Long time U2 fans have greeted the launch of their next new album with increasing trepidation. Last week was alas more of the same. The latest, Songs Of Innocence, sounds like the album from an off-Broadway musical celebrating the youth of a 90s rock band. But unable to afford the rights to any of the original material, they’ve been forced to get a tribute band to do their best. They might well be intimate, personal songs, but most of the riffs sound like they have been lifted clean off of the Joshua Tree.
U2’s problem has always been Achtung Baby (’91). Which wasn’t just a seismic leap forward for the band at the time, it was one of the seminal albums of the decade. The problem is, how on earth do you follow it?
Zooropa (’93) and Passengers (’95) was the sound of band grappling with what to do now that they’d become the global phenomenon they’d always dreamt of. You could hear them intently listening to what was going on around them trying to feel their way forward. All That You Can’t Leave Behind (‘00) was a very pleasing collection of conventional singles, but was tacitly understood as a brief hiatus.
But the three albums over the 14 years that followed have proved wholly unremarkable and have merely provided the band with more of the same to perform live with. So why not be done with studio albums completely? Because a live band is essentially what they’ve become.
It’s perfectly acceptable in the worlds of RnB, blues and jazz to stop feverishly producing new material, and to spend your latter years re-examining your cannon, concentrating instead on producing the kinds of live performances that only come with age and experience. What’s the point of further adding to an already impressive back catalogue with mass produced, sub-standard, replica copies?
Incredibly few bands manage that perilous balancing act of filling vast stadiums and of producing quality albums of genuine substance. U2 are one, Led Zeppelin were another. Amazingly, Robert Plant turned his back on the peerless 70s hell-raisers in 1980, and has been quietly ploughing his own furrow ever since.
His musical wanderlust has seen him exploring the roots Americana of the deep south, and of where all that came from in the music of west Africa. Unexpectedly, if quite correctly, he burst into public view again in 2007 with his Alison Krauss collaboration Raising Sand, which won the Grammy for Album of The Year in 2008 and sold by the tonne full.
Band of Joy followed in 2010 proving for those not in the know that Raising Sand wasn’t a blip but part of a fully formed renaissance. And now he’s back with another new band (part of an old one actually), with his latest album, Lullaby and… The Ceaseless Roar.
The Sensational Space Shifters include members of the Strange Sensation which he formed over a decade ago. He’s joined by both the keyboardist and bassist from Portishead, as well as Justin Adams, a producer who’s worked with Brian Eno and more recently the blues Tuareg band Tinawiren. That’s how you stay relevant. Musically inquisitive, revealing, probing and plaintive, it gets an approving 7.0 from the boys from Pitchfork here. And could easily have got more.
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