After months of injury-prone previews and buckets of bilious press, $65 million Broadway debacle Spider-Man: Turn off the Dark, an FX-slathered bonanza with music by Bono and the Edge, finally opened this week. And after all that waiting, my only question is: Does it at least give us a few cool U2 tunes?
Let's take care of my ignorance up front. When it comes to musical theater, well, I did see Rock of Ages at Ruth Eckerd Hall a couple of months back. Before that, though, my last trip to the thee-ay-tuh was probably for Camp Hill High School's circa '87 production of Godspell. We beseech thee! Not a dry eye in the house!
So as a matter of full disclosure, I've approached the cast recording of Spider-Man: Turn off the Dark as a U2 nut first, a comic book fan second and a theater guy not so much.
For all you fans of the Dubliners, I have good news and slightly soggy news — a relative victory since Spider-Man's music has been much maligned, with some moaning there's nary a good cut to be found. Not true at all. When Bono and the Edge try to write for Broadway, especially the gloppy ballads (If the World Should End), they falter; when they write for arenas, they soar.
This album is not unlike 1995's Passengers, an ethereal side project featuring U2, Brian Eno and Luciano Pavarotti. It was a curiosity, a U2 footnote with slick moments. Same goes for this experiment, which the boys (minus drummer Larry Mullen Jr. and bassist Adam Clayton) share with the principals in the cast, including Reeve Carney (Peter Parker), Jennifer Damiano (love interest M.J.), and Patrick Page (the Green Goblin).
The album opens with one of those tingly guitar teases from the Edge, an auspicious start indeed. That turns into an overture jacked by plunging strings and percussive menace, a merging of matinee goofery and U2's talent for summoning chills.
There's classic Bono wordplay to be found on the album's highlight, the stormy Boy Falls From the Sky, which Carney delivers with growl, not unlike the Irish frontman he obviously emulates: "The city conducts a symphony / I search through trash for a melody /That might lead us back to dignity/ In this junkyard of humanity." It's hammy ("If I can use a single thread to cross the sky"), but, hey, it's home.
If you're looking for echoes in the U2 canon, Boy Falls From the Sky, as well as few others, remind me of the cartoon wickedness the band churned up on Hold Me, Thrill Me, Kiss Me, Kill Me, which U2 wrote for another superhero franchise, 1995's Batman Forever. (That movie, come to think of it, was terrible. Could it be the curse of Bono?!)
Bono and the Edge make appearances on four of the 14 tracks, including first single Rise Above, a churning rumination on being lonely in a city of ambition. Carney kicks off the track, but Bono soon jumps in as if to say, "No, no, kid, you sing it like this." It's a cool moment. If you want to cherry-pick on iTunes, that's a good one to purchase, as well.
The U2ers disappear for awhile — as does the music's ability to inspire — but the guys return for militaristic disco oddity A Freak Like Me Needs Company, a self-effacing gem that the Goblin's Page delivers with Buster Poindexter camp. The song works as a slam on overindulgence — not just the musical's, but Bono & Co.'s glammier moments, 1997's Discotheque included.
The album ends with a massive whiff, the titular Turn off the Dark, a spacey, wind-chimey patience-tester that sounds like Spinal Tap covering the Moody Blues. It's horrid, but it's also a needed return to reality. Okay, gentlemen, your sojourn into Broadway was a noble effort. Now, where's that new U2 album we've been hearing about?
Sean Daly can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @seandalypoplife.