant to be dynamic, rather than strictly coherent. It’s intended to dramatize U2 in motion and transition and to exult in the barrage of influences the band had just begun to admit on The Joshua Tree. Recorded almost entirely in the United States, the album also carries forward U2’s near obsession with the brave new world of America.
But for all its excitement, Rattle and Hum seems a tad calculated in its supposed spontaneity. The album is, after all, a soundtrack. Rather than a documentary, it’s merely a document of events that often were staged and arranged for the express purpose of being filmed and recorded. The album ably demonstrates U2’s force but devotes too little attention to the band’s vision.
That vision, of course, has evolved impressively over the years — beginning with the dark adolescent wonder of Boy and moving through the mystical enclosure of October, the fury and poignance of War, the surreal imagery of The Unforgettable Fire and the resonant expansiveness of The Joshua Tree. Rattle and Hum is the sound of four men who still haven’t found what they’re looking for — and whose restlessness assures that they will be looking further still.