Apple has solved the first great corporate conundrum of the digital-music age: selling sound files even after everyone has gotten used to their being free. Now the computer giant is taking the next step: marketing digital music as a high-end luxury item with The Complete U2. It’s a “digital boxed set” of roughly two gigabytes’ worth of audio files in Apple’s proprietary, nontransferable, not-quite-as-good-as-a-CD AAC format: 446 songs, including 48 duplicates. (There’s actually a handful of songs missing, mostly covers, but any sane person’s U2 needs will be met by this bounty.)
If you buy the special U2 iPod, with its crisp black-and-red design, the $150 virtual set is discounted by $50. But the customized iPod costs $350, or $50 more than the regular twenty-gig iPod. In other words, the whole music-and-player package will set you back $450 either way.
The digital box frames U2’s 26-year career as the context for the new album, How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb, which does the release no favors. Heard on its own, it’s a perfectly acceptable U2 product: swooning with rock-and-roll drama, thickly packed with little production details, so assured of its own importance that it almost hovers in midair. The Edge rediscovers his old guitar pedals, Bono has a peer-to-peer chat with God in “Yahweh,” and the iTunes jingle “Vertigo” could pass as the lost follow-up to “New Year’s Day.” Play the album next to the spacious, urgent early records, though, and it sounds flat and cramped. Play it next to the band’s anything-goes formal leaps like Achtung Baby, and it sounds positively retrograde, an attempt to recapture something U2 has moved far past.
The Complete U2 does include some impressive otherwise-unavailable stuff, notably a sky-shaking 1981 concert from Boston—the band sounds like it’s abruptly turned into the best in the world, and no one in it is sure how it happened. The package also has a handful of outtakes and alternate versions that illuminate, and sometimes improve upon, the past few U2 albums. But its comprehensive info-dump, along with the new record’s retrenchment, suggests that the band has resigned itself to remarketing its old innovations in fancy new packages.