I listened to a few tracks from the new U2 album yesterday, and I had the same thought I've had every time I've heard a new U2 song since around the time of Achtung Baby: the problem with Bono's voice is that he needs to stop sounding so much like Bono. Only this time the thought led me into a brief reverie -- while washing dishes, mind you -- about the role of the voice in rock music in general. (I have no idea whether this applies to opera, or jazz vocalists, or any other genre.) What bothers me listening to Bono now is all the mannerisms and theatrics -- the crackling falsetto, the stirring, anthemic sustained notes. These, of course, are precisely all the qualities that I immediately loved when I first heard U2 in the early eighties. I feel the same irritation when I hear other voices that have had comparable longevity: Michael Stipe, for instance, or Morrissey. I suppose if Kurt Cobain had lived and Nirvana were releasing a genuinely new album this month, and not a boxed set retrospective, I'd be beginning to feel the same disenchanted feeling about Cobain's growl. Certainly I've started to feel some of this towards the vocals on Sonic Youth records, but that's not exactly singing, strictly speaking.
So far, this is an easy phenomenon to explain: you get sick of things. If you can wear out a melody, you can wear out a voice. But it occurred to me yesterday that I haven't reached a comparable point of irritation with older rock voices that are equally stylized: Van Morrison, Jagger, Lennon and McCartney, Patti Smith, Lou Reed. For some reason, those voices don't have an aural expiration date for me. Now, some of you might simply argue that those classic voices are just better, more timeless than Bono's voice, but I don't think that's quite right. I think in a way it's exactly the opposite: the reason that they've lasted longer has to do with a very specific kind of timing. I heard Bono, and Stipe, and Cobain when they first arrived, and felt the impact of that arrival in a truly visceral way. Great rock voices have a way of fusing what had been wholly separate worlds, if you listen closely enough: I remember listening to Murmer and hearing this incredible mix of the American South and art-school obscurity in Stipe's singing; Bono's voice engineered this remarkable revival of the political rock anthem in the middle of all that Human League synthpop dross. So the power of the voice comes, in part, from the sense that it is literally breaking down walls with each phoneme, and from the rush and the wonder you get from being there as they're falling.
All those classic rock vocalists had a comparable effect in their own day, of course, but I wasn't around to experience it. By the time I heard Astral Weeks or Exile On Main Street, those voices had become thoroughly assimilated -- or to put it in a more positive light, the culture had embraced and built upon the initial collision they brought about. And so I heard them not as a challenge to the existing state of things, but as a cornerstone in the state of things: they were classic voices, after all. I'm sure this made them less intense to hear for the first time, but in a strange way, it has helped them survive longer in my tastes. When I hear Bono now, I'm reminded of what's missing: the initial electricity -- or should I say vertigo? -- of hearing a voice that sounds like nothing you've ever heard before. But Patti Smith or Lou Reed still sound complete to me, precisely because I wasn't around to hear them in their original glory. My ears don't know what they're missing.