U2 - The Unforgettable Fire
I have long maintained that no matter how good the content of an album, the producer has the power to make or break it. And Eno's production on this lends it a woolly and indistinct quality which really does affect the quality of the songs. I do not understand the hype and the plaudits surrounding Eno's production skills - I have not come across a single album featuring production work of his that I have liked (let alone his solo work which I find tedious in the extreme). The songs themselves may not have been the best collection U2 ever put together, but they were better than the production on here gives them credit for.
The Unforgettable Fire seems to sound closest to The Joshua Tree in that it contains a number of arena rock almost anthemic songs. However, where the latter album succeeds, this one fails. Sure it is technically well-produced (Eno would) and well played, it lacks that depth of sound which made The Joshua Tree such a hit. This I blame on the production. Eno should not have been involved. It is not his style. The result is that the album comes across as lifeless over huge swathes of the music.
Basically it falls short because it is wallpaper music. It is pleasant without making you sit up and listen. The songs do not seem that inspired (except for "Pride") and the album generally has the feel of something which was made with a mind to keeping the same sort of sound - no variation, no unusual themes or scores. Basically, if rock is supposed to be good fun above all, then this falls short. This is a real struggle to get used to.
A further criticism is that this album is the first one that U2 put out after their successful tour of America had catapulted them to the status of the World's Leading Stadium Rock BandTM. For some inexplicable reason, this seems to have made the band decide to make the album with a much more American feeling to it than anything they had previously done. Not just the theme of many of the songs, but the feeling of the music. It has an American ambience to it. Two tracks as homage to Martin Luther King is one thing, but why did they add such plodders as "Elvis Presley and America" and "Fourth of July"? One perhaps unintended side effect of this move was that it put some distance between them and their post punk roots. Wherever they may have gone after this, they lost their credibility in the eyes of their original fanbase with this one for that fanbase could not escape the cold hard reality of UK under Thatcher and live the American Dream under Reagan.
One thing I will say in the album's favour is that I like the cover though. It has a warm, summery feel to it, but the washed out photograph of the ruined abbey rather presages the washed out feel to the music contained inside. I often wonder what this would sound like remastered, and with a production style which concentrated more on contrasting the various sounds rather than trying to run them all together.
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