One of U2’s strongest suits has always been Bono’s conviction. When he writes about themes like intra-national strife and the power of faith, it’s hard to resist Bono’s words, even if his rock ‘n’ roll persona has grown tiresome in recent… well, decades. Apparently, these messages have resonated all across Africa. Unfortunately, vast swaths of that continent are far too well acquainted with internal strife and the need for hope. It’s not surprising, then, that a selection of African artists should want to take these songs they’ve absorbed and reinterpret them from their own perspectives. Shout! Factory assembled U2 cover tunes from some of the best artists from Benin, Senegal, and other African nations for In the Name of Love (which is not to be confused with another various artists disc from 2004 by the exact same name, which consists of Christian acts doing U2 tunes for Africa).
The CD kicks off with Angelique Kidjo’s take on “Mysterious Ways”. It’s a wonderful interpretation, adding new layers to the song. The track is exceptional from the perspective of Kidjo’s usual output, too. For an artist overly reliant on high-gloss production values, the organic qualities of her “Mysterious Ways” are wonderfully refreshing. She deftly mixes high-life guitar-based verses with a chorus that is essentially an acoustic, pan-African take on club music, with four-to-the-floor kick drum and an ecstatic “yay-hey-hey!”. As a perfect final touch, a fiddle dances spiritedly throughout the song.
On In the Name of Love, two of U2’s most intense songs are performed with deep restraint, stripping the originals of their melodrama in favor of bruised weariness. This is especially true of Guinean band Ba Cissoko’s “Sunday Bloody Sunday”, which they turn into a corpuscular dirge, filigreed with minor-keyed runs on the kora. Vieux Farka Touré‘s rendition of “Bullet the Blue Sky” puts off a little more heat, but it’s coming from burning coals rather than a raging fire. The son of legendary Malian musician Ali Farka Touré is a great guitarist in his own right. Here, Vieux trades bluesy licks with sustained streaks of distortion, paying homage to the Edge’s swirls of Infinite Guitar on the original.
Already a low-burning beauty, “Love Is Blindness” is interpreted beautifully by Angolan singer Waldemar Bastos. He spent a chunk of his life living in Portugal, where he sought refuge from the turmoil in his homeland. While in Iberia, he clearly picked up on the sadness of the fado, because he invests an extra layer of melancholia into “Love Is Blindness”. His interpretation also possesses a jazzy lilt, making it seem more like a cover of Cassandra Wilson’s cover, from her excellent 1995 album, New Moon Daughter. Regardless of the true font of Bastos’s inspiration, his version is worthy of standing alongside both U2 and Wilson’s versions. Former Feta Kuti drummer Tony Allen—a well-respected bandleader in his own right—does a lovely job with “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For”. While it lacks the rapturous explosion of the New Voices of Freedom gospel choir’s version on U2’s Rattle and Hum, it is quite spirited, peppered with lively horn blasts and nice call-and-response vocals.
Like so many compilations, In the Name of Love isn’t perfect. Vusi Mahlasela presents a typically pretty—yet not terribly engaging—performance of “Sometimes You Can’t Make It on Your Own”, a 2000s-era U2 single already teetering on the edge of being forgettable. Mahlasela turns the song into a pleasant soporific. Still, it’s nice enough and doesn’t disturb the CD’s overall vibe. However, the feel of the record is derailed by another pair of tracks. Keziah Jones steers us way off-course with his Al Jarreau-like take on “One”, a passionate U2 song stripped of all its emotion by Jones’s smooth, bland, I’ll-have-the-house-zinfandel interpretation. Running astray in the other direction is the African Underground All-Stars’ Afropop-hip-hop adaptation of “Desire”. Yes, I know that rapping is African in origin, but the contributions here from Chosan, Iyoka, and Optimist are utterly African-American, and pretty pedestrian, to boot. Further, their low profiles don’t offer any hope of pulling in a crossover hip-hop audience.
Les Nubians also diverge from the central tone of In the Name of Love with an electronica/house redo of “With or Without You”. They expose one of the central issues with covering a classic song: Do you play it straight or remake the song in your own style? The argument for the latter approach is, basically: If you want to hear the original, well, just listen to the original. On the other hand, Les Nubians’ version of “With or Without You” barely resembles U2’s song. So, a complementary argument against radical reinterpretation is: Hey, if you want to remake a song to sound nothing like the original, then why don’t you just write a new song? Of course, then it wouldn’t be on a CD of U2 covers.
The underlying struggle that manifests itself in lots of compilations is a battle of homogeneity versus heterogeneity, and In the Name of Love is no exception. Obviously, Africa is a big continent comprised of many countries, each with its own identity. It’s tempting to want this disc to be nothing more (or less) than a collection of great Afropop covers of U2 songs, all done in the usual Afropop way. So, yeah, the actual listening experience gets a little messy when rappers, smooth jazz singers, and club-ready backing tracks are thrown into the mix. On the other hand, this diversity mirrors Africa’s wide range of musical flavors. Most important, the majority of the tracks here are quite good, and find interesting ways of capturing the great big heart of U2 within this new context of African music. Despite a few setbacks, In the Name of Love mostly succeeds as a pure listening experience, a cool idea, and a fine introduction to some great African musicians.