With long-lost B-sides, fantastic one-off experiments, drastically different alternate versions of some of their biggest post-millennial hits, U2's latest rarities collection proves to be one of their most surprisingly satisfying releases in recent memory.
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"What a ripoff!"
That's what many U2 fans were crying in 2004 when The Complete U2 was unleashed on iTunes for the first time. As part of the multimedia promotional blitz that surrounded the release of the band's 11th studio album -- the very rock-oriented How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb -- the folks at Apple decided to not only release super-special U2 iPods with the new album loaded onto them already, but they also created The Complete U2, a $150 "digital box set" that featured every single U2 album and single ever released (B-sides included), along with a brand new 18-track set called "Rare & Unreleased", wherein unreleased songs from multiple album sessions (ranging from The Joshua Tree to Dismantle) were made available for the first time.
Though this sounds good on paper, U2 fans -- even casual ones -- would had a hard time justifying the need to re-purchase multiple albums they already owned just to get to these unreleased gems (the "Early Demos" and bonus live discs weren't helping matters either). Yet for those who thought that perhaps the price of the massive 446-song set would go down in value at some point, the moment of opportunity soon passed: in late 2007, The Complete U2 went off-line.
Yet U2 have always gone down some interesting routes when it came to unreleased material: not only do all their rejected songs see the light of day eventually, most all of them are of exceedingly high quality. The "bonus disc" of B-sides that was included with the initial shipments of The Best of 1980-1990 featured not only some of the group's most sweetly saccharine moments ("Sweetest Thing"), but also served as a fascinating look at the band's influences (a cover of Patti Smith's "Dancing Barefoot"), causes ("Silver and Gold") and lo-fi roots (the fantastically weird "Trash, Trampoline, and the Party Girl", whose drum pattern seems to be shifting every five seconds).
The B-side view from the group's second decade, however, just wasn't as awe-inspiring. The bonus disc to The Best of 1990-2000 was heavy on remixes and new songs, featuring very few genuine takeways in terms of unreleased material (the rustic "Summer Rain" being the only notable exception). Part of the reason for this lack of additional '90s material is simple: when the band entered the studio to record some additional B-sides for Achtung Baby, they wound catching a recording vibe so good that they decided to go ahead and release the songs from those sessions as Zooropa, the "surprise" follow-up to one of their all-time masterpieces. Between that and their unbelievably elaborate touring escapades, the band had little time to work on spare tracks or genre experiments during the Clinton years.
When Bono and co. entered the new millennium, however, they began digging into their coffers more than ever, releasing more compilation albums (with new songs), re-releasing The Joshua Tree (with tons of B-sides), and re-releasing their first three albums together (with ... tons of B-sides). Just when it seemed that the band had unearthed and repackaged everything they have ever recorded, along comes Medium, Rare, and Remastered: a suitable stand-in for those who didn't want to cough up $150 for an iTunes "box set".
The two-disc Medium, Rare set includes all of the non-remix tracks featured in the "Unreleased & Rare" set, and some of them might as well be considered undiscovered classics. Medium opens with "Levitate", a fantastic reject from the All That You Can't Leave Behind sessions. Riding on a brisk little backbeat, the Edge's tremolo pedal gets a workout as Bono makes another round of generic Bono-isms ("they can't stop us now", "spirit come on down", etc.), the whole thing serving as a logical bridge between the more dance-oriented experiments of Pop and the rock classicism of ATYCLB, even if the resulting track winds up being too laid-back to fit in either era. Though "Levitate" was wisely excised from ATYCLB (the only way it could've been integrated would've been by replacing the surging "New York"), it remains a fantastic little number; one of those left-field gems that will serve as great fodder for those "Best of U2" mix-CDs you'll make for friends years down the line. Though the U2-by-numbers rocker "Love You Like Mad" is fairly dismissible, the outtakes from the ATYCLB sessions still give great insight into a time when the group was finding their voice all over again, trying a slew of new textures just to see what would stick.
The outtakes from How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb, however, are a completely different story. For a disc that showed U2 balancing their spiritual side with their long-dormant rock impulses, that push-and-pull dichotomy created a tension that resulted in some of their best songs in some time ("Sometimes You Can't Make It on Your Own") and some of their biggest embarrassments (the boneheaded "Vertigo"). In fact, you can hear "Vertigo" in its original form as "Native Son", a track that uses the exact same riff but places wholly new words and some additional guitar lines over it. "Is it so hard for a native son to be free?" Bono intones on the chorus, the dissonant, almost abstract keyboards in the background giving ample context for Bono eulogy of a boy who is displaced from his hometown and, to a lesser degree, his own life (note how Bono claims that even though the native son in question has been riddled with bullets, Bono claims he didn't do it and even tells the officer who approaches him to "put down his gun" -- the whole scenario serving as a stark contrast from the fiery political mantra that was "Sunday Bloody Sunday" 'lo those many years ago).
"Flower Child" -- a dry, strummy acoustic number that was recorded for Atomic Bomb -- could have easily made its way onto Rattle & Hum, just as how the fantastically underproduced "Xanax and Wine" sounds like it could've fit on War if given just a few additional tweaks, both songs showing that U2 are very, very conscious as to what their own history is, and, yes, they could recreate it at the drop of a hat. The only thing that's more fascinating than the band's alternate recording history prove to be the alternate versions of Atomic Bomb songs that pop up on here, "Sometimes You Can't Make It on Your Own" going through the most radical overhaul, here padded out with fluffy, distracting waves of distortion that rob the album version of all its emotional heft. When you add that to a remarkably toned down version of "Yahweh", we come to very strange epiphany about the World's Biggest Rock Band: U2 are better self-editors than we've ever given them credit for.
The rest of Medium, Rare's extras jump to all eras of the band's existence, ranging from fantastically upbeat Woody Guthrie covers ("Jesus Christ" from Rattle & Hum) to some of their greatest early rock triumphs (the stuttering riff of "Saturday Night" could have easily been one of Boy's highlights). Yet amidst all these interesting nooks and crannies, there is one truly spectacular moment that's worth savoring: the "Sometimes You Can't Make It on Your Own" B-side "Big Girls Are Best", which features one of the fattest, funkiest riffs that the band has ever done, easily putting their Kraftwerk cover ("Neon Lights", a B-side to the "Vertigo" single) to shame. Hell, it even out-rocks "Get on Your Boots", proving that much like Noel Gallagher, sometimes its worth holding onto your B-sides -- they might be some of the best songs you'll have for some time.
Yet as fun as Medium, Rare is, we're still not being given the band's complete war chest of rarities. Where's "Stateless" (from the Million Dollar Hotel soundtrack)? "Christmas (Baby Please Come Home") from the Very Special Christmas compilation? How about "Tower of Song" (with Leonard Cohen), "The Ballad of Ronnie Dew", the band's rendition of "Sgt. Peppers" with Paul McCartney, "Don't Take Your Guns to Town", or even "No Line on the Horizon 2"? Some fans have already gone to great lengths to detail what's missing from this whole post-millennial B-side bonanza, and they're right in feeling slightly cheated: how many more times are U2 songs going to be re-released in order to make a quick buck? At some point, the insanity has to end.
When R.E.M. began playing some "test shows" to try out material during their recording sessions for last year's excellent Accelerate, Michael Stipe at one point introduced a song that he said would probably be a B-side. According to reports, Bono -- who was in the crowd -- shouted out "there's no such thing as B-sides anymore!" Though Bono is correct (for the most part), such a revelation is a damn shame, especially given that Medium, Rare & Remastered turns out to be a more rewarding listen than even No Line on the Horizon was. Hearing the band's wild experiments -- as goofy ("Big Girls Are Best"), surreal ("Trash, Trampoline, and the Party Girl"), contemplative ("Angels Too Tied to the Ground"), and propulsive ("Fast Cars") as they are -- not only gives us insight into U2's creative process, but the songs prove to be thrilling and entertaining on their own, something which you usually can't say for most group's odds-and-sods. If that disc of additional songs from the Horizon sessions that's promised for release by the end of 2009 proves to even as half as exciting as Medium, Rare is, then by all means, maybe Bono should re-think heckling R.E.M. and start saving some more of those secret classics for himself.