After that long spiel about the Black Sabbath remasters yesterday, I gave a good listen today to the remasters of U2’s early trio of albums, Boy, October, and War that came out this week. Like the Black Sabbath discs, this is another “lesser of evils” challenge. While last year’s beautifully-packaged expanded remaster of The Joshua Tree is practically a textbook example, these are a little more along the lines of your typical, albeit light-handed remaster – they’ve been compressed and EQd to modernize their sound. But is it all bad? I’m not so sure.
See, I’m not sold on those old discs being definitive. Sure, they’re beautifully dynamic – you can crank them up and you get a wonderful, colorful display of sound that doesn’t really feel like it’s doing any harm to your ears (don’t be fooled, however!) Great bass, clear, smooth highs – this is typically what makes old CDs (and vinyl) such a pleasure to listen to. They sound incredible loud. Seriously – go crank up “I Will Follow” or “New Year’s Day” from those old discs and tell me they don’t feel great loud. But . . . there’s this veil of age over them. I don’t know exactly what it is, but it’s like an audio-haze, and that’s exactly what these remasters correct . . . at the expense of those wonderful dynamics that made the original issues so great. These new ones don’t have those dynamics – compression, even light as it may have been applied here, has seen to it that the headroom on the CD has been done away with to make space for more volume overall. What you get is more detail in general, sure, but you lose the pop Larry Mullen Jr.’s drums used to have. They’re there, of course, but they don’t stand out – they don’t make you stand at attention – like they used to. The problem is, as with anything in these “loudness wars,” is that everything is louder, making individual things like Larry’s great snare sound, less noticeable. That’s a damned shame. And totally unnecessary.
So what’s the verdict? I don’t know. Beautiful packages, great collections of b-sides and outtakes (well, except for War – man, I didn’t need that many versions of “New Year’s Day” and “Two Hearts Beat As One”) struggle to outweigh some slighting in the sound department.
Will the new remastered disc 1s replace my originals? I really don’t know yet, but I can say this – I haven’t really closely listened to these first three albums in ages, and this has been exciting. These albums show a fierce, defiant U2 that we never quite heard again – not that they sat on their laurels, but they were hungry and they were fighting to make a name for themselves. The next time we heard them this hungry was Achtung Baby, when they once again had something to prove – and that was the last time they sounded that desperate. U2, as much as I love them, needs to recapture the energy of being hungry and desperate again. I have enjoyed a lot of what they’ve done since Achtung, but it hasn’t had quite the same bite – and it’s because they overcame the hurdles they faced and proved themselves with their then-new sound. They keep saying they want to reapply for the job of “best band in the world,” but I think they really need to work for it again.