Now I realize that Rattle and Hum is widely panned, the album from the film project being relegated to the backstacks while other U2 albums take a much a more prominent place in musical history. While conceding on this point, I still refuse to dismiss Rattle and Hum as an album jaunt through folk rock, soul, blues, Gospel, and American rock. It may come off as disjointed or overwrought to some, but I find it a magical space summed up in the image from the movie where the band sits on a hill overlooking an American interstate, sliding down the grass in a playful gesture even as they hint at the darkness around their love story for America. Rattle and Hum comes off as an over-celebration of all things American if one ignores the underbelly of the beast on “Helter Skelter,” “God Part II,” and “Bullet the Blue Sky.” Love may come to town, and the angel of Harlem may sing, but this diverse album circles around the band’s right to disbelieve the American dream.
McGill and What Army’s album begins squarely in the Rattle and Hum vein. Listen to the Americana touches that dust up the edges of the rock ‘n’ roll of “Houdini,” even as McGill channels Bono’s urgent wail. With “I Don’t Believe In Magic (But All My Friends Just Disappeared),” we could be in Sun Studios with Memphis horns playing those backup doo-wops. “Dead Rose” brings out the anthemic U2 growling from the dark, “second guess the American Dream” moments of “God Part II” or the revisiting of “Helter Skelter” and “All Along the Watchtower.”
Elsewhere, the U2 comparison falls apart as McGill returns to the Country-influenced rock I first came to know him by when he opened for Tift Merritt. Things lilt along on “Let’s Make Dinosaurs Extinct.” “The Road to Hell is Paved with Adverbs” brings out some of that Memphis 50’s rock even while having much in common with Andy Friedman. “My Demons are Organized” brings out a Charlatans UK-like English rock that’s got a bluesy core.
Yet, like Rattle and Hum, Is a Beast is a varied tour, never to be pigeon-holed while trying to reflect the great vastness of a manifest dream. Channeling Bono singing in the style of Marc Broussard, the soulful, string-filled ballad “Michelangelo’s Blue Period” grows intensely as the blue lights fill the room, hushes the crowd, and makes us ponder our souls. Like the Edge’s haunting “Van Diemen’s Land,” “Sad Ambassador” stands back to reflect on the world passing on the “streets of America.”