November 26, 2002

Nirvana and U2 offer album-buyers a loving look back

It's hard to tell when exactly CDs get here to the Maroon office unless you're here for the mail run--all the mailings immediately get pawed through. So it's surprising that the new Nirvana compilation, Nirvana, and U2: The Best of 1990-2000 sat in the office unclaimed. This isn't especially surprising if you work here: none of our critics will admit to liking U2, and all the ones that like Nirvana already have their hits. Absorbing the two discs over the past week, this all started to make sense.

U2 is lazily frontloaded with "Even Better than the Real Thing," "Mysterious Ways," and "Beautiful Day." It's less a reminder of how bad U2's gotten--as some people would argue--than how they've lost their sensuality. The cleverness of U2's most familiar singles was to blend religious and sexual language so tightly that it's hard to tell whether Bono is singing about God or a girl. "We move through miracle days / Spirit moves in mysterious ways / She moves with it." This was the strength of their post-political music: investing jangly post-punk and electronica flourishes with rock and country's divided longing without sounding like slavish imitators.

Then somewhere between Achtung Baby and All That You Can't Leave Behind U2 departed their bodies and all that made them good. They got peaceful-the most vague of emotions-and their music followed. On the embarrassing Muzak/gospel "Stuck In a Moment You Can't Get Out Of" from ATYCLB, Bono sings "I'm not afraid of anything in this world / There's nothing you can throw at me that I haven't already heard / I'm just trying to find a decent melody." Yeah, it sounds like it.

What beauty is that? There are a few artists who can give themselves to God and still get away with it; try Aretha Franklin's The Amazing Grace Sessions. She can express the feeling of having found God after looking for him, but that's because she's blessed. Those of us who aren't might as well just be humble about it and remember that we're human.

The final track, "The First Time" (from Zooropa), is an appropriately pale reminder of this. Over a simplistic minor chord couplet, Bono intones: "I have a lover / A lover like no other / She got soul, soul, soul, sweet soul / And she teach me how to sing." Speak-singing the "soul" over an ambient soundscape that would make Moby wince is an insult to the word. "Teach" instead of "teaches" just sounds dumb. What was tense and moving when U2 was looking for it is now just kind of dull.

U2 has finally disposed of their heritage. What once made them good was the sense of perpetual longing that's at the heart of all good religious music. They've become self-satisfied, and everything that I've ever seen, read, and heard convinces me not to believe them. You don't do communion or the altar call once--you do it over and over.

Kurt Cobain, unlike Bono, never got over his discontent. Yet most people I know listen to both and will just as often take Nirvana over U2. Accusing kids and music critics of self-hatred is a tired cliché. There's something more here, here being a time and place where a band that's good for us is subject to increasing ambivalence while Nirvana's catchy but angry self-negation looks to be the 1990s legacy.

Cobain was famously hopeless: "All alone is all we are," "Find my nest of salt, everything's my fault." A perusal of any of the lyrics on Nirvana reveals not a word of beauty or hope. All the things that U2 can't leave behind--love, sex, God--were never present in Nirvana.

As pretty as "About a Girl" is--written after a marathon listening session with Meet the Beatles--it's sour about the girl in question: "I'll take advantage while you hang me out to dry." "Lithium" is cynical about religion: "Every day is Sunday morning, for all I care... light my candles in a daze 'cause I've found God." And Cobain's sexual imagery is frequent but terrifying: "You've kept me locked inside your heart-shaped box for weeks."

The hope in Nirvana's music is the music alone, and the juxtaposition of Cobain's words with the liberation of the music is the tension that keeps Nirvana moving. At the end of "All Apologies," between the last chorus and the coda, Cobain's voice falls: "yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah." It's a Beatles moment, one that is striking in the middle of a bleak plain.

The famous ending of "Smells Like Teen Spirit" is a denial, but the song itself is an affirmation. It threatens to spiral out of control while rigorously adhering to pop music. Cobain believed in music, and as long as he was alive, he created music that was crafted to be catchy. He claimed "Smells Like Teen Spirit" was a rip-off of Boston's "More than a Feeling," and the opening chords sound like nothing more than a bastardization of "Wild Thing." Nirvana's song structures are islands of familiarity in the chaos of their sound.

I can't help but think there's something damaging about this: it's hope that creates a nihilism outside of itself, turning the listener back into the music. And this may be true, if your demons are as terrifying as Cobain's. For the rest of us, who work outward from the dramatic tensions in art, it's more affecting--and appealing--than U2's layman's peace. Cobain had no choice but to seek value in his music; U2, having found value elsewhere (God, politics, heinous sunglasses), don't seem to be invested anymore.

Is this anti-art, meant to drive the listener away from the pop carousel? It may be a swell attempt at asceticism, something to return to once we're convinced that there's no way to stop spinning except by getting off. Those of us who are human, however, remain skeptical, drawn to the balladry of the unconvinced.