The first problem with reviewing Original Soundtracks 1 is wondering how much it can even be considered in the U2 canon. A collaboration project between producer Brian Eno and the band under the name Passengers, all the songs on this record were said to be scores for movies that, barring three exceptions, did not really exist.
With reviewing Is it a U2 album? Well in as much as it follows the musical ideas from Zooropa, and is in some ways a similar basis musically to that of The Unforgettable Fire. But in a number of tracks it is too close to that of Eno’s solo work. Well then is an Eno record? Well the concept is something Ol’ Sourpuss tackled in his own Music for Films, but many of the songs are too melodic for that. So naturally we should be saying that it is neither, that with the name change both artists want us to view the work under the new label of Passengers. But it’s a new project in much the same way as, say, the first Run the Jewels record, which although great is still more a showcase for separate musical ideas than a full unified project; that would come with the next album.
As some members of U2 seem to dismiss this an indulgent side project (Larry!) we shall never get the answer as to what a second Passengers record would have sounded like, although some of the ambient ideas can be heard as far as Songs for Innocence (more of which next week). As it stands Original Soundtracks 1 is a fascinating anomaly, and whilst not exploring new territories in the way that Eno and David Byrne’s famous joint project Life in the Bush of Ghosts was, and also not as consistent as that work, it has high moments for both U2’s and Brian Eno’s respective works.
Much of the music in Original Soundtracks 1 can be contextualised by the front cover, which has the image of a broken down satellite with colours straight from a pulp science fiction novel. This is especially worth bearing in mind for the opening track, appropriately titled “United Colours”, with ethereal screeches that sound like they came from Vangelis score to Blade Runner until the looped trumpet lines come in along with the roaring of Edge’s guitar coming blaring into the forefront.
For such an ugly, earthy sounding title, “Slug” is one of the most ethereal tracks on the album, building upon “United Colours” with bright tones followed electronic blips and bangs coming from the programmed drums (giving off the feeling of being in some kind of cybernetic jungle). It is also features the first instance of Bono’s vocals on the album – which Original Soundtracks 1 will tend to stay at a much lower range – where his repetitions of sentences beginning with “Don’t” that seem to serve the narrative of the music more than anything actually being said.
The same is somewhat less true for “Your Blue Room,” originally written for the Antonioni/Wenders film Beyond the Clouds, which in lyrical turns comes with the same kind of internal struggles that can be found all over Achtung Baby and Zooropa. One of the album highlights, this is an example of one of the album’s more melodic tunes, like “The First Time” from U2’s previous release very similar in tone and vocal infliction to the works of Lou Reed. The organs and guitar continue to swirl around the synth lines, all in turn giving the illusion of both waves and passing time that are reflected in the lyrics. This is also one of the only instances of Adam Clayton having a vocal appearance on a track, his different voice adding a different perspective to the track as he sings about being a voyeur that can see all and cannot be reached (either relating to a god like presence, or at the very least something alien).
“Always Forever Now” is the longest track on the album, but its most prominent position in the public conscience was a small segment being used in Michael Mann’s heist film classic Heat. It certainly has the tense, determined vibes that his films usually give off, with drum machines giving way to a processed based and ever increasing wavy synths and processed choral voices and Bono repeating the title words to whatever mood the music takes him (given the amount of drum machines on this record its no wonder that Larry Mullen doesn’t particularly care for this record all that much).
The longest track on the album is followed by its shortest. The fictional film that “A Different Kind of Blue” was “composed” for is named An Ordinary Day, which considering the tone of the music itself is likely meant to be somewhat eerie. A dark rumbling accentuated by glass-like clangs, the song seems to take place from whatever position “Your Blue Room” came from, looking down on a day of earth in an analytical manner through a process voiced. This segues very consciously into the next piece called “Beach Sequence,” which was aonther song for Beyond the Clouds and has the closest thing resembling tradition Edge guitar fills that there has been on the entire record so far. However those are soon lost in place of echoing piano notes and more sci-fi rumblings. The only lyrics that Bono says on the song are “time shoots on by,” which seems to suggest that although composed for separate films (with varying degrees of realness), the position of both songs is that of people watching the passage of time from a position up above.
With that comes what was the album’s only single, “Miss Sarajevo.” At one point said by Bono to be his favourite U2 song, like with the final track on Zooropa seems to be the band conducting a genre exercise. With lyrics also concerned with themes of time (repeating “Is the a time…” over and over again), the song pertains to a beauty pageant that happened in Bosnia as the country was being torn apart by the Bosnian War. The ambient sounds that open the tracks are soon covered with gorgeous guitar lines and what appear to be the natural drums, with strings coming in to give the track another sense of the epic. But what truly pushes the track over the edge in terms of the operatic is to make that reading literal, with non-other than “Three Tenors” legend Luciano Pavarotti lending his famously powerful voice to proceedings in a moving centrepiece that together just shouldn’t work (ambient, rock and actual opera), but like Johnny Cash’s appearance in “The Wanderer” just does.
“Ito Okashi” is also another showcase for another voice aside from passengers, this time the little known Japanese singer Akiki Kobayashi. Sadly this does not serve as the greatest showcase for the singer, being one of the least memorable tunes on Original Soundtracks 1 in terms of its ambient tone, though the singer’s voice does lend to the Blade Runner/Neo-Tokyo vibe the song gives off. The album continues with this feel even more overtly as the next track, “One Minute Warning,” is a piece directly composed with the anime Ghost in the Shell in mind (the movie came out in the same year). It gets the drum prominence of the score to that movie very well, and includes some repetitive guitar notes and industrial tones like a dial tuning in to a signal. In terms of the ambient based tracks on the album, it is my personal favourite and also the most exemplary of seeming intent, combining both the ghostly tones with a tense beat, elements of U2 rock, and also keeping with the sci-fi themes.
The album moves back to a more melancholic vice with “Corpse (These Chains Are Way Too Long).” Elongated chords from electronic instruments, followed by bright Edge guitar chords ringing sparsely whilst Bono sings in high, processed falsetto, this song sounds awfully like some of the deep cuts that would be found on Radiohead’s Amnesiac album (like “You and Whose Army”). In seems like a genuine peace of forward-thinking styles, as opposed to the next track, “Elvis Ate America”, which feels silly. The definite low point of the album, Bono feels the need to explore his Americana influences for some bizarre reason, has Howie B. contributing some ridiculous backing vocals, and has some clunkers in the lyrics department, including referring to Elvis as “the white nigger” who “Ate a cheeseburger and just kept getting bigger”. Jesus Bono, and I thought you liked him!
Unfortunately the album never really recovers from that interlude, as the final tunes end up being somewhat forgettable. The closest it gets to quality is “Plot 180,” which does have the hypnotic feel you would consider a song from the fictional movie Hypnotise to sound like. However despite that good base, the song never really moves from that original sound in a true way of progression.
Meanwhile the last two tracks seem to be so forgettable as to leave off the titles. “Theme from The Swan” begins well, with Spanish sounding syncopations accompanying long string notes. But it’s the one song from the album that really feels like it only really works in the fictional movie it is set to accompany. It also doesn’t really lead to the final song, “Theme from Let’s Go Native,” very well, with this track returning to seemingly alien themes and sounds, with industrial drums and guitar backing that familiar metallic rumbling. Although it seems to be coming to a standstill as an intentional fitting end to the album, the sequence of the album doesn’t really end up benefitting it for a climax.
Still, despite those final few tracks, there is still a lot to be said for the work that both U2 and Brian Eno did Original Soundtracks 1. The themes of both movies and sci-fi really seem to compliment the compositions that each party made – although the best sounds from the record do seem to be those that were composed with actual films – and for a certain amount of time it seems to be following a genuine theme (that of time and looking down from above) before taking a bizarre detour that comes to a lacklustre finale. Still, there’s enough moments of inspiration to make it a worthwhile listen. Just, maybe leave after you’ve seen the Corpse.
But with the inspiration coming from Original Soundtrack 1, U2 would go on to make a record with those new techniques and sounds, as well as that from the dance world, and create something that was set to be the apex of their 90’s work. Unfortunately for U2, some problems would emerge. Some dividing, contentious problems…
What did you think, though?
Passenger Album Rankings
- Original Soundtracks 1
U2 Album Rankings
- Achtung Baby
- The Joshua Tree
- The Unforgettable Fire
- Original Soundtracks 1
- Rattle and Hum