It’s interesting to note that none of the singles that 'built' U2 as a global brand ever actually got to number one. By which I mean 'New Years Day', 'Pride (In The Name Of Love)', 'I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For', 'Where The Streets Have No Name' et al. It was as late as 1988 before their first appearance here and that itself was with 'Desire', a song that attempted to perform a volte face from what U2 had, till then, been all about; that is, to turn its back on the sloganeering bluster of old and deliver a straight rock and roll song with no fat. Further, it also strikes me that although the band are now becoming more frequent visitors to these pages than of old, their appearances also tend to be via songs that studiously avoid the 'classic' U2 sound (‘Beautiful Day’) or at least remould it into something else entirely ('The Fly').
New song 'Vertigo' shares common ground and intent with 'Desire' in that it's presented as a back to basics rock pig of a song shorn of the usual U2 frills and fancies. But in the same leopards and spots scenario, it also shares the same flaws as that former song through its four on the floor rock becoming stifled by U2’s conscious denial of their own original brief (i.e. sloganeering bluster) and pandering to someone else's. And I don’t have to look far for my misgivings - the opening "nos, dos, tres, catorce” (‘one, two, three, fourteen in Spanish) count in was ‘explained’ by Bono with a studiously cool "there may have been some alcohol involved", for all the world as if he believes (or expects us to) that this was truly spontaneous and ‘Vertigo’ was a one shot deal with lack of money/studio time meaning there was no chance of going back for another take.
Then again, maybe by now he’s bought into the mythology to the extent that he does believe it, but whatever is running through Bono's ears, through mine all I hear is a call back to Jonathan Richman's “one, two, three, four, five, six” opening on ‘Roadrunner’, a count in that both keeps with rock and roll tradition and also breaks it - or as Greil Marcus writes: “Richman’s addition of “five-six” meant that he wasn’t ready, that he was taking a deep breath, that he was gearing up for a change no-one had made before”.* Although though I can't quite picture Bono actually listening to Jonathan Richman**, I can easily imagine him envying his position in the rock mythos and I can just as easily imagine him feeling a similar gearing up at his count, or at least thinking that he does, but to me it’s little more than an attempt to gatecrash a lineage and tradition by force instead of acceptance. It makes the U2 of 'Vertigo' a covers band - albeit one covering an ideal or a concept - rather than one engaged in creating a song that adds to or takes that tradition on a stage.
Which is always U2’s mistake and why I simply can't take to them - though impeccable in playing and structure, 'Vertigo' has the feel of a technical drawing set out on an architect's desk; every line and angle is carefully mapped and drawn with a fine line instead of the quick, freehand sketch it aspires to be. The guitars roar and the drums crash, but for all its noise, 'Vertigo' does not breathe freely. Whatever force it has is kept safely constrained behind the Plexiglas of aesthetic considerations that keep it in constant check, meaning it never manages to shake off the mood killing aura of being churned out by four rich, middle aged men playing at rock and roll, much like Jagger and Richard since the eighties but without the luxury of an ‘(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction’ or a ‘Honky Tonk Women’ in their back catalogue.*** It's not intolerable, and I'd sooner listen to this than approximately 80% of the rest of their output, but it's something I'd need to have a lot of time on my hands for before I actually got round to digging it out and playing it. Because much as I take little pleasure from gunning for U2, I take even less from listening to their music.
* Greil Marcus: Lipstick Traces - A Secret History Of The 20th Century. Please read this book.
** Though to be hnoest, I can never imagine Bono settling down and listening to anyone's music, not even his own. I bet his shelves are groaning with Billie Holiday, John Coltrane, Hank Williams, Big Star etc box sets though.
*** I could elaborate, but with a lyric that says "The night is full of holes, as bullets rip the sky. Of ink with gold, they twinkle as the boys play rock and roll" then I'll let these boys hoist themselves on their own petard(s).