When is a U2 album not a U2 album?
When it doesn't sound like an instant hit, apparently. At least, that's the impression left by the Passengers album "Original Soundtracks 1" (Island 314 524 166, arriving in stores today).
Although the album was recorded by the members of U2 with longtime collaborator Brian Eno, who co-produced "Zooropa," "Achtung Baby" and "The Joshua Tree," the band's name appears nowhere on the packaging.
Bono, bassist Adam Clayton, guitarist the Edge and drummer Larry Mullen Jr. are listed after Eno as individual Passengers -- as if they were contributing to an Eno project instead of the other way around.
However much that was intended to protect U2's commercial reputation (can't be the biggest band in the world if every album NTC isn't a hit, y'know), the truth is that "Original Soundtracks 1" really does sound more like an Eno album than a U2 release.
It isn't just the lack of pop hooks and anthemic choruses; the basic character of the music seems different, emphasizing atmosphere and texture over melody and rhythm to such an extent that it's sometimes hard to make out U2's sonic signature.
"United Colours," for instance, opens the album in the abstract, with synths that whine like a cold wind through bare trees, electronic horns that Doppler by like cars on the freeway, and a guitar that buzzes and hums like an ungrounded P.A. There's no vocal and no melody to speak of, just texture and a pulse that pushes along like an impatiently tapping finger.
Yet there's something unexpectedly catchy about these sounds, and it doesn't take much effort or attention to make this seemingly random array of noises reveal their inner logic.
"United Colours" may not be a song in the traditional sense of verse, chorus and bridge, but its slow arc from ghostly quiet to a dense, throbbing roar of electronics gives it enough drama that the lack of standard pop-song elements barely matters.
A lot of that can be credited to Eno's influence. It was Eno, after all, who coined the phrase "ambient music," and his fondness for blurring the line between background and foreground colors almost every track here.
Some songs bear his imprint quite explicitly. "Theme from the Swan" is a melancholy instrumental built around a dark, distorted guitar line that seems straight out of Eno's duets with Robert Fripp.
"Your Blue Room," on the other hand, sounds eerily like the non-pop tracks Eno cut with David Bowie in the '70s, seeming more like an outtake from "Low" than anything on Bowie's new album. With its slowly swelling synth clouds and muttering, contemplative vocal, it's hardly chart fodder, but it still has its catchy side, from the neatly harmonized backing vocals on the chorus to the spaghetti-Western guitar that closes the track.
Still, if "Original Soundtracks 1" has any shot at the hit parade, it's "Miss Sarajevo." A drop-dead gorgeous tune, this wistful ballad was inspired by a documentary on a beauty pageant in the besieged Bosnian capital, and it wells from languorous reflection to operatic splendor in winding through its 5 1/2 -minute course.
Had it been left to Bono and the boys, the song would likely have been just as quiet and beautiful as U2's "One." But about three minutes in, guest Passenger Luciano Pavarotti takes the helm, and as a string section swells behind him, he makes this sweet little song about a shell-shocked beauty pageant seem as emotionally resonant as any aria. It's wholly unexpected and utterly irresistible.
Perhaps the only other track with conventional pop leanings is "Elvis Ate America," an odd blend of beat cool and industrial irony inspired by a Jeff Koons short film that finds Bono ruminating in rhyme on the King's image (sample couplet: "Didn't smoke hash/ Woulda been a sissy without Johnny Cash").
Although it's not without its moments of brilliance, like the line that describes him "shootin' TVs, reading Corinthians 13," the tune is mostly a goof, a sly parody of hip that laughs at both the Elvis myth and those who would try to deconstruct it. Think of it as the (very) flip side of the U2 oldie "Elvis Presley and America."
For the most part, though, what these "Soundtracks" try to do is tickle the listener's ear while toying with his or her pop sense. "Always Forever Now" starts off like an ambient dance workout, all throbbing bass and itchy pulse beneath its wash of synthesizers, but just when it seems as if atmosphere is all it has to offer, in march Bono and Eno with a short but surprisingly anthemic vocal chorus that quickly brings the track into focus.
"Beach Sequence," on the other hand, treats its pop content as little more than a tantalizing promise, like sunlight glowing through the clouds. A few rays shoot through when Bono drifts into the mix, singing "Time shoots on by," but for the most part, its melodic elements barely emerge from the background, like the string of isolated piano notes that turn out, many bars later, to be the main theme.
Like most of "Original Soundtracks 1," it demands far more from the listener than the average U2 album. But those willing to pay close attention will find that the Passengers make it well worth the effort.