Pop

U2

Island Records, 1996

http://www.u2.com

REVIEW BY: Jason Warburg

ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: 11/19/2004

[Editor's Note: An earlier version of this review appeared in On The Town magazine on March 18, 1997.]

I was a teenage U2 fan.

Well, actually not, I confess, since by the time "Sunday Bloody Sunday" hit I was already well into my college years. My point is that I operate, as many do, from the perspective of a long-time fan of these four boys from Dublin who made good -- very, extremely, global-superstar-type good -- with a combination of searing, shimmering guitars and challenging, spiritually-charged lyrics.

What made U2 special in the eyes of many early fans wasn't just that they had the courage to be sincere; it was that they were deeply passionate in their sincerity, fusing a surprisingly mature idealism and spirituality to the dynamic power of guitar-driven rock and roll (for a look at this phenomenon at its pinnacle, see the band's 1987 masterpiece The Joshua Tree ). Adapting to changing times, their answer to 1990s knee-jerk cynicism was initially to try to subvert it, transforming themselves on stage and in videos during the Achtung Babymy_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250 - Zooropa phase into a parody of what they abhorred the most: materialism, shallowness, hucksterism and immature, aimless angst. Coming out the other side of this transformation, though, as they hop furiously onto the electronica bandwagon, U2 appears to have been at least partially absorbed by the abyss into which they once gazed. Or have they?

First reaction to Pop: what is the long-time U2 fan to make of the single "Discotheque," all cascading special effects and muddled, surreal lyrics? Where is the reason for this song, the meaning driving it? Once this band challenged itself and the world to discover a sense of purpose with the likes of "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For"; now its parodies of empty-headed cultural faddism (which is what "Discotheque" appears to want to be) themselves carry no sense of purpose.

The music is clever, to be sure -- the sonic manipulations and sharp melodic turns of songs like "MoFo" and the pretty "If You Wear That Velvet Dress" are technically admirable and moderately entertaining -- but where is the emotional fire of "Where the Streets Have No Name," the unifying anthem of "Pride," the furious energy of "Even Better Than the Real Thing"? Where are the guts of this band, the guts they once courageously spilled before the world?

The answer is that they're in here still, but half-buried now underneath the layers of techno-goop applied to the music by producer Flood and electronica consultant Howie B (does anyone in music have two full names any more?). Read the lyric sheet and you'll discover, like gold glittering in the twilight, some of Bono's most adventurous and often brilliant lyrics. The album's two principal ballads, the quietly intense "If God Will Send His Angels" and the stark, brutal "Wake Up Dead Man" are in fact two of Bono's gutsiest attempts to wrestle his own faith to the ground: "Jesus never let me down, you know Jesus used to show me the door / then they put Jesus in show business now it's hard to get in the door." The old fire can also be found in the Achtung Baby-ish "Staring at the Sun" and "Last Night on Earth."

Upon investigation, there is a good -- maybe even a great -- album hiding in here underneath all the gadgetry. I'd love to see what the results would be if the band chose to revisit and remix this album today in their current back-to-basics mode. Freed from most of the jarring, arbitrary noise that stifles this album emotionally, the songs might yet reveal their true qualities. As it is, we're stuck with an album full of U2 trying too hard to stay current for a teenage audience it has long since outgrown… and it's not a pretty sight.

Rating: C+

User Rating: B-


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© 2004 Jason Warburg and The Daily Vault. All rights reserved. Review or any portion may not be reproduced without written permission. Cover art is the intellectual property of Island Records, and is used for informational purposes only.