Another article borrowed from Stylus, sorry people but it’s 3:00 and I just spent a half-hour manually blowing up an air-mattress.
Few bands have careers long and resilient enough that they can basically just fuck around for a decade without any fallout. In between the years of 1991 and 2000, U2 took chances with their career that few bands of their stature would ever have even thought to attempt, and audiences were rewarded with some of the coolest, most surprising, and ultimately most confusing and frustrating music of the band’s career. Consequently, they alienated fans by the millions, until the eight million-selling Achtung Baby became the three million success of Zooropa and the barely platinum Pop. Critics weren’t much kinder, as a smaller fraction of the unanimous praise for Achtung was awarded to Zooropa, and an even tinier portion of good will spilled over to Pop, which surely goes down as the most maligned album in the band’s career.
Frankly, it’s not hard to understand why this happened. Simply put, Achtung Baby was a masterpiece—a virtually flawless album that combined musical innovation with lyrical heartbreak, and deservedly saved the band’s career from almost certain egomaniacal self-destruction. Zooropa and Pop, to understate the point, were very far from masterpieces—uneven in sound, quality and pacing, both are decidedly difficult listens, with little of AB’s immediate, obvious greatness. But that’s not to say that the greatness isn’t there—indeed, both albums have a handful of songs that I would have no problem rating with the band’s very best. But the greatness isn’t found in universal anthems like “One” or “With or Without You,” or in righteous rockers like “Mysterious Ways” and “Where the Streets Have No Name”—rather, it’s in these curious, lyrically obscure genre-benders, songs that often don’t even sound like U2 could possibly be behind them—likely the point all along.
Eventually, the band would decide that experimentation and identity-shifting wasn’t as rewarding as playing lowest-common-denominator stadium fillers, and at the turn of the millennium, they (even admittedly) re-submitted their bid for “Best Band in the World” status, and today are just as popular and beloved as ever. And though it’s hard to fault their decision—U2 has always been a band of the people, and said “people” weren’t sticking around for too much more of the band’s Eurocentric weirdness—it’s equally hard not to feel disappointed that a band willing to take such chances decided to settle for being Generation X’s Rolling Stones. It’s highly unlikely we’ll even see an Achtung Baby from these guys again, much less a Pop or Zooropa.
In any event, there is definitely at least one classic album’s worth of material to be found in the band’s “lost decade,” and I’ve attempted to craft it, here. Similarly to my Synchronized Machinery article from a few weeks ago, this isn’t a greatest hits set—I’ve attempted to make a record that follows the Pop guidelines of “starting out at a party and ending at a funeral,” so there’s only really room here for the big, gaudy dance-rock numbers and the sobering, spiritual blues ballads. Consequently, some of the best songs of the period didn’t make the cut, including the heartbreaking love song “Stay (Faraway, So Close!),” the mysterious, adrenalized “Last Night on Earth,” and the Johnny Cash-sung Zooropa closer and fan favorite “The Wanderer.” But I’d like to think that what is here is the cohesive masterpiece U2 failed to materialize during this time, the failure of which arguably cost the band their edge, and if you’re as disillusioned a fan as I am, their soul.
1. “Pop Muzik (PopMart Radio Mix Edit)” (promo single, b-side to “Last Night on Earth”)
Hardly the most musically accomplished thing U2 did in this period, but I can’t think of a better choice to introduce this period of their career. After all, consider the source material—synth-pop fluke M’s 1979 #1 hit, a lyrically enigmatic but irresistibly catchy song concerned with the same kind of media overload that so preoccupied U2 during the 90s. The band obviously agreed, since their cover/remix—produced by Happy Mondays and New Order knob-twiddler Steve Osborne, with Bono laying down some new vocals—was used as intro music on their PopMart tour. In recorded form, however, it was relegated to obscure b-side status on a single that no one heard, so here we put it in the forefront, where it probably belongs.
2. “Hold Me, Thrill Me, Kiss Me, Kill Me” (single from the Batman Forever soundtrack)
Probably the most famous non-album track in U2 history, and probably one of the best. It’s not quite as experimental as most of U2’s upbeat singles from this time, but as a slice of immaculately produced neo-glam, it’s held up surprisngly well. Adam Clayton’s rumbling bass line and Larry Mullen Jr.’s loose, thundering drumming nearly put this in big beat territory, while the Edge’s multi-tracked guitar work (there must be a half-dozen lines going throughout this song—how the hell they managed it live is beyond me) ensure that it’s the last thing U2 ever did that could generously be described as “rocking”. Plus, Bono moans like Marc Bolan on the bridge, and that string outro! Dudes should’ve done soundtrack work more often—besides Larry & Adam’s hysterically 90s “Theme from Mission: Impossible,” which somehow charted higher than any other U2-related single since the ‘80s.
Speaking of which—how come no one makes soundtrack videos like this one anymore? I mean, I know the actual answer—music videos aren’t widely viewed enough anymore to function as legitimate promotional tools for the movies and soundtracks on which they appear, and besides no one buys soundtracks anymore, etc. But still, watch the video and see what a badass fuckin’ movie they turn Batman Forever into—nothing but amazing chase scenes, dazzling set pieces and awesome sound-byte quotes. Gotta be the coolest movie ever, right? (Personally, I still think it actually is pretty great—not as good as the immortal Returns but much better than the snooze-worthy original and laughable Batman & Robin.)
3. “Numb” (single from Zooropa)
Definitely a top five U2 single for me right here. I don’t know what shocks me about it more—that it wasn’t a huge, near-titanic hit for them, or that it was even released as a single (or that it even exists at all) in the first place. Because it doesn’t really make sense as a single—no chorus, not even any verses of note, just one long monotone rant, courtesy of The Edge. Yet…I don’t see how anyone could not love this song. First off, you’ve got that amazing, just ridiculous intro, Mullen’s dripping, tap-tap drum beat pierced with The Edge’s shrieking guitar scrape (crrreeAKKK-CREAK….CREAAaak-creek…creeeaAAAKKK…..CREEEAaak…), a hook that should be jarring and atonal but somehow sounds just perfect. I can’t imagine how many takes and how much production splicing it took to get it just so, but man did they fucking nail it.
And then that vocal. It may be monotone, but goddamn, what a tone they chose (once again, the production on it must’ve been staggering). The Edge hits the perfect pitch of total transfixion—who knows what he’s even saying for half the song, but you just don’t want that tone to stop. Add more nifty production flourishes (the machine-gun synth squeaks, the radio static that seeps in, the looped scream in the last verse) and Bono’s angelic falsetto filling in the negative space (“I fee-eel nu-umb!”) and, I’m sorry, but you’ve got a single that deserves to be held in the band’s highest tier of esteem, along with your “One”s, your “Pride”s, your “With or Without You”s. And, oh man, that video—hard to imagine another video whose visuals so capture the feeling of the song, though another one’s coming up in this article. I could write a whole book about it, but instead, just watch it, please. And then watch this strangety-strange parody of it, a mid-90s promo for The New WKRP in Cincinatti. I had no idea that show even existed.
4. “MOFO” (Single, from Pop)
There was much ballyhoo over U2’s new direction at the time of Pop, and how they had embraced trance and house and big beat and all sorts of other Euro-dance styles, but as far as I can tell the only legitimate evidence of this on the album was “MOFO.” Sure, there were some electronic shenanigans in a bunch of the other tracks, but this is the only one that actually sort of sounds like the Chemical Brothers, or one of the angrier Underworld singles (the undulating synth part actually presages “Moaner” and “King of Snake” by a year or two). It’s got that sort of frenetic, hyper-adrenalized feel, with a little grime and grease to it, that it wouldn’t have been out of place on the Hackers or The Saint soundtracks—which, frankly, is definitely speaking my mid-late 90s electronica language (back when “electronica” was even semi-acceptable in music-crit vocabulary). It’s not a seamless integration, but I still think it sounds pretty cool, and I wish more of the album actually felt like U2 pushing out the walls a little bit like they do here.
5. “Miami” (Pop album track)
Actually a far grittier and more depressing album than most people give it credit for, Pop’s bread-and-butter are these kind of haunted, skin-crawling ballads of decadence and self-loathing. Apparently Q once voted as one of the ten worst songs by a great band, but then again I’m pretty sure they gave this album some super-glowing review when it was first released, so clearly they’re not to be trusted in the first. Anyway, I love the thick drum sound on this one, and those sireny synths give the song the kind of spooky sound it needs, and of the half-dozen or so relative soundalikes like this on Pop, this one serves best for Poopropa’s first truly downbeat song.
6. “Holy Joe (Guilty Mix)” (b-side to “Discotheque”)
Another relatively stripped-down (as in, not much in the way of hooks) but thickly textured (as in, everything sounds real shiny and nice) number with a little more energy than “Miami” to kick the album back into gear a bit. Pop’s closest peer is Depeche Mode’s Ultra—an album released the same year with the same sense of crisis—a singer unsure of the state of his soul, a band unsure of the state of their sound and career. Both feature dalliances into electronics without ever really pulling out all the stops, and both achieved similar levels of success, the main difference being that for Depeche Mode, the stakes were far lower—their career had already peaked for good in the early-90s, and they had to know it, since they never made the same kind of play for returned relevance the way U2 did. Probably better for it, though, and I’d listen to Playing the Angel a few dozen times before I’d listen to How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb once.
7. “Lemon” (single from Zooropa)
Along with “Numb,” the most curious single U2 ever released, and along with “Numb,” the most superficially sublime. Bono, once again falsetto’d out, croons about who knows what over The Edge’s choppy, (tremolo?) guitar lines and Adam & Larry’s “futuristic German disco” (actually pretty accurate) beat. If it weren’t for the song’s bridge, with the piano and Bono’s trademark wailing, there’d be absolutely nothing to mark this song as U2. Naturally, it tanked on the pop charts, but the clubs seemed to dig it OK, and once again, another great, insanely creative U2 video. When exactly did these guys forget how to make a decent four-five minute clip, let alone crank classic after classic as if videos were so much Play-Doh? Do they just not care anymore?
8. “If God Will Send His Angels” (single from Pop and City of Angels original soundtrack)
Clearly, U2 were big ol’ Wim Wenders fans, with Zooropa’s “Stay” not only getting on the soundtrack to Wenders’ Faraway, So Close!, but the song taking the movie’s title for its subtitle (also to differentiate it from Lisa Loeb’s concurrent hit of the same name) and even its video getting directed by the man himself. And then, they offer up “If God Will Send His Angels” to City of Angels, a remake of Wenders’ Wings of Desire. Makes sense, especially for a song like this—more of Bono’s worrying about God, Jesus, blind people and the state of the world (“If God will send his angels / I sure could use ‘em here right now”). IGWSHA is the great U2 anthem that never was, a song just slightly too obscure and just not quite inspired enough to really have the mass appeal of their true classics. Still, it deserved to at least have Bono standing on a huge statue overlooking all of Los Angeles in the video or something. Hell, “Iris” got that much.
9. “North and South of the River” (B-side to “Staring At the Sun”)
Why this didn’t make the cut for Pop is one of a mysterious album’s biggest mysteries. As a low-key but fairly rousing anthem, this actually might’ve sounded more at home on All That You Can’t Leave Behind than on this, which I’d ordinarily mean as an insult, but this feels like the kind of song of redemption and hope that the utterly miserable second side of Pop so badly needed. And, really, this is way better than most of ATYCLB, which kind of sucks outside of “Beautiful Day” and “Stuck in a Moment You Can’t Get Out Of.” Perhaps I should’ve saved this for a hodgepodge album of those two albums, but that assumes there’s enough there for an entire album of decent material, which I’m not terribly optimistic about. (Prove me wrong, kids, prove me wrong!)
10. “The First Time” (Album track from Zooropa)
Funny, returning to Zooropa recently, this song kind of blindsided me. I had just assumed from memory that aside from “The Wanderer” (which, in retrospect, I kind of wish I had found room for here somewhere) the second side of Zooropa was filled with nothing but inconsequential tracks like “Daddy’s Gonna Pay for Your Crashed Car” and “Some Days Are Better Than Others,” total garbage songs that reminded me why it had been so long since I listened to the album in the first place. But this ballad, a gorgeous number that could have been a huge “All I Want Is You”-style ballad if it ever bothered to swell, which, curiously, it never does—just some synth waves, a yearning guitar line, and one of Bono’s most soaring vocals for four minutes. Clearly, U2 grasped the song’s power better than I did, placing the song as the closer to their Best of 1990-2000 compilation, as did Brian Eno, who lobbied to have the song included on the Zooropa’s final cut. Lost classic, sorta, and the perfect way to end the “funeral” section of my Poopropa album.
11. “Discotheque” (Single, from Pop)
All right, so maybe this is one of them New Orleans-style funerals (“Hey, you’re dead, sucks but not really, let’s party”), since I’m ending the album with an upbeat dance song. It’s not quite as frenzied as “MOFO” but it’s probably the better song, although to say the public wasn’t ready for it in 1997 would be a gross understatement. Or just an incorrect statement in general, since it’s doubtful the world ever would be ready for a song this much in opposition to everything the band, or y’know, rock music seemed to once stand for. Fuck ‘em all though, ‘coz this song is kind of great—The Edge’s impossibly fuzzed-out guitar, the furious cowbell exploitation, even the utterly laughable “HUNH! HUNH! DEES-CO-TEK!” outro. I don’t even remember what I thought of this song when I first heard it in 1997, but I love it more with every year that passes, especially when I imagine the dropped jaws of “real” U2 fans when they first saw what the band they’d presumably follow to the end of the earth was up to these days.
Or, of course, when they saw the video. Half 2001: A Space Odyssey and half “Sex Over the Phone” (OK, maybe 25% / 75%), the thing is simply the gaudiest, glitziest, and, to be somewhat reductive, gayest thing ever visually attempted by a mainstream rock band, much less one of U2’s stature. Find a fan watching Bono wave the white flag at Red Rocks back in 1983 and tell him that less than 15 years from now, the boys will make a video where Bono humps the camera, The Edge sashays down the runway, Adam does his best cat-pose under a spinning disco-ball, and the whole band DRESSES UP LIKE THE FUCKING VILLAGE PEOPLE for the outro, but first, prepare to get punched in the throat. Compared to this, Bowie & Jagger’s “Dancing in the Streets” may as well be a late-80s Motley Crue video. It works as a symbol for this period at large—extremely risky, more than a little embarrassing, but kind of awesome and infinitely preferable to a former hole-in-one of a band content to hit for par for the rest of their career.