3 Album Reviews: Alternative Rock in 1991 (U2, The Smashing Pumpkins, Morrissey)

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U2 – Achtung Baby (1991) – A-

My third favorite record of the year I was born in, and my second favorite U2 album overall. I like this record, not because U2 had managed to rebound after their then-worst album by pulling off a musical side-step via alternative dance (funnily enough, the percussion on this record is the only thing that dates it), and also forgoing The Joshua Tree‘s sweep for more standard-structured pop/rock songs; I like it because it’s just well-crafted pop/rock songs, with the most good hooks of any U2 album. Fucking sue me for having a little bit of fun. Anyone clicking a U2 review in 2017 has already made up their minds about the band, and with one of their most canonized ones, probably the album too, so hopefully I don’t have to waste time outlining the catchiness of the choruses of “Even Better Than the Real Thing” or “Who’s Gonna Ride Your Wild Horses” or, to a lesser extent, of “Mysterious Ways” and “Tryin’ To Throw Your Arms Around the World.” Instead, check out how good the choruses of “The Fly” are, Bono’s falsetto coming in like a ray of sunlight in contrast to the Edge’s noise, dirty-kicking work in the verses (the only time they come close to replicating the dangerous of “Zoo Station”) or the Bono’s spoken bits in the same. Or, check out the epic-ness (not a word I use lightly) of the Edge’s guitar when Bono’s tune forms on “Acrobat”. That’s probably the most underrated track of the bunch – it’s the only one that manages to have a certain upwards/onwards sweep to it! It isn’t a perfect album: “So Cruel” has no business running for almost 6 minutes, and the 3-note piano line is too robot-generated; “Love is Blindness” could’ve benefitted from a better tune or a more subtle vocalist (it makes sense that it was originally written with Nina Simone in mind). And the lyrics mostly suck throughout, with heavy reliance on cheesy AABB rhyme schemes (“And you can swallow or you can spit / You can throw it up, or choke on it”; “You’re honey child to a swarm of bees / Gonna blow right through ya like a breeze”) that are sung seriously because Bono does that. But even then, he absolutely sells “Do I disappoint you / Leave a bad taste in your mouth?” and “Have you come here for forgiveness? / Have you come to raise the dead? / Have you come here to play Jesus / To the lepers in your head?” on what probably remains the best arena rock ballad of all time (name a better one?). When I first heard the record, I remember being upset that the cover seemed to consciously recall Exile on Main St. but transposed to the digital age (what, with its clean lines and vibrant colours) (they even cover the Rolling Stones’ “Paint It Black” on a b-side that’s not worth looking for), even though the music barely had any of that album’s grit and danger. But it makes sense now: it is mostly clean lines and vibrant colours, and that ain’t a bad thing.

The Smashing Pumpkins – Gish (1991) – B+

Their fourth best album*. The first comparison point to spring to mind is Kanye West’s The College Dropout of all things (a significantly better album); both are incredibly modest debuts that you wouldn’t have expected the respective artists (in this case, Billy Corgan) to turn out to be such megalomaniacs. Exhibit A: this is only 46 minutes (compared to Siamese Dream‘s hour-long runtime, or Adore‘s incomprehensible 73 minute runtime). Exhibit B: for the only time in the Smashing Pumpkins’ discography where the band sounds like more than just two members: check out how “I Am One” opens, how prominent Wretzky’s bass-lines are (ie. “I Am One”; “Bury Me”), how she gets to sing lead vocals all by herself (on the short closing track “Daydream” that sounds like everything else that was happening in the early 90s, if that’s your thing); Iha gets that rare co-writing credit! But Corgan is still developing his songcraft here; there’s not enough goodness (read: not even greatness) going around, with the main highlights coming early (“I Am One”; “Rhinoceros”) and though I like both, I still have trouble telling “Siva” and “Tristessa” apart after a decade of knowing them; non-album single “Drown” is better than more than half this album. I’d think it’s a ahame that they’d drop the dreaminess of “Rhinoceros” and the strange exoticism of “Suffer” (which Tricky will find plenty of use for on Maxinquaye) thereafter, but truthfully, they’d still manage being plenty evocative without them on their next few albums.

*Why not?:

1. Siamese Dream, their best
2. Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness, their most ambitious
3. Adore, their strangest
4. Gish, their humblest
5. MACHINA II, their most underrated
6. MACHINA, their most clueless
7-9. The rest; except for Billy, who the fuck cares?

Morrissey – Kill Uncle (1991) – C

If you want people to care about your (increasing self-parodic) worldview (“Asian Rut”, “Sing Your Life”), maybe hire more than just journeymen. Skip straight to Your Arsenal (which has at least some rousing glam rock guitarwork) after Viva Hate (which has Smiths producer Stephen Sondheim giving him something like “Everyday Is Like Sunday”) and don’t look back.

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4 responses to “3 Album Reviews: Alternative Rock in 1991 (U2, The Smashing Pumpkins, Morrissey)

  1. Achtung was alright indeed, but it’s where I got off the U2 bus.

    I haven’t heard Gish in so long I can’t even remember it. Not even sure I wanna, but if I found a cheap copy I might.

    I’ll take your word for Morrissey anything. I can’t stand the guy.

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