The sojourn album: everybody who is anybody has done it or is doing it. We’ve all heard about the influence of place on music. It is a fact of life that an artist will be imprinted by his or her environment, just as any regular person would, it doesn’t matter if you know how to wield a paintbrush or fingerpick a guitar, for there are no unique dispensations for artist and artisan alike. Some inherit a home while others adopt a home, some embrace the influence of place while others deny it, some plant roots while others uproot from place to place. A place can be the dominant force in one’s upbringing or it can form the background murmur. The history and geography of music are so closely intertwined that you couldn’t simply take Vienna out of classical and still get The Marriage of Figaro, you couldn’t lift Blonde on Blonde out of Nashville, or rap out of Los Angeles. Truth is you can’t separate city from artist anymore than you can separate oxygen from air. Without Manchester we wouldn’t have Joy Division, the Smiths, or the Stone Roses; Without New York, the Velvet Underground, the Talking Heads, Sonic Youth, and Jay-Z would be a vanishing dream.
Put a pin anywhere on a map and chances are you will prick somebody’s muse. And you don’t have to be a landscape artist to be a landscape’s artist: It is your birthright, your traveler’s and your settler’s right. The landscape can cast its enchantment from up close or from a great distance. Paul Simon’s Graceland (1986) was recorded in places all over America, with parts even being performed in remote places like Johannesburg, but the title of the album, which presumably refers to Elvis Presley’s home in Memphis, Tennessee, had very little to do with the sound, lyrics, or theme of the album. One is required to make a leap of the imagination to make the connection, if there is one to make at all. Simon himself sings on the title track: “I’m going to Graceland / For reasons I cannot explain”, which suggests that the Graceland he is referring to is a figurative Graceland representing something like redemption on the album, and not the 13.8 acre mansion in the Whitehaven community. Even big shots like Sinatra and Springsteen wrote torch songs to New York even though they were both from New Jersey; U2 dreamt of the Joshua Tree in southeastern California all the way from Dublin, Ireland. People and places form complex relationships, and like love at first sight, there’s no telling how, when, or why it’s going to happen.
The sojourn album works its magic a little differently. The sojourn album is not a marriage between artist and city, it is a love affair, a temporary liaison in-between places, a hook-up full of humid and feverish entanglements. Davie Bowie taking sanctuary in Berlin to record Low, which would forever define his career, while not a quickie by anybody’s definition, is the gold-seal standard of the sojourn album. Bowie fled to Berlin to escape a drug habit that was escalating beyond his kitty, put up residence in an apartment with buddy Iggy Pop to escape the celebrity spotlight, immersed himself in contemporary art, classical literature, and electronic music, hooked up with producers Tony Visconti and Brian Eno, and drifted anonymously around a city that couldn’t give a shit about pop stars, learning serious life lessons in a constantly changing city.
What is it about traveling that so entrances the soul, stirring up creative energies that were dormant, revitalizing a lust for life through new experiences and shifting perspectives? It’s not about making that safe trip down south to unwind on a five-star resort. You have to get out of the tourist trap and experience the unfamiliar locale for yourself, permitting the foreign sights and sounds and smells to wash over you. You gotta get yourself into the intimate crevices of the community and rub elbows with the natives, even if it gets you into a spot of trouble, because a morsel of danger can sometimes do the trick too, jumpstarting the old synapses through queer turnpikes, and testing your aptitude for self-preservation.
U2 followed Bowie’s example when they hit a creative brick wall in the late 80’s with their sentimental, faux-Americana album, Rattle & Hum, which is as big a misfire as you’re likely to find from an artist operating at his or her peak. Bono and Company traveled to Berlin to “dream it all up again.” And wouldn’t you know it, the travel did the Irish troubadours a world of good, like it did for Bowie and Iggy a decade prior, except instead of getting away from cocaine and amphetamines, it humbly drew U2 away from their stale solemn selves, igniting the most notable second-act career renaissance in popular music probably since the Fab Four experimented with psychedelic drugs in the mid-60’s during the Rubber Soul recording sessions.
Between 1990 and 1993, U2 recorded and released two vital and wildly experimental albums that were gamechangers in the recording industry: Achtung Baby (1991) and Zooropa (1993). The incumbent Zoo TV international tour that took the albums on the road was also one of the most innovative and spectacular ever staged, grossing over a bajillion dollars and made channel surfing a thing for kids to do. During the tour, frontman Bono played around with different stage personae to celebrate the theatricality of the rock-and-rock lifestyle. Shortly after the Zoo TV tour died down in the Christmas of 1993, Bono had the bright idea of releasing yet another album in rapid succession to complete the trilogy, ala Bowie, which captured those elusive transient feelings one experiences while constantly traveling, a feeling very few take to extremes, perhaps professional salesmen or flight attendants or peace corps volunteers or, I don’t know, rock-n-rollers?
So Bono returned to, where else? you guessed it, Berlin, and brought only the Edge with him as entourage, because Larry Mullen and Adam Clayton couldn’t give any fucks after the lengthy tour, not even a brief merciful one, despite the successes showered upon them the previous four years. They decided to record a short Station to Station kind of album: thirty-minutes, more or less, a handful of fleshed-out tunes, some fuzzy instrumentals, in-out, nobody gets hurt in the making. But it didn’t make sense to record the album under the U2 moniker since two-fourths of the band fucked-off back to the capital of Guinness. So they decided that Bono would naturally release his first solo album and that the Edge would be the silent player this time around, maybe getting a production credit in the liner notes. But the truth is Bono didn’t really want to release a solo album because that was never part of U2’s masterplan for world domination, see, and instead of potentially cheesing the remaining members of the band with a Bono-only release and endangering the brand and future moneys waiting to be earned, he slyly decided to unleash MacPhisto silently unto the world, his sardonic devilish personae from the Zoo TV tour.
Twelve weeks later, in March of 1994, the seven-song suite was all but in the can. Bono and his mousy partner, whose name rhymes with “sketch,” decided to call the album Oh, Berlin, named after a travel accommodation company in Berlin. And against all odds, facing burnout and repetition head on, Bono recorded an album that was surprisingly not shit, and in its own way, was as diverse and arresting as Zooropa. But, perhaps being skittish of the results, or perhaps because he received lily-livered career advice that advised against flashing a shit-eating grin when everything was coming up roses, Bono decided to scrap the Macphisto release altogether and bury it under the rubble of what was to become Untitled Soundtracks 1, the Eno-led project that had reconvened the marvellous four into the studio only a few months later to record their “night-time” album through a series of jam sessions, which, truth be told, is a faded xeroxed copy of the Oh, Berlin compositions. To boot, the best tunes from Original Soundtracks 1 were gleamed from Oh, Berlin anyhow, making MacPhisto’s entr’acte vanishing a cunt-punt for the ages.
The seven songs that constitute Oh, Berlin are as startling detour as anyone could expect from an artist eight albums deep into a career. Besides being robbed of its claim as U2’s true “night-time” album, which it is, par excellence, certainly better than that Untitled Soundtracks 1 jive Eno tabled, the soft-pedal transit of Oh, Berlin was also sidestepped in favour of brighter and bolder and more distinct flavours on their true next album, 1997’s Pop, which was also not a shit album by any stretch of the imagination. What was lost between the blur of 1994-1997 was the emission of steam Oh, Berlin represented before U2 would reassemble and get heavy again. A little red-light exile on the rainswept streets of Berlin as a gesund reprieve before a renewal of vows was undertaken. But history repeats itself as farce.