Felix Quinonez Jr.
This past March marked the 20th anniversary of Pop, U2’s 9th studio album. But the event came and went without any celebration. The band instead focused their attention on the 30th anniversary of The Joshua Tree, their 1987 landmark, almost universally adored album. They’re even going on a retrospective tour for that album.
But Pop didn’t get the same treatment, there wasn’t even any sort of reissue to commemorate the album’s anniversary. This is especially odd considering that U2 have remastered and reissued quite a few of their albums. And because they have already re-recorded several of the songs off Pop, a 20th anniversary would have been the perfect chance to reissue the album. Fans could finally have a sort of “director’s cut” of Pop that has the versions of the songs that the band was most happy with.
So why does it seem that Pop has been all but swept under the rug of U2’s history? It seems that it's basically thought of as the “black sheep” of their catalogue, if it’s thought about at all. The album definitely has and odd place in U2’s discography.
And it’s generally, and unfairly, looked at as one of the low points in the band’s career. But when a band has been around for almost 40 years, they’re bound to have lows to even out the highs. In fact U2 is arguably in one of the low points in their careers right now. That's partly due to the fact that they've been in the public eye for so long. It sometimes feels like they're "just there." And its become hard to appreciate them. But if we’re being honest, it’s been a long time since they put out an album that was really loved. And with the backlash to their misguided apple stunt still hanging over their heads. The days when U2 was considered cool, seem like a distant memory.
In an attempt to get their 2014 album Songs of Innocence “to as many people as possible,” the album was automatically placed in the "purchased" section of users' iTunes music libraries. It was made available to over 500 million iTunes customers in 119 countries.
Although there were good intentions behind the move, it was almost universally derided by other musicians, retailers and even its intended audience. Many people were unsettled by the fact that Apple could add things to their libraries without their consent. Others compared the album to corporate spam. And there were enough people complaining that they couldn’t erase the album that Apple had to set up a page exclusively to show people how to get rid of the album.
It was reported that within the first month of the stunt, 81 million people had listened to the album and 26 million had downloaded the album. But any positive reaction was drowned out by the people upset about the intrusion and the implications of its release method.
As is often the case with stunt releases, how the album arrived overshadowed any talk of the actual album. And in this case U2 became the butt of many jokes. They came off as out of touch and arrogant instead of the cool rock stars they thought they were being.
It’s hard to remember now but they started out as young passionate, loud Irishmen. Their first album, Boy was released in 1980. Their music was spirited and didn’t shy away from social issues. And as that decade wore on, they honed and polished their sound with each subsequent release.
Their music became more earnest and universal, culminating with 1987’s Joshua Tree. That album not only received critical acclaim but it was also a commercial smash. It sold 25 million copies worldwide. And it is widely considered an all time classic.
But following such a monumental, defining album would be hard for any band, including U2. When people talk about the history of U2, they have a habit of jumping from The Joshua Tree right to Achtung Baby (two very high points in their career) But there was actually another album in between, Rattle and Hum
That album contained new songs, covers, live recordings and was accompanied by a documentary. But more accurately it was the sound of a band flailing and unsure of how to proceed.
It was a commercial success, because at that point, anything they put out would have sold millions and Rattle and Hum did just that. But it was met with a mixed critical reception and many fans though that the band came off as egotistical and arrogant. After that they realized that the only way they would survive as a band was to tear down the image they had spent the decade cultivating. They had to, in their own words, “tear down The Joshua Tree.”
And the result was Achtung Baby. That album, recorded in Berlin and Dublin, was a departure from their past work. It incorporated dance and industrial music elements. It also dealt with darker themes and was more introspective than previous albums. But it was still distinctly an U2 album. It became one of their most popular albums, commercially and critically. And like The Joshua Tree, it is considered one of the all time great albums.
But more importantly, it gave the band a new life, in a new decade. The success of the album left the band emboldened and eager to keep exploring, pushing boundaries. It set the foundation for what would become U2’s most adventurous decade as a band. With each album, they were getting more and more experimental, straying from what their fans who were still holding out for another Joshua Tree wanted.
Their next album Zooropa found them diving further into the electronic ocean. The album was originally intended to be a sort of stopgap, an EP recorded between legs of their tour supporting Achtung Baby. But somewhere along the line, they decided to make it a full fledged album. However, due to the limited time, they had to write songs more quickly than they had in the past. The result is a more playful, experimental and even weirder record than Achtung Baby.
The album leaned even more heavily on dance and electronic elements than its immediate predecessor. Unfortunately it was also more rushed and the result was less memorable and less consistent than Achtung Baby. But that’s not to say it’s without its merits. It’s not an album you play from beginning to end but its best moments can stand alongside the greatest songs the band has produced.
On one of the album’s highlights, The wanderer, the band turned over the lead vocal duties to Johnny Cash. Brian Eno, the producer, wanted Bono to sing the song, believing that Bono’s voice could turn it into a hit. But Bono explained that Cash was right for the song. The result is a beautiful and powerfully moving song. Cash’s own history adds an extra poignancy to the lyrics. It wasn’t a hit but it was true to their vision and that was the course for them in the 90s.
They were an iconic band tearing down the very foundation their stardom was built on, reinventing themselves with each new release. And they ended the decade with Pop, the logical conclusion to a decade spent wandering in the desert trying to escape the shadow of The Joshua Tree.
But although Achtung Baby kick started their decade of experimentation in the best way possible, (Commercial and critical success) the sales dwindled with each new release. And for a certain portion of their fan base, (the ones who still demanded The Joshua Tree pt. 2) seeing the band dressed like the village people on the discotheque video was the straw that broke the camel’s back. Unfortunately that turned out to be a very big portion of their audience. And as a result Pop became their lowest selling album to date.
They entered the decade looking effortlessly cool and selling 18 million copies of Achtung Baby worldwide. And they ended it with an almost universally maligned album that was a flop. (At least relative to expectations.) Because of that, it’s not surprising that their follow up, All That You Can’t Leave Behind, released in 2000, found the band getting back to their roots. It was a transparent attempt to win back fans and it worked better than anyone could have expected.
Unfortunately history has been very unkind to Pop. It’s a very underrated album and people seem to forget that it got very strong reviews upon arrival. Rolling Stone gave it 4 out of 5 stars and stated that on Pop, the band “made some of the greatest music of their lives.” The LA Times gave the album 4 out of 4 stars. Spin gave it a 9 out of 10 rating and said that, “Pop realizes a symphonic transcendence for which the band's earlier stabs like The Unforgettable Fire could only wish."
But the fact is that there were many things lining up even before the release that ultimately set the record up for failure. While it’s true that many embraced the band’s willingness to experiment throughout the decade. There were also others who saw it as self indulgent. Many fans began to lose patience.
To the band Achtung Baby marked a new beginning but there has to be at least a possibility that some fans saw it as a brief departure before the band went back to the sound they perfected with The Joshua Tree. And their tone deaf and self important promotional stunts made the band appear arrogant and out of touch. (two weeks before the album was released, the band held a press conference in the lingerie section of a K-Mart department store in New York City to announce the PopMart Tour) Because of this, many people began hoping the record would fail. And many fans finally turned their backs on the band.
But there were also some problems going on behind the scenes too. Larry Mullen Jr., their drummer, had a back surgery which prevented him from being involved at the beginning of recording. Aside from being absent during the early stages of recording, it also caused a problem towards the end. Mullen Jr. had to re-record some of the drum parts because they had failed to clear some drum samples. This pushed them back after already being pressed for time.
And an even more pressing issue, was Bono’s voice problems. His voice, a long time defining feature of the band’s sound, had suffered a lot of damage and began showing signs of weakening. The massive and demanding tour schedule had no doubt strained his vocal cords making his voice sound thinner and worn. But in the context of the album’s world weary disillusionment, it works well, unintentionally adding another layer of resonance.
But perhaps the biggest misstep taken during production was booking a massive world tour before they had finished the album. A looming deadline added to the stress of the already taxing recording sessions and they delayed it from December of 96 to March of 97. But even with the extra time, they raced against the clock and basically ran out of time. The result was that they put out what was essentially an unfinished album. For example, the album version of If God Will Send His Angels had unfinished lyrics. Towards the end of the song, Bono essentially mumbles non-sensibly what should have been the song’s coda.
And that wasn’t the only song they were unhappy with. Over the years they have recorded new versions of Discotheque, Staring at the Sun, Gone, Please, Last Night on Earth, and If God Will Send his Angels. Some of them have been released as singles and others appeared on their Best of: 1990-2000 compilation. And to be perfectly clear, when I talk about Pop I’m including the version of the songs that the band were happiest with, and I believe, would have originally released if they had more time.
Achtung Baby was the first chapter of their 90s trilogy, the initial phase of their reinvention. It was the band tentatively dipping their toes in new waters. They flirted with techno and dance elements but did so in somewhat superficial ways. On Zooropa, they attempted to subvert what fans expected from the band. It was definitely more experimental than Achtung Baby but at times the dance elements overwhelmed the more “traditional” u2 elements of the songs. Bono explained that, “The truth is our pop disciplines were letting us down. We didn't create hits. We didn't quite deliver the songs.” But it did however, perfectly set up, Pop which is by no means a perfect album. But it did perfectly blend the elements they had been working on in the 90s.
Bono described the album as “beginning at a party and ending at a funeral, moving from its up-tempo club tracks to the broken-down gravity of its conclusion.” It certainly feels that way. The upbeat, energetic beginning on Discotheque eventually gives way to a downtrodden and almost defeated ending of Wake up Dead Man. The end of the album certainly has a feeling of coming down after a long party with too many drugs.
When people talk about Pop, if at all, they almost always mention the techno/dance elements. There’s a general idea that the album is disposable or vapid. But this is a very superficial analysis of Pop. Sure, the album is loud, flashy and sometimes even ugly. But beneath the neon lights, and its party in Vegas production, there is a somber, introspective, beautiful album that deals with heavy issues.
They’re a band at the end of their ropes, like the narrator in The Wanderer, (from Zooropa) they had tasted and touched and felt as much as a man can before he repents. They had taken the debauchery and excess as far as they could. Their decade of exploration and reinvention reached its logical conclusion. They got everything they wanted only to realize they still haven’t found what they were looking for. They reached the end and decided to keep pushing, hoping to find something more meaningful and true on the other side of the personas they cultivated.
They were looking for answers to questions many didn’t want to think about. The hope that often characterized U2 albums was replaced by ennui, doubt, and anger. This was by no means the first time the band touched on gloomy subject matter but typically those moments were surrounded by heartening songs. And usually, even their sad songs are anthemic and so lovely that people can’t help but sing along to them. Achtung Baby had one of their biggest hits with One, a song about fracturing relationships. But because it’s so beautiful people told Bono that they played it at their weddings. But on Pop, those downbeat moments weren’t the exception but the rule. The listener gets continually hit by wave after wave of dark thoughts, depressing questions, and world weariness.
Of the many targets the album takes aim at, religion and God pop up most frequently. Bono at times addresses god directly, wonders if (s)he is listening or even there at all. It’s heavy, dark subject matter with no light at the end of the tunnel. It’s an album full of questions that practically crawls to its conclusion; the resignation that perhaps there are no answers or at the very least, they won’t be found here.
On Achtung Baby, Bono donned The Fly persona, a stereotypical rockstar covered in leather and wraparound shades. On Zooropa he became MacPhisto, the devil as aging glam rock star. They were both playful and ironic but at the same time larger than life. But on Pop Bono ditches all pretense of being a rock god to reveal that he’s human after all, filled with doubts and flaws like the rest of us. And to many, this discovery proved to be very unpopular.
The album kicks things off with the propulsive, dance heavy Discotheque. The music is loud, flashy and hedonistic but the lyrics are contemplative and even spiritual. They snuck in themes about love, heartbreak, and despair into a song that people could dance to at a club. But the fact is that too many fans were turned off by kitschy music video. In it, the band dressed like the village people and the joke seemed to be lost on a lot of viewers.
The following track, Do You Feel Loved is cut from the same mold. It is another song that would feel at home at the clubs but it grapples with dark themes. In this song, love is a “bully, pushing and shoving…it looks like the sun but feels like the rain.” Like many of the songs on this album, it can be read multiple ways but one way to take it is as an argument between lovers. The song wonders how much does one have to give, how much love is enough? Discotheque deals with the search to attain and keep love. And Do You Feel Loved is about what that love eventually turns into. The excitement of the new gives way to resentment and despair.
And MoFo caps off the first act of the album. It’s the song on the album that really goes all in on the dance/techno elements. The sound is about as far away from what people usually think of as a “traditional u2” song. But beneath the drum machines, loops and samples are some serious themes. On it, Bono wonders how he can be a larger than life rockstar but also a good man devoted to his religious beliefs. And in one of the album’s most vulnerable moments he asks, “Mother am I still your son?” And the loud energetic music gives him the cover needed to grieve over the mother he lost at such a young age.
If God Will Send His Angels comes next and seems to bring things back to more familiar territory. At first listen, it sounds like something that could have been found on The Joshua Tree. But closer inspection reveals that this has a more depressing outlook than anything on that album. It isn’t about the power of love but the low points in a relationship. And it also touches on war, poverty and ultimately god. It wonders how God could exist and let all these terrible things happen.
When u2 was recording Pop, they must have had their moments of doubt, where they wondered if they were committing career suicide. And at those moments I like to imagine that the next song Staring at the Sun must have offered some level of comfort as the ace up their sleeves. It sounds like an u2 hit and is probably the most radio friendly on the album. But its lyrics paint a different picture. It’s about being torn between being ignorant to the world’s problems but happy or thinking more deeply and being depressed.
Last Night On Earth comes close to being a straightforward rocker but its techno edge takes the song in a slightly different direction. It’s very energetic and seems to keep on building and building but unfortunately never seems to go anywhere. The song almost feels like all build up with no payoff and it’s chorus almost seems like an afterthought with Bono repeatedly singing, “You gotta give it away.” It, unfavorably, recalls the chorus of Give it Away by the Red Hot Chili Peppers.
But otherwise, it has great lyrics that deal with the double edged sword that is life. It reminds us that life is short and we should enjoy it as much as we can. But that there is also a cost in living for the moment and eventually you have to reap what you sow.
On the next track, Gone, u2 aim for the anthemic heights of their past work but filtered through the album’s techno sensibilities. The song is one of the highlights and it deals with the price and trappings of fame. It tells a story of a young man willing to sell his soul to become a star only to later find out the true cost. It feels very jaded but also semi autobiographical and moving. And there is also a sense of despair as the narrator seems to have given up on this world and only finds comfort in the fact that we won’t be here much longer.
Miami comes next and it also deals with fame but from the other side. This time Bono seems to call out our obsession and worship of celebrities and celebrity culture. It doesn’t really say anything we haven’t heard before or in any particularly interesting way but it sounds really good. A generous reading of this could be that it’s intentionally vapid as a way to reflect the culture it’s critiquing.
Playboy Mansion takes the theme of celebrity worship even further by portraying the playboy mansion as the gates of heaven. Because for so many people fame is the heaven they aspire to reach. The music is gentle and soothing and Bono does some of his best singing here. As I noted before, he was having a lot of voice problems at this time so he doesn’t hit the high notes as often as he had in the past. Instead he reserves it as an ace up his sleeve bringing it out sparingly. And at it appears on this song to beautiful effect.
If You Wear that Velvet Dress is one of the most wonderful songs the band has ever done but it requires some patience. It moves very slowly and makes the listener work for the payoff. In fact, it’s not hard to imagine some people losing patience with it and changing the track. Bono employs very hushed soft vocals and at times it feels like we’re eavesdropping on a private conversation. Then on the chorus he comes in with his falsetto voice, majestically hitting his trademark high notes. The song is about a man and a woman. Thematically, it’s simple but because of its delivery, the song deserves to stand among the best of the band’s work.
Please follows and it takes a drastic turn as the album reaches its last stretch. It’s a powerful song that doesn’t hold back. The anger is palpable as the song grabs you and doesn’t let go. It makes a moving appeal for people to stop using religion as a way to divide each other. It points out how dangerous it is when we become obsessed with being right or “winning” conflicts.
It also expresses scathing disdain for politicians and religious leaders who distort faith in order to push their own agendas. And it calls to task the contradictory way we often become obsessed with our own pain while being oblivious to the pain we cause others.
The song itself is beautiful and moving but the political message turned off a lot of listeners. The band gave a powerful, stripped down performance at the 1997 MTV Video Music Awards but it was woefully overlooked. Bono, dressed in all black and his face obscured by his hoodie was a sharp contrast to acts like The Spice Girls and Puff Daddy who donned shiny and glitzy outfits. The performance didn’t boost album sales and the single failed to chart in the US. In fact the only reaction it seemed to get was when Chris Rock referred to Bono as the Unabomber
Wake Up Dead Man continues u2’s tradition of ending an album on a downbeat note. It’s a long journey of an album but the end doesn’t feel like an arrival at a destination, just the end of the road. As their car dies, the band looks around only to see that there is nothing waiting for them, no parade, no answers or comfort, just a cold indifference.
It’s a dour way to end an album that had, at least in part, been marketed as a techno/dance party. This was supposed to be their club album instead it hammers the listeners with songs about despair, religious and political anxieties, and an all consuming world weariness.
Throughout the album Bono repeatedly looks to god for answers even as he questions whether god is listening or even there at all. But on Wake up Dead Man, he’s tired of waiting for a sign. Instead he, outright, asks for help, explaining that he’s all alone in this world. Like most songs, there are various way to interpret it. But I, like many people see this as a moment where Bono seems to lose his faith.
It’s a sort of last ditch effort of a man at the end of his ropes. You can hear the anxiety rising as he implores the dead man (Jesus) to wake up. As the song progresses the chorus subtly shifts from desperation to frustration. He is tired of being ignored and pleads for help. The song builds and builds until it reaches its explosive climax where bono sounds consumed by anger. But that soon dissipates and it slowly turns to a reluctant acceptance. He has a realization that there are no answers waiting for him. There is no one listening and maybe he has been talking to himself this whole time.
Pop is without a doubt their most polarizing album. And there is a strange feeling that the band has been quietly trying to sweep it under the rug, erasing it from their history. They pretty much vanished it from concert set lists. It’s become the forgotten album.
But in an odd way it’s also become very influential to the later stage of the band’s career. They have been reacting to it ever since. There’s no doubt that Pop’s commercial failures left the band shaken. It effectively put an end to their decade of experimentation.
Pop was a make or break moment for them. It was clear that fans were becoming impatient with the direction they had taken. And the band had the choice to turn back and give fans what they wanted or keep moving further into the unknown. With Pop they went for broke, thinking that enough fans would follow. But as history has proven that was not the case.
And what came next was a career reset with the album All That You Can’t Leave Behind, released in 2000. During the promotion leading up to that album, Bono kept half joking about the fact that they were “reapplying for the job of the biggest band in the world.” It was a line that made for a nice sound bite but it was also very telling.
Regardless of what people thought of Pop, no one would accuse the band of playing it safe. Three years later that’s exactly what they were doing. That’s not to say that All That You Can’t Leave Behind is a bad album. It’s a very good album that has a couple of great songs. But at least part of that album’s appeal was just seeing u2 dusting off their old clothes to find that they still fit. And when you strip the album of its nostalgia factor and its post 9/11 resonance, it becomes clear that it’s not very memorable.
But in the past U2 were adventurous and always kept fans guessing. They took chances when others would have played it safe. And for a while that paid off. Achtung Baby is now an unquestioned classic that still sounds as arrestingly beautiful as when it was first released 26 years ago. But because of its legendary status, it’s easy to forget that at the time it was a big gamble. It was a drastic turn that required a lot of conviction and guts.
But after the failure of Pop, their brash confidence was replaced by an almost overwhelming insecurity. Their need to explore new territory with their music was replaced by a need to recreate their past to please fans.
And the overwhelming success of All That You Can’t Leave Behind, it sold over four million copies in the US alone, validated their new (old) direction. And since then they’ve been on a mission of overcorrection in an attempt to win back audiences.
But on their 2004 follow up, How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb, they sounded like the world’s greatest U2 tribute band. It wasn’t so much an album as a collage. There’s a pinch of The Unforgettable Fire, a hint of The Joshua Tree, and it’s all topped off with a dash of Achtung Baby to make a completely adequate U2 stew.
That’s not to say that the album doesn’t have its moments. There’s nothing wrong with it per se but even its best moments recall their past triumphs. The album’s third single Sometimes You Can’t Make it on Your Own was endlessly hyped because it was about Bono’s relationship with his father who had passed away in the time since their last release. It was positioned as the big emotional centerpiece of the album in the same way One was for Achtung Baby. It has that classic U2 anthem structure where you can see the payoff coming from a mile away but somehow still fall for it when it arrives. And it was really good song that would have been a classic if it had come out 20 years earlier. Instead all it does is make you want to put on The Unforgettable Fire and listen to the original song when it was called Bad.
But if there’s one thing you can’t take from U2 is their self awareness. How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb was a smash, selling over 9 million copies worldwide and winning all of the Grammies, partly due to the goodwill their comeback earned them and also because of their inescapable iPod commercials. But it didn’t leave any sort of impact. And the band sensed the stagnation and decided to shake things up for their next album No Line on the Horizon.
Unfortunately “shaking things up” for U2 in the 21st century means trying to remind people of Achtung Baby. On the lead up to the album, they kept comparing the new songs to their landmark 1991 album. They originally had sessions with producer, Rick Rubin but ultimately scrapped those songs. The album that became No Line on the Horizon was produced by Brian Eno, Daniel Lanois, and Steve Lillywhite.
The band claimed this would be as much of a departure from How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb as Achtung Baby was to The Joshua tree. But in the end, the experimentation wound up being greatly exaggerated. The album had a couple of standout tracks surrounded by a bunch of good songs that sound an awful lot like older, better U2 songs. It still managed to sell over 5 million copies worldwide but was ultimately met with collective shrug.
Their next album Songs of Innocence is only remembered for the stunt release debacle. The actual album is almost aggressively inoffensive but also painfully forgettable. Like all their albums, it has a few catchy tunes, they are far too savvy craftsmen to make an album devoid of hooks. And while it does have genuinely good songs, too often the band mistakes universal platitudes for genuine insight or real emotion. In the past, their songs seemed to speak to the listener directly. These days, the band settles for hollow gestures addressing the vague masses.
And while the songs are catchy and enjoyable they’re very unlikely to stand the test of time. If someone was trying to introduce a friend to U2, who for some reason never heard them before, they would not choose any of the songs on this album to do it.
Of course it would be unfair to expect U2 to reinvent themselves at this stage of their career but sometimes it feels like they’re just going trough the motions. They’ve become more comfortable playing a facsimile of their old self. And at this point they are more a brand than a band. It seems like their every move and song is overseen by a committee in a bid to appeal to as wide an audience as possible.
And that’s a shame because there was a time when they were a thrilling band full of passion and always willing to take risks. After climbing to the top of the mountain in the 80s, they spent the following decade running away from expectations and seeing how far they could push themselves.
But it seems that Pop was the end of that road. It was the point when fans said, this far but no further. We demand a lot from our pop stars. They can’t repeat themselves or else we get bored. But if they grow or change too much we demand that they go back to the old sound.
And U2 made the mistake of going too far. On Pop, they wanted to shed a skin they no longer felt comfortable in but wound up crossing the line fans had drawn for them. And for that, we stripped them of their rock god immortality, forcing them to walk among us with their clay feet. They’re forced to spend the rest of their days chasing their own ghosts. All the while they try to remind us that we used to worship them by giving us what we demanded of them but no longer want.