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Pro Bono's Pop

Last Night on Earth--First Night on Turntable: Even the latest industro-disco dance-music production techniques can't disguise U2's essential questing soul on "Pop."

Photo by Anton Corbijn

On its new album, 'Pop,' U2 grafts an electronica pulse to anguished lyrics and anthemic roots as sturdy and deep as a Joshua tree

By Gina Arnold

IN THE WORLD of classical, jazz and folk music, it is considered perfectly acceptable for acts to play the same tunes over and over again for hundreds of years. Somehow, a Chopin's Prelude, Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue and "Barbara Allen" never seem to lose their relevance. But whether by accident or design, rock & roll prides itself on its evolutionary nature, so much so that what sounds good today sounds truly horrible tomorrow.

This is what is known as "planned obsolescence," and it's one of the major problems acts face when they take four years between albums. How, they must ask themselves between year-long world tours and extended Bahamanian vacations, can we make music that doesn't sound like yesterday's news?

This dilemma is especially acute for bands whose initial records were groundbreaking and influential. Once other bands start following their lead, they themselves must continue to push the envelope just to stay in the game at all. If they don't, they'll wind up playing Vegas--or worse--faster than you can say, "Emerson, Lake & Palmer."

U2 is the perfect example of a band that has striven to stay at the forefront of rock by subtly altering its sonics along with the Zeitgeist. Formed in 1980 when its members were only 20, U2 was single-handedly responsible for an airy postpunk sound that pretty much defines the whole era of rock from 1984 onward.

Over the last decade, however, U2 has had to reinvent itself again and again--reinvent without losing its sense of self, that is. In 1991, for example, Achtung Baby came out right in the middle of grunge-mania; instead of jumping on that bandwagon, however, the band (wisely) next put out the highly experimental and ambient-sounding Zooropa. And now, with its latest album, Pop (Island), U2 has again been confronted with the problem of how to sound like U2 without sounding like what the Irish call "shite."


The official web site for the new album.

The U2 Lyrics Archive with song lyrics,
web links and other resources.


Pop acknowledges the current move in rock toward "electronica" (a move that is actually more prevalent in England than in the U.S.), but by and large, the album is uniquely U2. Except for the pulsing single, "Discotheque," and the slightly less strident "Mofo" and "Gone," the songs here are essentially straightforward. Minus all the studio magic, many of them could be played on an acoustic guitar on hoot-night by one of Bono's bigger fans.

In short, U2 followers who hate the Prodigy won't be disappointed by Pop, despite the much-vaunted presence of industro-disco producers Flood and Howie B. The songs on Pop all have a conventional structure that belies their techno-billing. Moreover, they're fully riddled with Bono's keening, questing sensibility. No worries, U2 lovers--he still hasn't found what he's looking for, and he's back to tell you about the ongoing search.

U2 WITH THE RELEASE of Pop, U2 faces an even more urgent problem than pop-solescence, however: how to release a successful LP in the midst of an economically distressed music industry. Now that Madonna is off being a movie star, Michael Jackson is discredited in America and the Rolling Stones are all but senile, U2 is literally the last of the megagroups. No other band could launch a stadium tour in 1997; in fact, the only act able to fill an arena single-handedly in the last 24 months has been the Three Tenors.

Consequently, the American concert business has long been hoping that U2's arrival will replenish its echoing coffers, but the way things are going, even U2 is going to have a hard time packing the stadia of America. Its June 18 at the Oakland Coliseum, for example, has yet to sell out. Unless one of its members gets arrested in a high-profile scandal, U2 is going to need lots of hype to jump-start ticket sales.

The band made a bold start to its campaign three weeks ago, when it held a miniconcert/press conference in a Kmart in New York City to announce upcoming tour dates. (In San Francisco, critics were invited to a press breakfast, where they could watch said conference on live/remote video screen.)

The Kmart connection was a comment on the mass-market nature of rock today, and really, it's not the stupidest gesture ever made. Whereas acts like Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Pavement and Beck often decry the merchandising and co-opting of rock & roll by the mainstream in word, only Pearl Jam has made a significant effort to stem that tide in deed. And that gesture--a non-Ticketmaster-booked tour--pretty much failed. The other acts are all just crying on the way to the bank.

U2, however, has a more complex relationship with its corporate ties. Since 1992's ZooTV tour--during which the band banked the stage with television screens, dressed up as Elvis and generally exploded commercialism to such an epic size that it can, with luck, be more easily mocked--U2 has commented on the voracious nature of the media-corporate world.

The Kmart point, for example, is well taken: U2 is saying that this is where rock music is sold in America, alongside appliances, cheap clothing, bulk household goods and packaged snack food. And instead of denying or bewailing the fact, the band is appropriating it--controlling it, commenting on it and, in the end, criticizing it by making the phenomenon apparent to the masses.

Some songs on Pop address this issue more fully. On "Discotheque," for example, Bono sings about the impropriety of looking for love in a disco--not to mention looking for meaning within a disposable pop tune. "You know you're chewing bubblegum / you know what this is but you still want some / 'cause you just can't get enough of that lovie dovie stuff."

"Last Night on Earth" also focuses on the evils of a consumer society: "The more you take, the less you feel / the less you know, the more you believe." And on "Playboy Mansion," Bono continues to rail against the deadening effect of aesthetic vulgarity: "The banks they're like cathedrals / I guess casinos took their place"; "If perfume is an obsession / and talk shows ... confession / then what have we got to lose?"

IN SHORT, despite the hype, Pop is hardly one long rave tape--far from it. After all, all the techno-trickery in the world could never make U2 funky. This is Caucasian-rock at its whitest.

The jangly pop tune "Staring at the Sun" has a modern Beatleseque--or should one call it "Oasis-esque"?--veneer to it, and "If God Will Send His Angels" and "Wake Up Dead Man" are "Joshua Tree"­like ballads about God's great silence. "They put Jesus in show business," Bono sings on the former. "Jesus, help me / I'm alone in this world / and a fucked-up world it is too," he begs on the latter. "Please" and "Miami," however, may be a bit too ambient for most people's tastes.

U2's earliest work used to be called "anthemic"; later, it became almost hymnlike. And neither word was used in a complimentary fashion. Pop has an element of both adjectives, but to my ears, the pomposity of their oeuvre has been smoothed out in recent years by the lush, textured inventiveness of the studio: sonically, Pop has a lot of exciting moments.

Moreover, if you find the head-numbing repetitiveness of techno hard to listen to for more than a few seconds, this record may lead you gently toward assimilation. With the help of producers Flood and Howie B, U2 has managed to recast such noises in a tolerable setting.

Pop is a clever and thoughtful U2 record, admirable for its ability to translate current recording techniques into an already successful U2 sound. I doubt it will convert any non-U2 fans. At this point, Bono's voice is just too familiar, and his views on life too strident and earnest, even pious, for many listeners to bother with. But U2 has to be commended. Seventeen years into its career, it is still creative--still impassioned even--one of the few nonembarrassing acts of this or any other era.

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From the March 6-12, 1997 issue of Metro

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