Oasis and U2
Both of these acts belong in a rock 'n' roll museum -- Bono's fly specs and Liam Gallagher's eyebrow, preserved in amber behind Plexiglas (most of Oasis' riffs are already sealed and on display, under the Beatles exhibit). They belong to another era, a time when it was possible to be a superstar for more than a second or five; there's no room for them on Puffy and Jennifer's guest list these days (besides, Bono's too busy plugging his band's latest, under the guise of debt-relief, on Capitol Hill to make the scene). U2's been around forever: Twenty years after birthing Boy, on which Bono Vox and the boys sounded like Zep-obsessed Jesus freaks playing New Wave dress-up, the band has dipped its electrofried, synthified arena rock in so much irony and pretension, you half expect Dairy Queen to carry it, next to the Dilly Bars; long ago U2 became rock 'n' roll's empty calories. And it only seems as though Oasis has been around longer than God's favorite Irish rockers, since its music has. Once, a long time ago, the band's fusion of sitar and sneer, of platitude and attitude, seemed novel, refreshing, exciting; now it's paint-by-numbers, with gray being the only color on the palette. Imagine a band with two George Harrisons. And if you think the two bands have little in common, listen only to U2's Pop; "Staring at the Sun," among a handful of other tracks on that bar code, is a blinding appropriation of Oasis' appropriations. For a moment, they were the exact same bland . . . pardon, band.
But at this moment, they're superstar acts heading in different directions: All That You Can't Leave Behind is U2's best since, well, ever (less Pop, more pop), while Oasis' live two-fer is the worst best-of offered up by a major act since the Rolling Stones' Still Life emerged stillborn in 1982. Nine months after releasing the most turgid album of its fast-vanishing career, Oasis dishes out two more discs -- the live album (recorded July 21 at Wembley Stadium, the world's worst recording studio) that's like that annoying twit who recounts last night's party by explaining, "Guess ya had to be there." It's cheap filler, rock as Product: The first three songs ("Fuckin' in the Bushes," "Go Let It Out" and "Who Feels Love") showed up in the same order on Standing on the Shoulder of Giants (released in February), only without the deafening shouts of acolytes who feel the need to sing along with guitar solos. (And without Liam's constant demands for the lighting tech to "turn down tha fookin' lights," or something.)
The rest of the disc offers familiar hits ("Wonderwall," "Champagne Supernova," "Don't Look Back in Anger," "Supersonic," ad infinitum) performed proverbially; the only difference is that you can barely hear half of the songs, as the crowd seems intent on drowning out the music (depending on your generosity, it reminds one of either the Beatles' Live at the Hollywood Bowl or KISS Alive, or just split the difference). Fact is, an album like this sort of breaks your heart, if only because it serves as a reminder of a time when Oasis seemed viable, even a little bit necessary. "Wonderwall" was, easily, among the handful of great rock singles of the 1990s; turning on the car radio and stumbling across it (every five minutes, but who cared?) was to get swept up in its sing-along chorus, to find yourself immersed ass-deep in its melancholy groove until you'd all but convinced yourself FM was once again safe for melodies that lived beyond the next commercial break. It broke your heart and healed all wounds at the same time, but it promised more than it could ever deliver. Radio was not, in fact, a safe place, no more than Oasis was, in the end, a great band. It's merely a good one, which is enough only when you start thinking rock 'n' roll will be saved by the mediocre. Oasis could have been heroic, 'til it fell on its own sword.
U2 has its own brilliant single on the radio and MTV right now (no, seriously -- right now), and "Beautiful Day" will no more shape the landscape than "Wonderwall" did five years ago (or, for that matter, U2's own dazzling "Hold Me, Thrill Me, Kiss Me, Kill Me," released on the Batman Forever soundtrack in 1995). Funny how critics have latched on to "Beautiful Day" because it allegedly sounds so much like old U2; references abound to The Joshua Tree or The Unforgettable Fire, as though the new record is some lazy step backward -- a sort of homecoming, henh henh . . . ungh.
Fact is, the new record all but dwarfs its predecessors, simply because it doesn't pretend to stand for anything or say much of anything; it's nothing more or less than an album "trying to find a decent melody, a song that I can sing in my own company," as Bono utters in the gorgeous, insistent "Stuck in a Moment You Can't Get Out Of," but one of a handful of would-be singles on the disc ("Elevation," "In a Little While" and "Wild Honey" will soon enough make their way to the airwaves). Having boiled down its discography to a single, unrelenting whole, the band should have titled the new disc The Best of 2000, as it's far more listenable (and playful) than 1998's double-disc best-of-and-rest-of.
All That You Can't Leave Behind is U2's finest moment for the same reason Music is Madonna's brightest ray of light: because, for the first time, both of them sound as though they don't give a shit -- they're liberated by lack of expectation, theirs and ours. They've checked the bloat at the studio door and decided, finally, to surrender to the groove; forget Achtung, Baby and Zooropa, because All That You Can't Leave Behind is the first U2 album you can dance to (slow dance, even, without looking grab-ass silly). U2 and Madonna sound as though they recorded their respective discs in about a week; there's nothing fussy about the production or, for that matter, the lyrics, which are about as simple-minded as middle-aged superstars get ("And love is not an easy thing/The only baggage you can bring/Is all that you can't leave behind" -- yup, and what I am is what I am are you what you are or what). "Beautiful Day" -- produced by Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois, with whom U2 made such albums as The Unforgettable Fire and The Joshua Tree, with additional touches added by the band's first producer, Steve Lillywhite -- is anthemic without being preachy, celebratory without waving its fist in the air (okay, it's a better version of Boy's "Seconds"). It's a song for and about driving with nowhere to go; you never want it or the road to end. "Touch me," Bono sings (yeah, dude, as if), "take me to that other place," and the song does that: It transports you to that place where music makes you feel luminescent, graceful and indestructible.
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