Rattle and Hum, the title of both U2's brand-new album of the 1987 tour and the energetic performance documentary film released last week, is the sound of the band making contact: with music, with tradition, with their audience, with one another. The title comes from Bullet the Blue Sky, their rabble-rousing apocalypse about American muscle flexing in Central America ("In the locust wind comes a rattle and hum . . . Outside is America"), but the substance of these various tour diaries is, in fact, an exploration. U2 did more than reach back. They immersed themselves in American musical culture, splashed and reveled about, and came away baptized.
The musical contents of the album and film vary slightly. The record contains three songs not in the movie, while the movie has eight performances not found on the album. LP and film make a good complement to each other, but it is on the record that the band stakes its strongest claim. In its first week of release, Rattle and Hum shot straight to the top of the album charts, accompanied by some grumpy reviews that fretted about a scope that went way too wide and a cohesion that remained elusive. Indeed, Rattle and Hum is careeningly ambitious, but what fixes its focus is the band's passion to rediscover and remake themselves. With crystalline production supervised by Jimmy Iovine, U2 has never sounded better or bolder. Performances are mixed together with new, studio-recorded material into a record that is part mosaic and part road map of the group's musical unconscious.
They perform with a Harlem gospel choir on a version of I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For that becomes a bit of casual exaltation ex rock cathedra. They cook up a new song for the great bluesman B.B. King, When Love Comes to Town, and kick out the jams together. They corral Dylan into playing Hammond organ on an extraordinary new tune, Hawkmoon 269, and press him into harmony-singing and lyric-writing service on Love Rescue Me, a high point not only for the band but also for their informal spiritual adviser. The Edge, the band's wizard guitar player, contributes a lilting, spooky piece of folk inspiration, Van Diemen's Land, and the whole group works out at Sun Studios in Memphis, where Elvis and Jerry Lee Lewis cut some of their best sides. It is a deliberate pilgrimage, of course, but Angel of Harlem, one of the tunes recorded there, not only pays homage to the Sun tradition but also cops a good deal of its sweet, rowdy spirit.
Rattle and Hum sounds big without being pretentious, an extraordinary accomplishment considering that the band has chosen to chronicle its own musical wanderings, then set them -- and this is the big step -- parallel to a deeper, even more personal striving. The album's first cut, an atomic remake of the Beatles' Helter Skelter, sets the trajectory as if it were a tour itinerary, an emotional playground journey from the bottom to the top of a slide "Where I stop and I turn/ And I go for a ride/ Till I get to the bottom/ And I see you again." Many of the album's 17 songs deal with images of exile and uneasy spiritual responsibility, most strikingly in the Dylan collaboration: "Many strangers have I met/ On the road to my regret/ Many lost who seek to find themselves in me/ They ask me to reveal/ The very thoughts they would conceal/ Love rescue me."
It is this pervasive, alternating mood of renewal and uncertainty that gives Rattle and Hum its size and its impact. The record is timely enough to get in a neat lyrical crack about the new John Lennon biography ("I don't believe in Goldman his type like a curse/ Instant karma's gonna get him if I don't get him first"), but sufficiently tough-minded to resist looking to music for salvation. Like the Lennon song from which it draws its title, God Part II suggests only that if there is any anodyne at all for spiritual pain, it lies inward, on the far side of a troubled heart.
The last tune on Rattle and Hum, All I Want Is You, is a love song full of gentle pleading, hopeful but not necessarily optimistic, which suggests that in their 264 days of touring, some personal relationships were sacrificed, others scarred or put at serious risk. Two hundred sixty-four days is a long time away to be looking for home, and the song, fragile and heartrending, ends the record with unexpected quiet, and intimacy. It is a characteristically bold, even reckless move. Whatever was given up in 1987 remains a mystery, but it is clear, now, what U2 came away with -- the best live rock album ever made. The record, in every sense, of their lives.
(condensed from the original review)