In Europe and the UK these days, standard-issue guitar bands don't get much respect; rave culture has so transformed the musical landscape that much of what once constituted rock now seems impossibly quaint. One result is the new retro-fication--Blur as The Kinks, Oasis as The Stones, Elastica as Wire-cum-Go-Gos, everyone else as Ziggy Stardust. The other is a new sort of pop: sampled, synthesized, sequenced, groove-centric, polyrhythmic, psychedelic, and, more so than any of its precursors, anonymous.
This anonymity has to do with a number of things specific to rave. The absence or marginal importance of vocalists is a big part of it; in less obvious ways, so is the loss of self that occurs on the dancefloor, and the introversion born of drug-taking. Then there's the means of production--the DJ/track musician doing his thing in a dark room alone and unobserved, either at the club or in his studio. Significantly, the currency of techno is blank-sleeve 12-inches--Moby was a groundbreaker as much for putting his photo on Everything Is Wrong and ranting to the press about anal sex and veganism as for knocking down the wall between techno and the greater world of music. The norm for DJs, mixologists and techno artists is to create a cult not through personality but, like jazzbos, through sound.
It's an attractive concept in these post-Nirvana days--especially, it would seem, for those who are themselves wary or weary of the pitfalls of being rock gods. Like U2, for instance. After backing themselves onto a mighty pedestal, the group had its come-to-Jesus-sessions on Achtung Baby and Zooropa, records that tried to self-deconstruct the group's sanctimonious image with glammy posturing and fallen-angel soul. Both, in fact, were fine records. But for all their pop-art strategizing, the group still couldn't quite escape the mantle of being U2. What they really needed to do to transcend their state--as any worthwhile DJ or Sufi mystic might've told them--was to disappear.
Which they have, to some extent, on the just-released Original Soundtracks 1. Credited to Passengers, it's basically a Brian Eno album with the boys as house band--an inversion of the creative relationship on the last few U2 albums where Eno served as producer (though he's always more of a fifth member). Luciano Pavarotti and a Japanese singer named Holi add some vocals here; also in the mix--crucially--is Scottish DJ/engineer Howie B (a.k.a. Bernstein), yet another sonic wunderkind from the Bristol-London alliance which includes Soul-II-Soul's Nellee Hooper, Massive Attack, Portishead, and Tricky. Judging from B's work with Hooper, Björk, and Skylab (whose recent debut explores some of the more abstract ideas advanced on Soundtracks), it's his mixing and FX work that pushes this record into strange new territory.
The idea behind Soundtracks was to generate material spontaneously in the studio, using film bits as visual prompts (meaning these "soundtracks" don't necessarily appear in the films that inspired them). Bits of the sessions were then used to assemble a whole. This strategy is adapted from techno and hip-hop, where tracks are built up from layers of sequences and samples, making art that is as much the creation of the producer/assembler as of the original musician. Of course, this sort of track building is the way most modern pop recordings get made--it's just that here, in the realm of music that doesn't need to perpetuate the illusion of a band playing in a room in real time, it's not heretical to say so.
For U2, Soundtracks seems born of similar impulses to those that produced Melon, the 9-track remix album that U2 released earlier this year as a freebie with their fanclub mag, Propaganda. Featuring remakes of songs from their last two records, it's most notable for two versions of "Numb"--one by Cypress Hill's DJ Muggs, the other by UK production team Rolo and Rob D--that pretty much erase the band from the tracks altogether, letting them appear only in flickers.
The mixing on Soundtracks isn't that radical; Bono holds down center stage on most of the cuts where he appears. But it does distill the superstar signifiers into a purer sort of sound, making music that doesn't force its meaning on you--something that's critical for a good soundtrack. The record begins with "United Colours," five minutes of meandering chaos barely held down by Larry Mullen Jr.'s metronomic stick work: Machine rhythms sputter along, synth textures advance and recede, and Howie B's deep-space scratching sounds like voices being sucked down into black holes. It's easily the most aggressive track on the record, and in its dense weave you might imagine the sound of thousands of U2 fans hitting the skip button on their CD players.
Like Eno's Another Green World, which seems to be something of a model here, the record alternates between song structures and more shapeless pieces. "Your Blue Room" is a great Eno/U2 song with Bono's exquisite falsetto playing tag with his Leonard Cohen imitation, and "Miss Sarajevo," with Pavarotti taking it to the bridge with style, is a dreamy, heartbreaking mini-epic. Formal possibilities get explored more clearly on "Always Forever Now," in which The Edge fires up his amorphous guitar only to get caught up in the slipstream of the mixing board. The groove, however, is indelible, and it cooks along for about three minutes before we get some vocals--first a mutant post-Kraftwerk chorus, then Bono incanting the song title over and over. Then The Edge is back with what resembles a solo, his tone changed to that of a squeaky keyboard, which gets a few rounds before it once again gets sucked under.