Released just before Christmas, when the jingle jangle of cash in pockets was at its loudest, it’s difficult to see this new “Best of U2” as anything more than a slightly cynical, highly lucrative marketing exercise. It’s as if, after holding out until 1998, Interscope are making up for lost time. Indeed, U218 Singles is the third retrospective of U2’s career to emerge since then, and it’s hard to see where it’s supposed to fit in. The Best of 1990-2000 was a flawed collection, let down by the revisionism of remixing (badly) four or five great songs, but it is still a damn sight better than U218 Singles. Everything about this collection, from the seemingly random tracklisting and disjointed running order, to the cheap, mulleted photographs that stare out from the sleeve, gives the impression of a compilation that has been cobbled together in a messy hurry.
Of course, whittling down 25 years worth of music into a cohesive and definitive single disc collection was always going to be something of an impossible task, but even so, U2 deserve far better than this. U218 Singles presents U2 as the best flag waving, fist punching, anthemic stadium band in the world — it’s the perfect soundtrack to taking the Mondeo out for a spin or picking the kids up from school. The band’s most vital and exciting moments are casually airbrushed out as if they were nothing more than slightly embarrassing, faltering mistakes. The frankly ludicrous decision to include four songs from the unbearably dull “return to form” album All That You Can’t Leave Behind while completely ignoring Pop and Zooropa — U2’s most undervalued records — sets the tone. There is no place for the four best U2 singles of the ’90s — “The Fly”, “Even Better Than the Real Thing”, “Hold Me, Thrill Me, Kiss Me, Kill Me”, and “Discotheque” — yet “Walk On”, a half-decent song that came out crap, and “Elevation”, which wasn’t even the best thing on the Tomb Raider soundtrack, both feature here. There’s no “Gloria” or “11 O’Clock Tick Tock”, no “Please”, or “Electrical Storm” or “Unforgettable Fire”… and really, we could go on.
More so than any necessary, inevitable omissions, though, it’s the decision to ignore U2’s bravest, most interesting music that really jars. After they packed away the Stetsons and the overwrought earnestness at the back end of the ’80s and went back home to “dream it all up again”, U2 danced on the edge of invention for most of the 1990’s, pushing their sound just about as far as was possible for a million-selling stadium rock band to go. It figures that the dark, junked-up soul fuzz of “The Fly” was perhaps U2’s most important single. It signposted a decade of reinvention and irony that is carefully glossed over here. The dizzying “Even Better Than the Real Thing”, with its “Take me higher” refrain that pushes the song towards dancefloor, and the dumb, brilliant, cartoon glam of “Hold Me, Thrill Me, Kiss Me, Kill Me” are both missing — as is number one single “Discotheque” — surely U2’s most perfect pop moment.
As for what’s here, though it’s difficult to find fault with most of the songs, virtually all of them will be over-familiar to anyone between the ages of 20 and 60. “Sunday Bloody Sunday” remains a fervent open wound of a song, but its clutter and flag waving bluster have aged badly. Likewise, “New Years Day” is made redundant by the fact that U2 went on to write songs that were far better.
Overfamiliar or not, it would be churlish to question the inclusion of any of The Joshua Tree‘s big three singles. Both “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” and “Where the Streets Have No Name” sound instantly recognizable ,yet totally at odds with most examples of modern rock songwriting. “Where the Streets Have No Name” is as enthralling and mystifying as the desert it evokes, whilst “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” is painted in the broad colours and imagery of the Old Testament, Bono’s gospel flecked vocals reaching for a direct, yearning truth that is lost in most rock music. Even the enormo-ballad “With or Without You” is a strangely off kilter, a creeping howl of desire and cruelty that, when heard outside of the wedding-disco setting, still has the power to stop you in your tracks.
From more recent times, “Beautiful Day” is a stirring full-colour rock song that represented U2’s re-emergence as the biggest band in the world, but it also betrayed much of their ’90s innovation, and for the first time saw U2 looking back instead of forwards. For all the talk in 2000 of making a stripped down, back to basics record, All That You Can’t Leave Behind was an unquestionably slick and calculated affair. The gospel-soul ballad “Stuck in a Moment” is carried along by a gorgeous melody, but it lacks the necessary grit or inspiration. For now, the U2 story ends with How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb, a far better album than its predecessor and home to two of their finest ever singles, in the shape of garage rock scuzzer “Vertigo” and the shimmeringly beautiful “Sometimes You Can’t Make It on Your Own”. The two exclusive, mega value new tracks here are only really worth bothering with if you’re a fan who feels the need to own every note Bono utters. The Green Day collaboration “The Saints Are Coming” is nothing more than a b-side novelty punk cover, stripped of its punkness, and “Window in the Skies” is an odd little folk-influenced song which nods towards the Beatles and is anything but essential.
U2 are a band more or less without peer in 2007. Certainly, in the way they have maintained their success and relevance for more than two decades, they are out on their own. The recurring themes of faith and doubt, of temptation, love, and politics have been set to an ever changing musical backdrop — from passionate, anthemic rock, to disordered cyberfunk, to trashy techno, and back again. It’s regrettable, then, that U218 Singles in no way offers an artistic overview of U2’s remarkable career. Playing instead like a radio programmer’s dream “U2 party shuffle”, this compilation offers a revisionist, easy to swallow take on U2’s music that seems to be aimed squarely at the most casual, casual fan. Judged entirely on the mostly wonderful music, this record would probably score an eight or nine. However, bearing in mind that there are already two pretty reasonable U2 “Best Of” collections out there, U218 Singles is little more than a complete waste of time that fully deserves its low score.