Godspeed You Black Emperor! – ‘F# A# ∞’: Round 97 – Rob’s choice

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First things first. I drew 1998 from Tom’s lucky bag of wonder and, after more deliberation that I normally afford these choices, landed happily on Godspeed’s first widely distributed record, my only hesitation over which had been to do with possible dispute over the release date (I am a stickler for them rules). The Montreal ensemble released ‘F# A# ∞’ twice. The first incarnation, in 1997, ran to only 500 handmade copies and featured just two long tracks, although the tracks are built around the same sounds and templates as the more widely known version, released the following year. I own both versions and whilst the 1997 release contains my favourite ever album insert – an envelope containing a penny that has been run over by a train – it’s safe to say that the 1998 version is the one that everyone knows.

So, that’s 1998 sorted. How about 2016?

It just so happened that we were meeting on Tuesday 8 November, as the USA went to the polls. In this context, it was amusing to stare into the middle distance and imagine that the opening stanza of ‘Dead Flag Blues’ was a description of a world destroyed by a fascist megalomaniac President. We knew that by the next day, that possibility would have faded away, leaving a trace memory, like a game we had shared and then walked away from.

It didn’t turn out that way.

It doesn’t seem so amusing now.

Yet, for all that it seems ripe for self-parody, the none-more-black first movement of the first of the three extended pieces on this album is still one of the most spine-tingling things you’ll ever hear. If you don’t know it, switch off the lights, crank up the volume, and listen to it now.

What follows is no less remarkable, no less powerful. To some, Godspeed have seemed a near parody of themselves at times over the last twenty years, but that’s highly uncharitable. With ‘F# A# ∞’ they created a crushing breakthrough, a breach between styles, that no-one else was able to follow to any significant extent, leaving them exposed, alone, doing that Godspeed thing.

Nevertheless, the record has lost none of its impact over the years. Slipping between bleak poetry, blood-drenched chamber music, field recordings, chugging slab rock and delicate folk-whimsy, it never loses its grip. I’m shying away from trying to describe it here, not because I think I might be dissecting a frog, this music is irreducible, but because it just sounds so improbable. Sticking with ‘Dead Flag Blues’, you get dying orchestras, an extended passage of train noises, slide guitars, a post-rock shuffle then a twinkly music box waltz to close the whole thing down, before street preachers and bagpipes kick off the next track. It makes no sense, but it makes perfect sense.

I had a bunch of things to say about it, one of which was to try to describe how this stately yet wild music by this steadfastly exploratory ensemble, still seems amongst the best soundtracks for our spiraling times. Unfortunately, since I played it for record club, things have got a little worse, the record sounds a little more prescient, and I just don’t want to go into it.

“We woke up one morning and fell a little further down…”

Tom listened: Rob lent me a Godspeed album once, it might have been this one…I’m not sure I played it, I certainly couldn’t say for sure that I did. Whatever, I recall not feeling overly inclined to play it as I imagined it would require too much patience, the shifts in movements would come around too slowly (a la Ladradford) or it would be a bit dull (Tortoise) or the structures would be too predictable (Do Say Make Think). And there’s always been something inhuman and mechanistic about post-rock that puts me off, repels me even.

However, on the basis of this album at least, it seems as though Godspeed manage to walk the post-rock tightrope expertly, the tracks evolving more naturally than I was expecting and tended to not have the quiet, quieter, LOUD thing mapped out from the off in the way lesser similar bands in this genre tend to. That said, I still found this a cold listen – impressive certainly, but still a bit too impenetrable for my liking.

Nick listened: Moody. Not good for having sex to.

Van Morrison – Veedon Fleece: Round 97 – Tom’s Selection

r-1560420-1446653929-4158-jpegAt the bum end of the 1980s barely a week went by in the music press without some mention being made of Astral Weeks. It was often cited as the wellspring for much of the music that I was particularly excited by at that time; the etherealists: Spacemen 3, AR Kane, The Cocteau Twins were all claimed to have emanated from Morrison’s first solo album. Hell, the journalists even managed to convince me that the noisemakers: Loop, Dinosaur Jr and Sonic Youth were supposedly connected in some way.

So I was feverishly intrigued to hear Astral Weeks for the first time and I recall sitting in disbelief as the pastoral strings and gentle bass runs of the title track began to writhe around the, frankly overblown (and very high in the mix) vocals. What followed was, if anything, even more discombobulating; the free jazz ramblings of Beside You, the folk-pop ditty Sweet Thing, The Way Young Lovers Do with its brisk pace and brisk brass and the extended, Dylanesque, streams of consciousness trilogy of Cypress Avenue, Madame George and Ballerina. By the time Slim Slow Slider’s clarinet(!) was fading out to nothing I was at the point of writing to NME and MM to ask for my money back.

…but a strange thing happened. I listened to it again. And then again! And again. And then I copied it onto a C45 (with Kitchens Of Distinction’s Love Is Hell on the other side) and listened to it pretty much non-stop throughout the entire summer of 1989. And for a while, at least, if anyone had been bothered to ask me, I would have proclaimed it the best album ever made, even if it didn’t really sound like any of the music that people who knew about such things had been likening it to.

Not long after, I checked out Moondance, Morrison’s follow up to Astral Weeks and…couldn’t stand it. So I listened, and listened again, and one more time…and still couldn’t stand it! It seemed as though it had been made by an entirely different artist and its hideously smooth, easy listening landscapes felt completely at odds with Astral Weeks’ edginess and unpredictability. So I parked Van Morrison as one of those weird artists that release a single, one off, masterpiece followed by a huge pile of cack and left him alone for a while.

But a few years on a friend of mine was giving away her vinyl and asked me if I wanted to take any. In amongst the Leonard Cohen, Joni Mitchell and Tim Hardin albums were Hard Nose The Highway and Veedon Fleece, two of Morrison’s mid 70s offerings. Well, to say I had low expectations was an understatement and, sure enough, the former was terrible…in fact I passed it on to a charity shop not long afterwards. But Veedon Fleece was different and, whilst it has never made its way into my regular rotation, I have always enjoyed its pastoral tones and Irish hues. But it’s not a consistent record and, unlike Astral Weeks, it doesn’t feel as though every song is an essential part of a jigsaw – a few pieces of Veedon Fleece could be happily lost down the back of the sofa as far as I am concerned being somewhat beige and uninspiring – folk rock by numbers, if you will (opener Fair Play and side two’s Cul De Sac and Comfort You are Morrison snooze fests of the worst variety).

However, when it’s good, Veedon Fleece is spectacular. The trio of great songs that properly launch side 1 (once Fair Play has been negotiated), Linden Arden Stole The Highlights, Who Was That Masked Man and Streets of Arklow are all of the highest calibre, equal to almost anything on Astral Weeks and, to my mind, offering an Arcadian warmth that Astral Weeks misses, focusing, as it does on the scruffy urban vistas of Dublin rather than the lush green countryside of rural Eire.

But pride of place has to be the frankly awe inspiring 9 minute long meditation of You Don’t Pull No Punches, But You Don’t Push The River. I have no idea what he’s on about, I’m not even sure of what he’s doing musically, but I do know that it vies with Astral Weeks as the best song I’ve heard by Mr Morrison and I can’t think there are many tracks out there, by Van, or anyone else for that matter, that have the ability to elevate the listener as effectively.

Rob listened: I know little of Van Morrison, beyond owning ‘Astral Weeks’ and having had brief periods where I wanted to listen to the title track on repeat for hours. I felt very well disposed to ‘Veedon Fleece’ which seemed to me another burbling brook of an album. I love the idea that Van Morrison is like a 24 hour radio station, and each album just an hour spent tuning in to whatever is playing at that given moment. I certainly like him most when he’s at his most stream-of-semi-consciousness. Lots of nice stuff here and some stuff that did sound awfully twee, at least until Steve opened up his record bag…

Nick listened: Irish.

Genesis – ‘Trespass’: Round 97 – Steve’s choice

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Oh help…what have I done but unleash the prog-monster? Having been drawn the year 1970 I was on dan gerous ground as far as my collection is concerned. My immediate thoughts were to this album, and not Nick Drake (‘Bryter Later’) which would have been a safer bet.

Without sounding like Patrick Bateman (‘American Psycho’) I have a little penchant for Phil Collins. I think he gets too much bad press. In fact I would say that his mid-70s stint in Genesis is by far my favourite period of this band – releasing ‘Wind and Wuthering’ and ‘Trick of the Tail’, which for me are majestic. This album however does not feature Mr Collins since he joined shortly after this recording, which was their second album. Having released their first long-player – ‘From Genesis to Revelations’ – when the band was really an experiment under the spell of the svengali Jonathan King, they were sent off with creative freedom to the studio, and came up with this. So, here we have the band finding their sound.

Ok, so there’s a theme to the album (prog strike one). There’s lyrics about mystical lands (prog strike two). There’s only 6 songs on it (prog strike three). It’s prog….3 strikes…. but of a gentler kind, and it’s certainly not ‘Tales from Topographic Oceans’or ‘The Six Wives of Henry VIII’ by the Wake-off. It’s Gabriel, coming out of his shell, finding his voice, and even some loud shouting on ‘The Knife’ which was a live favourite at the time. I won’t dwell on the aesthetics of this album, suffice to say I still quite like ‘Visions of Angels’. When I bought it (when I was 15 or 16) I was heavily into them. I also have ‘Foxtrot’ and ‘The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway’. The latter I still quite like, but unfortunately ‘Foxtrot’ grates a little with pompous keyboard from Tony Banks. On Trespass the sound is a little more creative, and feels its way into the light. Less in your face prog, more in the English folk tradition. Even Rob said he liked bits of it (praise indeed). The guitar is subtle and the fingerpicking is quite accomplished….and no Collins on drums….

But, in defence of Phil Collins….

When I watched a recent documentary ‘Together and Apart’ the only two people who came across as reasonable people were Gabriel and Collins. When the ‘Lamb’ tour went into their last gig with Gabriel, Collins said he just rolled a big joint and played what was the best gig of his life, lost in a trance, knowing but resigned to the fact that Pete was off. The creative forces at the centre of the band did not claw for attention in the documentary, more the other peripheral members. Gabriel had no animosity for the other band members. Collins neither, although you could argue that’s easy with his bank balance! But let us not forget Collins was once cool (ok that’s a bit Bateman-esque). He played on Eno’s ‘Here Come the Warm Jets’. He played on John Martyn’s ‘Grace and Danger’. So, attack him if you want, but remember he took risks on seminal albums. He took on a fractured and bitter set of band members, galvanised them and provided the creative force that took them to global superstardom. For that he should be credited. For Buster, You Can’t Hurry Love and Sussudio he should be damned forever….

Tom listened: Half way through Trespass, it dawned on me that the ghost of Mr Pollock was in the room, smiling down malevolently on our prog rock sufferings, whilst Genesis flitted at will from one key change to another, throwing in half a dozen shifts in time signature and some bizarrely grandiose lyrics for good measure.

It is strangely fascinating how isolated in time and place prog rock is – two bars of Trespass was enough to place it within two weeks and thirty miles of its source. What was it about the ears and minds of young people (men?) at the time that made them so predisposed to this type of music? I can think of no other genre that has led down such a well defined cul-de-sac as prog rock – modern day succedents (Dungen?, Midlake?, The Besnard Lakes?) only giving the slightest whiff of the prog of old.

As a teenage owner of Invisible Touch (although I am slightly embarrased to admit it – it was the Spitting Image videos that sold me on the idea…honest), and an adult owner and great admirer of Grace and Danger and Here Come The Warm Jets, I didn’t go into Trespass with my mind already made up…and there were little sections that sounded alright…but, as with most prog I have listened to over the years (mainly as a result of Graham being in record club), the whole sounded to me like much less than the sum of its parts!

Rob listened: It felt like we’d been waiting a lifetime for this band to make an appearance, and yet it still seemed too soon. To be fair, which is not a requirement, we spent a lot of the album’s running time talking about how much we disliked the idea of Genesis when none of us, apart from Steve, clearly an eloquent defender, knew the first thing about them. I disdain them based on the dismal reflections I picked up from the generations of musicians who followed on, attempting and failing to wipe the slate clean of this stuff. This evening was a chance to correct that and at lea

Nick listened: Proggy.

Andy Stott – ‘Luxury Problems’: Round 96 – Rob’s choice

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We don’t have enough techno.

We have just enough techno.

I don’t know whether this is techno.

We don’t have enough.

I bought this Andy Stott album because I couldn’t hear it anywhere else. I bought this Andy Stott album because I saw the cover art from ‘Passed Me By’, the EP that preceded it, and somehow thought it was related to the first Death Grips album. I didn’t buy either of those, but I did buy this one because I couldn’t hear it anywhere and that really got under my skin.

I waited and waited until I found it on vinyl and I bought it and I didn’t know what it sounded like. Reading techno reviews is really hard if you don’t know a lot about techno and how techno reviews are written. I don’t know if this is techno but I know that the reviews seemed to suggest that I should buy and so did the cover and so I did.

I didn’t know he was from Manchester. I didn’t really know he was a label mate of Demdike Stare. I don’t know what Demdike Stare sound like, and I can’t hear them anywhere either, but I once heard their name pronounced in a surprising way on the Guardian Music podcast, and I came to associate them with dark, subterranean musics that I was able to listen to like Haxan Cloak and Emptyset.

Maybe one day I’ll buy some of their records too, just to hear them. The very thought.

This record is genuinely terrific. It starts with hazy loops and a voice, Andy Stott’s piano teacher apparently, intoning, “Touch… Touch…” and from there it grows. All organic adjectives are appropriate. This is rhythmic music beaten out on skin and deep muscle. It has heft and density and life. It is simple and yet it moves, articulated. It is at once delicate and tough enough to withstand whatever you might throw at it. It’s dancing, to its own bruised logic, whether you are asking or not.

The record it reminds me of more than any other is ‘Maxinquaye’ because at the time, that masterpiece seemed to me to have been thumped out on sheets of leather. This is human music made to affect the calculations of a machine. It pulsates and flutters and writhes and goes on in ways that no machine could. It is resolutely grey and full of touches of breathtaking colour.

I recognise that having to buy records just to hear them is a luxury problem.

Tom listened: My memory may be failing me…but I think this is probably the first time since we’ve been meeting that I have felt compelled to listen to an album again prior to writing my response.

Lately, I have become a little frustrated with my writing in that by the time I come to responding to an album, all I can recall is the feeling the music gave me, rather than the music itself. So that has been what I have tended to write about. Which is no good at all.

Furthermore, how many times does a record make sense the first time around? Having bought Swoon by Prefab Sprout yesterday, I must have played it about three times over already and it’s only just starting to reveal itself, as my mind, or ears (or whatever else it is that sorts this out) has begun to understand the structures and patterns that, at first, seem to be almost random or haphazard in nature. A cursory half-listen over a curry with chatter seldom does the job, as far as I am concerned.

So I have turned to Youtube for help. And it’s a revelation, the album eliciting the same feeling I got on the night yet sounding nothing like how I remember it. For a start, the vocals feature much more prominently than I had previously thought. The album feels much, much more human than my memory would have me believe, much warmer than Haxan Cloak and Emptyset (a fact I did recall correctly…unsurprisingly). It’s minimal but there’s just enough  going on to be entrancing; there are moments of great beauty, moments of ominousness (but never threateningly so), and Luxury Problems actually grooves, in a nod-your-head rather than fill-a-dance-floor kind of a way, through the course of its 50ish minutes. So, to sum up, I had thought this was a great record and it turns out I was right. Hurrah! It is just a different great record to the one I had previously thought it was!

Jeff Buckley – Grace: Round 96, Nick’s choice

jeff_buckley_graceHow do you write about Jeff Buckley in 2016? When so much water has gone under so many bridges, when so many imitators have drained his legacy, assuming that a sensitive falsetto is the key part of it? How do you even listen to Jeff Buckley in 2016, given all this? It’s nearly 20 years since he dove into the Mississippi and never climbed out.

Jeff Buckley was the first name mentioned at our “I can’t believe we haven’t played this already” meeting a couple of weeks ago, by Tom, but still no one played Grace. I’d thought about Buckley, and ummed and ahhed a bit, but decided not to bring him along to that meeting (everyone would much rather listen to U2, I thought). It then felt kind of obvious to bring him along to the next one, for which there was no set theme. So I did.

I bought Grace on CD in Newton Abbott Our Price (remember Our Price?) shortly after he died in 1997. I’d have been 18, just. It’s one of the few records that I can remember impacting me on first listen. Stupidly, at that age, I wasn’t into solo artists because I had a bizarre notion in my head that they’d all just sing unaccompanied by anything other than an acoustic guitar (for at least the majority of their songs), and therefore be insanely boring. Because otherwise why not just be in a band and have a cool band name? (It’s fair to say that I was quite fixed in many of my ideas about music – and other stuff – when I was younger.) But it was obvious from the first few seconds of “Mojo Pin” – that low hum, the twining guitar, the sashaying drums – that this wasn’t some bozo with an acoustic guitar and nothing else.

Like many people back then I became a little obsessed with Jeff Buckley; I hammered Grace until I’d internalised every vocal and instrumental nuance and climax, bought up old live EPs and CD singles, and waited impatiently for the unreleased songs that would emerge, almost exactly a year after his death, as Sketches for My Sweetheart the Drunk. (But not, it must be said, the ragtag gaggle of hodgepodge compilations that have followed over the years.)

I haven’t really listened to Jeff Buckley much in the last 15 years or so; like many artists I gorged on in days gone by I haven’t felt the need to because of over-familiarity. Also, with Buckley in particular, but with several other late-adolescent favourites, there’s a vague sense of guilt at the emotional indulgence of listening: Grace is a very, very dramatic record, full of heightened emotional states, whooping climaxes, and histrionic expressions that are coupled with very few direct referents and very little clear sense. Which is to say that I have pretty much no idea what most of the songs here are about, but good grief they don’t half make you feel.

A lot of modern ‘crescendo rock’ (read Elbow, The National, Radiohead, Coldplay, Snow Patrol) turns its tricks by repeating and repeating with added elements and intensity. This can be penetratingly affecting, but it can also be deeply dull if the purveyor isn’t incredibly skilful. One of Buckley’s masterstrokes on Grace is his ability to build to enormous, overbearing, wailing crescendos without repeating himself much if at all; “Last Goodbye”, the obvious big single, for instance, manages to get to its destination without really having a proper chorus or phrase that’s repeated more than once, even though it feels like it must do.

A lot of modern ‘crescendo rock’ also utilises lyrics that are opaque to the point of being meaningless, and that’s no different here, for the most part. Buckley was a massive Smiths fan, but there’s none of the multi-layered humour and self-analysis that Morrissey was so great at. Sure, some of the couplets (when paired with that voice and these arrangements) are strikingly memorable (the “please kiss me” line from “Last Goodbye”), but they’re counterbalanced by a stream of adolescent clunkers (“she is the tear that hangs inside my soul forever” from “Lover, You Should’ve Come Over”). But these wracked, intense demonstrations of emotion are forgivable, ignorable even, because (again) of that voice, and how fulsomely and convincingly Buckley throws himself into the songs.

Also, a lot of the time I simply don’t have a clue what lyrics Buckley’s singing, such is the fervour with which he bends vowels and consonants and syllables out of recognisable patterns. (In 2016, of course, you could just look-up the lyrics on the internet, but in 1997 that wasn’t so easy.) (Are they in the sleeve? I can’t even remember.) (They’re ultimately not that important.) (And music writing that leans on literary analysis of lyrics just plain sucks, anyway.)

Like an intense, body-shaking adolescent sobbing fit (or a big teenage wank), Grace gives catharsis but can leave you feeling spent and a touch guilty for letting yourself go to the indulgence of release. Revisiting it has been fascinating; I’ve no idea what I’d make of a record like Grace if I were to encounter it new today, but I’m very glad I got to it when I was 18.

Tom listened: Funnily enough I dug Grace out of my collection and gave it a spin a month ago for the first time in probably more than a decade having heard Lover, You Should Have Come Over on the radio.

It sounded as fresh and accomplished (I can think of no better word to describe Grace) as it ever did; the singing, playing and songwriting being top drawer throughout. It also, crucially for me, transcends all those copyists Nick has already relatively comprehensively listed that came along in the slipstream  – to put it bluntly, when it came to making this sort of music (to my mind ‘this sort of music’ sounds like The Bends rather than Amnesiac), Buckley was simply the best. Sure, there are a few cuts I would cull from Grace, but the vast majority of the record still sounds as revelatory as it did twenty years ago when it first exploded onto the scene.

The Avalanches – Since I Left You: Round 96 – Tom’s Selection

the-avalanches-sinceimetyouTaking advantage of a theme free and underpopulated evening I chose, as the deadline was looming, the 1 hour and 39 seconds of aural bliss that is, it turns out, The Avalanches first (as opposed to only) album, Since I Left You.

Released in 2000, for me no other album signified the coming of the new millennium quite as effectively. Bright, busy, supremely optimistic and breathtakingly well conceived, Since I Left You seemed, at the time, to mark a new dawning, a fresh way of doing things. Surely the shape of things to come! Taking our lead from the album cover, we waited, with baited breath, for the tidal wave of copyists; the magpies, the hoarders, the new collagists, imitating the mother lode but, inevitably, never improving on it. But they never really came, sunk without trace!? So we waited for the Avalanches themselves; to follow up their gargantuan first effort…and we waited, and waited, and waited! Internet rumours came and went, as they tend to do, but the offerings were piecemeal; the odd song here and there, guest artists occasionally letting slip that they had been allowed in to have a play but still nothing. And then, just as we were giving up, Wildflower was released and finally, Since I Left You had a sibling…sixteen years on! What does it sound like? I don’t know because, I’ve never heard it! I haven’t felt enticed because, and I guess this might be partly why we waited so long, Since I Left You is as close to damn it to perfection that I really don’t feel I need anything else like it.

I realised, as I was considering writing this blog entry, that Since I Left You is probably the only album I own which I really, really love yet know practically nothing about. After all, I can only recall the names of two of the songs, and can’t really hum, or even remember anything other than the occasional musical motif, a whiff here and there, the tiniest of shards, gleaming yet gone in a flash. Since I Left You (the song) and Frontier Psychiatrist are so anomalous (in that they are recognisable as songs in their own right) from to their bedfellows that even though they are both awesome pieces of music, you do end up wondering whether they belong with the rest of the stuff on the album. Because, if they weren’t there, Since I Left You would play out a bit like a dance orientated, poppy version of one of those albums we’ve had at record club every so often (The Necks and William Basinski spring to mind) where the music twists and turns and morphs and mutates over time, shape shifting imperceptibly yet definitely. But, in contrast to the minimalism on show in these other cases, the movements here are from one beautiful groove to the next, gradually and seamlessly blissing out as the end of the trip looms into view. I own the vinyl version of the album and the only breaks in the musical theme (apart from the aforementioned singles) are the end of the sides…I almost wish I owned this in some digital format instead, just so that that continuity could be preserved!

I don’t listen to Since I left You all that often but, whenever I do, it feels like a real treat. As for Wildflower, I am pleased for the Avalanches that they have managed to move back towards, if not into, the zeitgeist but I can’t help feeling that there is something inherently cool about those rare cases in popular music where a band comes along, releases a single classic album and then buggers off never to be seen again. For sixteen years The Avalanches were one of those bands; now they just seem a little bit more ‘regular’ than their fantastic debut album would suggest.

U2 – Achtung Baby: Round 95, Nick’s choice

600I reckon U2 are more influential than The Velvet Underground, in terms of how many records the artists influenced by either have sold. And how many artists they’ve influenced. Turn on the radio at any point in the mid-00s and you’d hear a massive Sincerity Rock Band with echoes of U2; take “Sweet Disposition” by The Temper Trap as an example. Or Coldplay or Snow Patrol’s entire careers. (OK, maybe not the first two albums by the latter.) When I first heard Arcade Fire I baulked because everyone was going crazy for them but they were using the U2 bassline all over Funeral, which I basically see as both emotionally manipulative and creatively bankrupt. Arcade Fire then, of course, went “full Achtung Baby” on Reflektor. More about what “full Achtung Baby” means in a bit, possibly. Even in the 90s the likes of Oasis and Radiohead made nods towards the Irish megaband even if they didn’t quite sound like them.

I once told a staunch U2 fan and sensible atheist (and holder of a PhD about vaginal imagery in the Alien films), many years ago, that every U2 song is about god, one way or another, and they said I was talking crap. “Go away and think about it” I replied, and a few days later they came back and said I’d ruined U2 for them, because it is, indeed, true, that every single one of their songs is about god. One way or another.

Every time I use the phrase “you too” near my elder brother, such as when he says “have a nice weekend” and I respond “you too”, he says “what’s Bono got to do with anything?”, which is intensely annoying. I have started doing this as well, which is probably also intensely annoying.

U2 are almost inconceivably massive; they’ve sold more than 170 million albums, won 22 Grammys (more than any other band), and were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2005, the first year they were eligible. (Though we established on the night at Record Club that Rihanna and Taylor Swift have each sold more records in a considerably shorter timeframe than U2.) (Other artists who’ve sold more records that U2: The Beatles, Elvis, Jacko, Madonna, Elton, Led Zep, Pink Floyd, Mariah Carey, Celine Dion, AC/DC, Whitney, Queen, The Rolling Stones, ABBA, Garth Brookes, Eminem, and The Eagles.) What this means is that they are ‘the establishment’.

I feel like U2 have hovered over Record Club like a tiny grey cloud, often imperceptible but occasionally remarked upon, recognised as bringing something potentially necessary to the table (the rain that makes crops grow, to extend the metaphor), sometimes beautiful, productive and useful in their own right, but mostly fucking annoying.

I once a read an interview where Bono said that he harboured vague ambitions to write a novel, but had decided that he never would in case it wasn’t “one of the great novels”, as what would be the point in branching out and producing something merely average, or even quite good, in another field, when he’d already made some of “the great records”. More than anything else, that sentiment made me think he was a cunt. Bono’s clearly a massive smugface bellend, but he’s more wealthy than most countries, so probably doesn’t give a damn what I think.

Achtung Baby is U2 trying to think outside of their box, trying not to be a massive Sincerity Rock Band anymore, trying to embrace groove, art, pop, Berlin, Bowie, hip-hop, that shuffle-y indie-dance beat that people think The Stone Roses introduced (they didn’t; it was The Mock Turtles), postmodernism, the 90s, and probably some other stuff. Including nudity, judging by the cover. When a band “goes full Achtung Baby” it’s arguably the equivalent of a middle-aged man buying a sports car. A (futile?) attempt to rebrand oneself as one feels youth and relevance slipping away, perhaps.

Achtung Baby is, of course, co-produced by Eno, and it sounds like he does a lot more here than just add widdly ambient intros to massive Sincerity Rock Band anthems. Except that, actually, Daniel Lanois is arguably more important. And maybe U2 themselves deserve a little credit. And actually let’s not give U2 anty credit for anything, the massive bellends. I pretty much hate U2, but this album is really, really good. Except the last three tracks, when being a massive Sincerity Rock Band kicks in like biological memory, and they can’t help themselves. (Notably this is only the second record we’ve ever chosen not to listen to the entirety of at Record Club.) Many of the songs on Achtung Baby are actually fun! And groovey! (“Even Better Than The Real Thing”, “The Fly”, “Mysterious Ways”, “Zoo Station”.) The drums and bass consistently sound really weird and thuddy and odd, like someone really misunderstanding dance music and krautrock and making something kind of interesting by accident instead. The Edge (Dave to his mum) does some interesting stuff with his guitar that doesn’t involve playing three notes over and over with massive delay.

In the press around the album Bono ranted about corporate sponsorship and the stupidity of rock mythology and rock’s “fat bastards” and sticking up for indie bands (in 1991, when ‘indie band’ actually meant being independent and alternative), which is kind of sad, because U2, as established by the buckets of Grammy Awards and 170 million album sales and undeniable influence on all sorts of other bands who really ought to be a whole lot better, are the most establishment band that there has ever been. Way more than The Beatles ever could be. They’re corporate rock 40-year careerists. They literally foisted an album on millions of unsuspecting, innocent people by signing a massive horrorshow deal with Apple that basically abused everyone’s iPhones. They’re pretty much disgusting. I quite like bits of Pop though, and those first three songs from The Joshua Tree are pretty undeniable.

Achtung Baby being really good might actually, probably, be down to Flood. it’s all about how it’s mixed. Just get the minimalist start to “So Cruel”. Pretty much everything U2 have done post Pop has been an exercise in sounding as much like people think U2 sound as possible. What they’ve forgotten is that, actually, U2 also sound like this, as well as The Joshua Tree.

Steve listened: I came out in a bad U2 rash after this outing of Bono Vox – for that is his full alter-ego pretentious name adopted much in the same vein as Sting. The thing that U2 have done is to have provided a simplistic template of how to herd the masses in terms of musical taste – adopted then by the likes of Coldplay, Snow Patrol etc. They masquerade as the underground, playing with those influences, much in the same way that a certain main-chain shops take on qualities of the independents. They also make themselves sound more important than they actually are, and this comes through no more clearly than via the mouth of Bono. Vague statements about “coming together”, “peace”, “touching god” make for an insipid attempt to probe the human psyche, but don’t really require much thought to get there. Easy listening for the masses and that is why I hate them.

Tom listened: Ever since I was a teenager I have lived in fear that eventually U2 would release a record that was so undeniably great that I would have to admit (to myself, if no one else) that it is really rather good.

And…I actually quite liked One when it was released as a single!

So I was a little fearful when Nick pulled out Achtung Baby that that moment might have come, the moment when I could no longer comprehensively and wholeheartedly ‘hate’ U2 with a clear conscience.

I needn’t have worried – although reasonably palatable musically, Achtung Baby is still risible. After all, at its helm are the conceited warblings of the biggest egomaniac in rock music! Horrible.