There was a time when U2 was virtually synonymous with rock heroism.
From the pell-mell pulse of "I Will Follow" to the martial drumbeats of "Sunday Bloody Sunday," the band epitomized the fist-pumping, flag-waving energy of '80s rock. Even in the '90s, when U2's sound turned funky and electronic, its energy level remained high, adding an exhilarating edge to the likes of the hypnotic "Even Better Than the Real Thing" and the thumping "Discotheque."
Unfortunately, there's no sign of that U2 on "The Million Dollar Hotel" (Interscope 314 542 395, arriving in stores today). Even though the movie soundtrack boasts three new songs by U2, as well as several others performed by U2 singer Bono with "The Million Dollar Hotel Band," the album's aural identity belongs more to producer/instrumentalists Daniel Lanois and Brian Eno than to Bono and the boys.
Eno and Lanois are not strangers to the U2 aesthetic, having worked off-and-on with the band since co-producing its 1984 album, "The Unforgettable Fire."
But their specialty is creating an airy, atmospheric sound, the sort of thing that reduces synth parts to pallid splotches of color and turns guitar chords into wisps of chalk dust.
This isn't in-your-face music; it's barely even in-your-ear music, wafting from the speakers like a dead breeze on a muggy night. It's probably great stuff from a cinematic standpoint -- no chance these tunes will end up crowding out the dialogue -- but it's pretty much a wash-out on the home stereo front.
In other words, the album arrives not with a bang but a whisper, and that's a surprise, given that the soundtrack looks like such a high-profile project.
Directed by Wim Wenders ("Far Away, So Close") from a story by Bono and Nicholas Klein, "The Million Dollar Hotel" boasts a surprisingly stellar cast for an art film, what with Milla Jovovich ("The Fifth Element") in one of the lead roles and Mel Gibson doing a cameo as a rogue CIA man.
Even more noteworthy is the fact that the lyrics to "The Ground Beneath Her Feet," the first track on the album, were written by Salman Rushdie.
Granted, it's not a collaboration in the purest sense -- the lyrics were written for Rushdie's last novel and later set to music by U2 -- but how often do big-name rock groups look to literature for inspiration? (And no, "The Hobbit" doesn't count.)
Rushdie's literary pedigree aside, there's nothing terribly earth-shaking about "The Ground Beneath Her Feet." A mid-tempo, minor-key ballad, it neither rocks nor rolls, opting instead for a vaguely mysterious shuffle.
The song sounds as if it's building toward a climax but never quite gets there; for all of Bono's preening, the tune comes off mere foreplay, petering off into the languid moan of the Edge's guitar.
"Stateless" isn't much better. A virtual tribute to "Heroes"-era Bowie, it finds Bono at his most mannered, crooning portentously as Lanois and Eno layer bits of electronic noise into the lean, atmospheric arrangement.
On the whole, it's more "weightless" than "Stateless," offering so little in the way of content or kick that the notes almost seem to evaporate on their way out of the speakers.
Only "The First Time" delivers anything close to what we expect from U2. Built on a tense, gently circular guitar riff, it carries the same hypnotic quality that made "One" so memorable.
Again, the band declines to follow tension with release, but this time at least there's a rising arc to the arrangement that gives the track's slow fade a real sense of finality.
Unfortunately, that's pretty much it for songs. Oh, sure, Jovovich turns in a couple versions of Lou Reed's "Satellite of Love" that flirt briefly with melody before jilting it in favor of a self-conscious screech, and someone called Tito Larriva offers a Spanglish rendition of "Anarchy in the U.K." But those aren't cover versions so much as they are deconstructions of the tunes, rearrangements designed to show how arty and clever the singers are.
Otherwise, the album offers only fragments and mood music. It should be high-class stuff, what with a set of sidemen that includes guitarist Bill Frisell, pianist Brad Meldhau and trumpeter Jon Hassell, but listening to it is like chasing will o' the wisps.
All told, it's enough to give anyone reservations about "The Million Dollar Hotel."
The Million Dollar Hotel
Music from the Motion Picture
(Interscope 314 542 395)
Sun score: **