The Unforgettable Fire: a Deep Dive Retrospective of U2
Click on the streaming service of your choice below to listen to the playlist as your read along.
The history of U2 follows that of modern rock, through its rise and fall in prominence and the struggles of aging rock acts to remain relevant and successful not just in the contemporary music world, but even with its own fan base. Personally, I’ve had a long and varied relationship with this band and its music, but appreciate that U2 has been one of the best, most successful, influential, and enduring acts of the modern rock era.
Out of Control
Stories for Boys
I Fall Down
Is that All?
Like A Song…
A Sort of Homecoming
Indian Summer Sky
Running to Stand Still
Red Hill Mining Town
God Part II
Until the End of the World
Daddy’s Gonna Pay for Your Crashed Car
Some Days Are Better than Others
Do You Feel Loved
The Playboy Mansion
Crumbs from Your Table
No Line on the Horizon
White as Snow
Sleep Like A Baby Tonight
This is Where You Can Reach Me Now
Summer of Love
The Little Things that Give You Away
In the summer of 1982 my brother came home from university with a batch of cassette tapes recorded from the music collections of his schoolmates, one of which had U2’s first two albums. During that summer I would go into his room almost every day and play the first two songs, “I Will Follow” and “Twilight,” over and over again. I knew of no music that sounded like it, and at the age of twelve these songs helped propel my growing interest, not just in music, but in songs that sounded different than what had come before. I also loved that among my grade seven peers, no one else knew of U2 and I felt like they were mine alone – a notion that, looking back, seems far-fetched. But by the start of grade eight in the fall of ’83, the third album, War, had pierced the broader consciousness of Toronto music fans and U2 was no longer my little secret. My friend Alex and I would play that record every day after school and debate which were the best songs on the album. Admittedly, our young selves were oblivious to the broader political themes of the music, we just loved the band’s sound and the passion of its delivery.
Over the next two albums U2 would become one of the biggest rock bands in the world, selling out stadiums around the world for the next three decades. Therefore, given their stature the deep dive treatment seems necessary for their playlist, since there are so many songs that have received less attention but are no less deserving. So we’ll forego the songs we’ve heard hundreds of times and focus on the many great album cuts that reveal the band’s musical journey.
Twilight; Out of Control; Stories for Boys \ Boy (1980)
U2 was blessed to have started in an era when acts were afforded by labels the luxury of time to develop their sound and build an audience over several albums. There are few bands that so perfectly exemplify this career arc. They are also an incredibly rare entity in that they have remained with the same line-up since the beginning, now clocking in at over forty years together.
The band started with drummer Larry Mullen Jr., who in 1976 assembled schoolmates and friends in Dublin to start a band. Amongst the six teenagers to first gather at his behest were Adam Clayton on bass, David Evans on guitar, and Paul Hewson on vocals. Yup, right from the first gathering the future of U2 were present. Starting with the name Feedback, the young band started rehearsing and playing cover songs at local gigs around the community. By 1978 the band was down to four members and had changed its name to U2, one of several proposed by friend Steve Averill of the band, The Radiators (who would also go on to do much of the band’s design work on their albums). Stage names had also been adopted by Hewson and Evans based on nicknames given by a local group in which they belonged. Paul first became Bono Vox, taken from a local shop, Bonavox (which meant ‘good voice’ in Latin), and eventually shortened it to just Bono. David took the name The Edge, the origins of which vary from the shape of his head to his standoffishness.
The band was clearly growing into something, first evidenced by winning a talent contest and gaining a recording opportunity with CBS. As their status and original material developed, Paul McGuinness came on as their manager and helped coordinate their limited run release of a three song EP and single, “Another Day,” with CBS which sold out. As local audiences grew for their shows, Island Records took notice and signed them up.
After issuing an initial single on Island, “11 O’Clock Tick Tock,” produced by legendary Manchester and Factory Records producer Martin Hannett, the band switched to Steve Lillywhite to helm their first full length release in October 1980, Boy. The album would achieve respectable results, reaching #52 in the UK and #63 in the US, but the sound of the LP indicated so much more. It was a standout album with one compelling song after another. Thanks to the Edge’s distinctive, effects-laden and scratch playing style, U2 didn’t sound like any other band of the growing post-punk scene. The songs were definitely modern, experimental, and edgy, yet grounded in strong R&B and blues fundamentals. The energy of songs like “Twilight,” “Out of Control,” and “Stories for Boys” were offset by the moody tracks like “An Cat Dubh,” “Into the Heart,” and “Shadows and Tall Trees,” which would begin their habit of closing albums with downtempo, atmospheric songs.
The singles were the standout tracks on the album, “I Will Follow” and “A Day Without Me,” while another great song, “The Electric Co.,” would be highlighted a couple years later on the live album, Under A Blood Red Sky. “I Will Follow” was the lead track on the album and is one of my favourite songs, right from that first summer I tested the endurance of my brother’s cassette tape. I would also suggest it stands as U2’s top song of their career, but that of course is subject to which of U2’s styles most appeals to you. Personally, as a modern rock fan that loved their punky spirit, their first albums stand above, and “I Will Follow” was the pre-eminent example of their early sound. The guitar work is what made it, driven by one of the most recognized and fantastic riffs in rock history. I loved watching The Edge explain it and trying to teach it Jimmy Page in the documentary, This Might Get Loud (though that clip doesn’t capture the bit where Edge explains how the sound was captured, by altering the chords to get a broader sound). Despite the song’s brilliance, it failed to capture a broader audience but certainly made U2 known among fans of punk and alternative music.
I Fall Down; October; Is that All? \ October (1981)
It needs to be stressed how young U2 was at this point, with all of them being only twenty or twenty-one at the time their second album’s release (fittingly, in October). For such a young band the album was surprisingly mature, filled with introspective songs, not the least of which was the title track, one of the most subtle of the band’s canon. I, like many others in North America, were less taken by the album (I rarely flipped that cassette to the second side, delaying my full appreciation of the album to much later), making it a bit of a lost work in the band’s career. It did do better in the UK than Boy, reaching #11, and showing that UK audiences were catching on to this act. One of the challenges for promoting October was the absence of an attention grabbing single. “Fire” and “Gloria” would be released, and while both charted in the UK, neither galvanized the audience to the band. Over their history, U2 would rarely drive their success with their singles.
Over time this album has become appreciated more and more, and as the band’s profile grew many went back to it, appreciating the consistency and nuanced soundscapes throughout the album. Though still exhibiting some of the band’s energy (“Rejoice,” “With A Shout”), this album flipped from the debut to make those moments the accents as opposed to the primary sound. October had elements of the expansive sounds that would come to dominate their sound later, mixing emotive delivery with edgy guitars or rich waves of drum and bass. Anthemic songs like “Gloria” and outsized mood shifts like “Stranger in A Strange Land” foretold the recipe that would be heard throughout their career.
U2 fans revel most in the band’s wonderful ballads, and this album set the stage showing Bono’s voice and Edge’s sparse guitar arrangements made for deeply engaging, downtempo songs. Edge also added a new element with lovely piano throughout the album. “Tomorrow,” “October,” and “Scarlet” all reveal the band’s consummate ability to hold the listener enraptured with achingly beautiful slow songs. October, somewhat ironically given it’s their moodiest, didn’t finish with a slow song instead closing with the high octane, “Is that All?”
Like A Song…; The Refugee; Surrender \ War (1983)
The themes of U2’s first two albums varied, with Boy exploring youth and maturing, while October dealt with the spiritual. On the third album there would be a sharp turn to the political, a topic that would come to define the band to the point of distraction for many a fan. Musically though, U2 found a perfect balance between the raw energy and edginess of their post-punk roots and a more accessible rock sound that brought them new fans.
On this album U2 paused the expansive development of their sound and opted for a more direct, sharp-edged rock sound that matched the themes of the album. No one who grew up in Ireland in the ‘60s and ‘70s was immune to the violence and political strife of those times, and along with the nuclear posturing of the Cold War and the Falkland Islands conflict in 1982, the album’s theme was timely.
Like the first two albums, there wasn’t a weak tune. The opener, “Sunday Bloody Sunday,” which was about the infamous Bloody Sunday event related to ‘The Troubles’ in Northern Ireland, has become one of band’s signature tunes, but the initial response was muted since, as a single (the third released from the album), it failed to chart. Yet the military percussion and Bono’s impassioned vocals made the song one of the leanest and most forceful of their repertoire and set it up as an instant classic. The other two singles, “New Year’s Day” and “Two Hearts Beat as One,” helped the band appeal to a bigger audience given their fantastic and creative rock compositions. The epic sweep of “New Year’s Day,” chronicling the Polish solidarity movement and marked with echoey piano and Edge’s scratch-echo guitar, created another instant classic. In “Two Hearts…” the band also had its first pop-rock song, propelled by a grooving bassline from Adam and catchy beat from Larry, with Bono calling out, “Can’t stop the dance / Maybe this is my last chance,” the song was instantly catchy in a way U2 has rarely offered.
War is notable as one of the few that put Mullen’s drumming at the fore, revealing him as not just a steady foundation to the dramatic offerings of The Edge and Bono, but as a propulsive and emphatic element to make the music achieve a different variety of dramatic flair. Almost every song on the album had an intriguing beat, colourful and flourishing fills, and punk-edged anger, not the least of which in the song “Like A Song…” This tune has been oddly ignored by the band but is one of my favourites of theirs. The crashing, drumming crescendo and outro is unlike anything else heard from U2 then or after, and was one of their most exciting musical moments, if only because it came without any support from Bono.
The album’s theme, as already noted in the songs “Sunday Bloody Sunday” and “New Year’s Day,” was also picked up in several other songs. “Seconds” continued the military percussion from “Sunday Bloody Sunday” and delivered the chilling, nuclear-apocalyptic lyric, “It takes a second to say goodbye, say goodbye, uh oh oh…” In “The Refugee,” another musical outlier for U2 set on a tribal beat, another groove bassline from Adam (whose contributions are also often overlooked), accented with slide guitar, and punctuated by chorus refrains of “Wa, waaarrr…”, the song dealt with the plight of a child seeking refuge in America while her father fought in a war, “…but he don’t know what for.”
The album included two up-tempo songs dealing with women and their challenges in the world, “Red Light” (with allusions to prostitution) and “Surrender.” It also included more of their strongly delivered, compelling slow tunes, with the atmospheric “Drowning Man” and again closing with one in the beautiful, “40,” which was elevated in status on the 1983 live album and video that was released from the War tour and recorded at the Red Rocks in Colorado (though only two songs from that show are on the album), Under A Blood Red Sky. It remains their only pure live release of their career and in reaching #2 in the UK and #28 in the US, helped U2’s commercial growth by exposing more people to their earlier songs.
War was surely the start of U2’s rise to the top of the music world. It went to #1 in the UK and #12 in the US, and the single “New Year’s Day” reached #10 in the UK and #53 in the US, the first of their singles to chart stateside. The release of the live version of “I Will Follow” from Under A Blood Red Sky went to #81 in the US, also helping their cause. This allowed them to play larger venues and win over more people with their energetic performances, as also revealed in the concert video, and started to establish Bono as one of the more charismatic lead performers in the rock world.
A Sort of Homecoming; Wire; Indian Summer Sky \ The Unforgettable Fire (1984)
While U2 was undoubtedly growing in success, their progress might have been stinted due to their music being out of step with the times. Yes, it was modern and creative much like other music of the era, but in the UK the dominant sounds were darker, post-punk fare, new wave or synth-driven pop, and similar to the US a growing wave of R&B based pop, as seen in Lionel Richie’s 1983 album, Can’t Slow Down, the growing stature of Prince (who would release his seminal Purple Rain in the summer of ’84), or the decade’s most dominant entry, Michael Jackson’s Thriller, released in the fall of ’82. Rock n’ Roll was still popular, but increasingly trending to the hair/glam metal bands of the US or the country infused pop like John Cougar (“Jack and Diane,” ’82) or Bruce Springsteen (Born in the U.S.A., ’84). Therefore, the modern rock variant of U2’s didn’t neatly fit into any of the trending genres.
Regardless, with 1984’s The Unforgettable Fire and its two top ten UK singles, “Pride (In the Name of Love)” and the title track, U2 emphatically forged its place in the broader music world. For me, in Toronto, this album was huge. So I’m surprised to notice that, while equalling War’s #1 achievement in the UK, it only peaked at #12 in the US (also the same as War) and #5 in Canada. Likewise, the singles only reached #33 in the US for “Pride” and the title track didn’t chart at all. However, on alternative stations like CFNY in Toronto, U2 was still a dominant act. In CFNY’s year-end charts, Boy had placed at #72 in ‘80, October rose the band to the #5 spot in ’81, then #2 for both War and The Unforgettable Fire (held from #1 by Tears for Fears’ The Hurting and The Psychedelic Furs’ Mirror Moves, respectively). Even if the album didn’t get the chart results in North America it might have deserved, it did sell in huge numbers and elevated the band to arenas for its extensive tour through ’84 and ’85. U2 was in a unique position of still being a leading modern rock act that was also achieving mainstream, international success, which was not a very common occurrence.
Musically the album diverged from the aggressive elements of War and picked up where October had left off. The Unforgettable Fire was filled with lush, broad arrangements and heartfelt, nuanced, and impassioned vocals from Bono. This was the arrival of the U2 that most fans would come to know and love. It’s also not accidental that it was the first album to switch away from Steve Lillywhite as producer, bringing on the team that would helm U2 through its ascension to the top of the rock world with its ambitious and anthemic arrangements: Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois.
The opening track, “A Sort of Homecoming,” I have always considered a highlight and like a third single since I think it has received high exposure from fans and AOR radio stations. It immediately set the tone for the album, with its mid-tempo delivery and Bono’s emotive delivery. While the drums were a key component, they were back to providing accents and colour and not carrying the songs, and the bass continued to provide a lively foundation to the songs. Edge’s guitar, again, was what separated the band’s sound from its peers.
In “Pride (In the Name of Love)” the band had its first unabashed rock anthem to accompany the growing size of their shows and status. Like “I Will Follow,” it rode an instantly memorable guitar riff and featured one of Bono’s strongest performances to date. “The Unforgettable Fire” drew on the sound they’d pioneered with “New Year’s Day,” again featuring a broad musical landscape with echoey piano, sweeping bass and guitar, and now a dramatic, brooding string accompaniment (and use of the ‘80s signature sound, the orchestra hit, part of the band’s first uses of synthesizers). “Wire” and “Indian Summer Sky” revealed a new brand of the band’s energetic sound, running furiously through great rock songs that brought all the band’s strength to bear.
The album also leaned more forcefully into their talent for evocative and enthralling ballads, providing one of their greatest in “Bad.” I think for many this song was a favourite from the album but didn’t grab popular consciousness until the band’s incredible performance of it at Live Aid in 1985 (a video which includes Bono rescuing a fan from being crushed at the front of the stage and also gives a good look at Bono’s epic mullet of the time as well as another fascination of ‘80s artists, leather pants), a performance that helped propel the band to even further heights. The album also had more stripped-down and atmospheric songs like “Elvis Presley and America,” and “MLK,” which once again provided a slow closer to their album.
This LP also started the band’s enduring fascination with America, and specifically it’s blues and gospel heritage and conflict-ridden racial history and issues of economic disparity. The songs “Pride” and “MLK” were about Martin Luther King, and “Elvis Presley and America,” while lyrically less specific, uses the title to place it in an American context.
Running to Stand Still; Red Hill Mining Town \ The Joshua Tree (1987)
By 1987 U2 had a few things going for them. There was the Live Aid performance and growing audience via their successful tours, and then there was the ebbing of interest in synth music and a returning interest in rock and guitars. U2 seized this opportunity with an album that stood like a giant in an era of varied and lesser quality music. Led by a pair of #1 singles in the US, “With or Without You” and “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For,” The Joshua Tree went to #1 around the world, growing to sales of over 25 million and counting. Even on CFNY, my local source for music, it was the #1 album in 1987, showing U2 hadn’t lost its modern rock fans while winning over the multitudes.
However, musically there was a shift that would start to divide U2’s fan base and start the loss of its alternative rock audience. While The Joshua Tree was a very good album, I found it less compelling than their prior ones, but understand why it launched the band to another level commercially. “With or Without You” took the band’s typically strong slow-song talent and delivered it in an impeccable pop format. The song was simpler and less interesting than most anything they’d done to that point but connected emotionally to its audience in a more straightforward and effective way. That song capped a three song start to the album, along with “Where the Streets Have No Name” and “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” that were big, sweeping, and cathartic, providing one of the strongest trio of songs to start an album of the rock era.
All of which took nothing from the remainder of the album, which varied between more of the band’s now signature rock sound and its stirring ballads. Picking deep tracks from this album is a challenge given so many know the album intimately. Through touring and a desire to better entrench their sound in a musical history, the band structured their songs in conventional blues and R&B styles, which made for more traditional sounding yet still high quality songs. “Bullet the Blue Sky” and “Trip Through Your Wires” were forceful blues tunes, “In God’s Country” was a pop-oriented song riding a typical scratch guitar riff from The Edge, and “Exit” rocked with a dramatic flare. And of course there were the ballads, with the subtle “Running to Stand Still” closing side one and leading to the now-typical U2 bombast of a song like “Red Hill Mining Town,” which kicked off the second side. “One Tree Hill” brought a lively bass and drum rhythm into the mix, flowing into a lovely chorus, and again U2 closed their album with slow song, the pulsating, moody “Mothers of the Disappeared.”
God Part II \ Rattle and Hum (1988)
The extensive and hugely successful tour following The Joshua Tree led to the band’s next project, a combination studio and live double album and documentary film released the year following. The film followed the band on tour and the album featured many songs from their prior albums, interspersed with new songs that drew heavily from their increasing exploration of blues and gospel. The album included guests such as Bob Dylan and BB King (on a dull song, “When Love Comes to Town”), a gospel song, “Angel of Harlem,” and live covers of The Beatles’ “Helter Skelter” and Bob Dylan’s “All Along the Watchtower.” The “Watchtower” cover was modelled more after the Hendrix version, who received his own hat tip via an excerpt of his Woodstock performance of “The Star Spangled Banner.”
The album was a bit all over the place and it was uncertain what to make of it. It neither progressed on the Joshua Tree sound nor broke into new ground. Instead it seemed to revel in the past while circling in an eddy of passing interest in the blues. It was not the first time a leading artist chose an odd project at the height of their career (Bowie’s Pin Ups comes to mind). Some critics panned it though fans drove it to another #1 spot around the world. The project’s saving graces were the first and fourth singles issued, “Desire” and “All I Want Is You.” “Desire” was a solid rocker that married the band’s energy and swagger with their experimentation with blues structure. “All I Want is You” was yet another fantastic ballad and another sweeping slow tune to close an album. It is among their best ballads. And then there was “God Part II,” a drum and guitar romp that gave a modern edge to the band’s blues exploration – more of that and the two songs just mentioned would have made Rattle and Hum a more logical album for that point in their career. As it turned out, “God Part II” was a hint at what was to come.
It was during these times that the band, and Bono especially, started to visit war and poverty zones around the world and started a consciousness raising element to the band’s personality. Songs on The Joshua Tree and Rattle and Hum highlighted criticisms of American and western foreign policy and its treatment of lesser developed and war-torn countries in Central America and Africa. Bono would take moments during their shows to highlight such problems and encourage people’s support to direct attention to these problems around the world. While it continued the tradition of the protest singers of the early folk and rock generations, in late the ‘80s audiences were less willing to mix their politics with their entertainment. Criticism started to appear about U2’s swagger, outsized songs and performances, and now Bono’s lecturing persona.
Until the End of the World; So Cruel; Acrobat \ Achtung Baby (1991)
U2 entered its second decade as one of the biggest selling acts in the world. They had lost their status and most of the sound of a modern rock act, but still had enough edge to hang onto many a fan of those genres, even if they were a little less passionate about U2 as they once were, with myself being a case in point. I barely paid attention to Rattle and Hum and it was the first of U2’s I would never get around to buying. The new decade was witnessing a rebirth and expansion of modern rock, with electronic music, rock, and retro sounding and experimental forms of modern rock all arriving on the scene between 1989 and 1991. Typically in those scenarios, bands of U2’s duration and status struggled to transition and stay relevant, but it is here that U2 proved their most resilient and further built the case for themselves as one of rock’s greatest bands ever.
Achtung Baby surprised many, distancing somewhat the casual and recent fans (though the album had plenty for them to hang onto) and winning back some of the fans of their earlier work. It was creative and experimental to a degree the band hadn’t shown before, and critics loved it. Sensitive to the growing criticism about the political bent of their music, the album was more personal and the focus on the blues was replaced with forays into modern alternative rock, electronica, and industrial. To its credit, the band retained its sizeable audience and enjoyed their fourth consecutive album to dominate international charts. It was their third consecutive #1 album in the US, but by only peaking at #2 in the UK (foiled by Michael Jackson’s Dangerous) it ended their run of four consecutive #1s. The success of the singles varied and showed the differing tastes of UK and US audiences, as “The Fly” went to #1 in the UK but only #61 in the US, and of the album’s five singles only “One” (yet another powerful ballad) cracked the top ten in both markets.
This was a favourite album for me over 1991 and 1992, which surprised me given I wasn’t listening much to U2 in those days and was very much into Madchester and grunge music. I went and saw U2 for the one and only time at Toronto’s Exhibition Stadium, partly to make sure I saw U2 at least once in my life, but also because Primus was opening and I was happy to see them. The ‘Zoo TV’ tour was a good show but I still walked away with two lessons, the first being to never put any hope into enjoying an opening act at a stadium show since the crowd isn’t into it and there’s too much distraction with most fans still arriving, and second, that stadium shows suck and are a terrible way to enjoy the music. I was far away and swore I wouldn’t see a large venue a=show again unless I had good tickets, a rule to which I’ve mostly adhered. Such shows are good for spectacle, but since that doesn’t do much for me, I’ve since only rarely taken in such shows (recently validated all over again when I saw Smashing Pumpkins this past summer with Metric opening, and neither performance was very enjoyable to take in amongst such a large space and audience, and despite both bands playing very well).
Musically the album was fantastic, starting with one of the weaker tracks, “Zoo Station,” but its originality for U2 served notice this was going to be a different album. The band was divided going into the recording with Clayton and Mullen wanting to continue their blues and classic rock exploration (drummers and bass players understandably view electronics with trepidation since they’re usually the first to be supplanted with a machine), while Bono and Edge were taken with the experimental sounds coming out of Europe and its clubs. Almost like Bowie in the late ‘70s, they were looking to go to Berlin to immerse themselves in that scene, and with the same producer no less, Brian Eno. Daniel Lanois sided with the rhythm section and as they struggled with the recording it looked like the whole enterprise was going to come crashing down. After recording in Germany, the band returned to the familiar surroundings of Dublin and slowly the band and the songs came around to the finished product and thank the heavens for that.
There is a mix of the band’s melodic, typical rock sound but it was infused with various sounds, electronics, breaks, and layered effects on the instrumentation to alter the sound to a modern take. So one of their usual, beautiful ballads, “So Cruel,” came off with an altered drum sound and was underpinned with a pulsating electronic riff. A blues rocker like “Mysterious Ways,” one of the best songs the band had written since War, was laced with filler sounds and effects (and more orchestra hits) that played on the ear in between the mellifluous bass lines and piercing, effect-ridden guitar riffs. And then there was “The Fly,” the first single and biggest sign that the band was venturing into new territory. Edge’s guitar snarled like never before, Bono’s vocals were breathy and understated for a change, and it was rhythm-based more than melodious, though the chorus had a lovely melody.
“Until the End of the World” was a song the band had contributed to the Wim Wenders film of the same name, and which they liked so much they decided to use a new recording for the album. “Acrobat” was indicative of the experimental and brooding, raw rock mix the band adopted for the energetic songs on the album. And of course, the album finished with a nice, atmospheric slow song, “Love is Blindness.”
There was, as always, a huge tour in which Bono adopted ‘The Fly’ character. This coincided with the time he started wearing glasses all the time due to light sensitivity caused by glaucoma, so the shades wearing character suited his performance. Deciding to play up on the egomaniacal rock star, the show was an exercise in excess, replicating the increasing onslaught of media and distraction in modern society; though given the band’s history, it wasn’t always obvious whether the spectacle was parody or just the next level in their presentation. The ‘Zoo TV Tour’, as it was titled, shifted the band from simple stage set-ups to elaborate configurations that, parody or not, would become a staple of their tours, all of which tend to break records and lead the world in revenues.
Achtung Baby was an artistic and career-defining achievement musically, paving the way for another decade of success for the band and re-establishing its bona fides with music fans of all stripes. It put to rest any notion that they were fame-seeking egomaniacs and reinvigorated the boundary pushing spirit of their first albums.
Daddy’s Gonna Pay for Your Crashed Car; Some Days Are Better than Others \ Zooropa (1993)
The next two albums revealed the intrigue of U2. As a modern rock fan I quite liked the albums and have found myself going back to them as much or more than many of their bigger albums because of the hidden gems and experimental nature of the LPs. But commercially the band tested the broader audience’s expectations of them, still wanting the lush and anthemic rock songs of albums past. Zooropa, recorded during a break while touring for Achtung Baby, would return the band to #1 around the world, but sold less than half of the prior album. It would start to mark a decline of the band from their commercial peak, though they would never suffer a total collapse.
The album was released toward the end of the ‘Zoo TV’ tour and many Zooropa songs were added to the setlist, with a couple performed with Bono in his devilish ‘MacPhisto’ character. The tour also saw a return of the political, as the band took opportunities to bring attention to the plight of those living in war-torn Sarajevo and Bono making prank calls to politicians in his devil character.
Zooropa was their most experimental yet, leveraging electronics to a greater degree and offering songs that sounded rather unlike their typical U2 sound. So maybe it wasn’t such a shock when neither of the first two singles, the minimalist electronic tune sung by The Edge, “Numb,” and “Lemon,” with Bono singing in falsetto, failed to chart in the US or the UK. It took until the fantastic third single, “Stay (Faraway, So Close!),” to score another top ten single in the UK. They were all good songs (well, “Lemon” was a bit closer to its title), but there were many great tunes, like the title track and “Dirty Day,” another falsetto song from Bono (I think we’re all happy he mostly gave this up after this album). There were more quality ballads like “The First Time” and the slow closing track (of course), “The Wanderer,” a collaboration with Johnny Cash. “Babyface” was a bit of a miss, but in the middle were two fantastic electronica tracks, the two on this playlist, that showed U2 could still write quality songs even when delivered in different styles.
Do You Feel Loved; Gone; The Playboy Mansion \ Pop (1997)
After a hectic touring and recording schedule for several years, the band took a break, resulting in the first four-year gap of their career between albums. They did provide the song “Hold Me, Thrill Me, Kiss Me, Kill Me” in 1995 to the film, Batman Forever as well as an experimental record, Original Soundtracks, recorded with Eno under the band name, Passengers. When the lead single to the new album, “Discothèque,” was released in 1997, it looked like the band was picking up where Zooropa had left off. Fans were undeterred, sending the album to #1 around the world again, though again to much lower sales than their mega records of the ‘80s.
A back injury to Larry resulted in greater use of drum machines and loops on the album, perhaps contributing to it being the most dance-oriented the band had ever sounded – as if the first single’s title wasn’t enough of a sign. An electronica song like “Mofo” left little indication, other than Bono’s vocal, that this was a U2 song; likewise for “Miami” which had no discernable melody. The album was balanced by a larger than usual number of downtempo songs, providing a larger sampling than usual of their typically wonderful balladry: “If God Will Send His Angels,” “Staring at the Sun,” “Gone,” “The Playboy Mansion,” “Please,” and of course the album’s closer, “Wake Up Dead Man.”
The associated Popmart tour was another huge event, though this time riddled with technical glitches as the complexity of the show increased. Fans started to turn away, leaving some shows undersold. Between the experimental, electronic music and the huge shows, fans were losing their connection to the band, something U2 had excelled at in their earlier tours. I quite liked Pop but then I am always inclined to the less commercial styles. It was evident that the last two albums were more varied in quality and didn’t equal the incredibly consistent high standards that all of their albums, save for Rattle and Hum, had achieved. The band embracing the title, both self-proclaimed and offered by others, as being ‘the biggest band in the world’ didn’t endear them to many either.
New York \ All that You Can’t Leave Behind (2000)
It was undeniable that U2 was still a colossus of a draw and one of, if not the, biggest act in the world. But as the new century arrived and the music industry was going to start entering into a significant period of adversity and decline, likewise U2 started its most inconsistent period of their career. It all started with their tenth album, All that You Can’t Leave Behind.
The album started with four fantastic songs, all of which were released as singles – reminiscent of The Joshua Tree – but that was it, the rest of the album was lacklustre and lacked the magic we’d come to expect from U2. But with the success of that batch of singles, all reaching the top ten in the UK, “Beautiful Day” (#1), “Stuck in A Moment You Can’t Get Out of” (#2), “Elevation” (#3), and “Walk On” (#5), the album went to #1 in the UK (#3 in the US) and many other countries around the world, and sold more copies than the prior two albums, making it their fourth best selling album yet.
Finding a deep track worth sharing after those first four songs, however, is a struggle. The entire album was back to standard rock structures and the electronic experimentation of the ‘90s was left behind; but so was the bombast of the ‘80s, save for the exultation of “Beautiful Day.” Simpler, stripped down arrangements made for decent but uninspired songs. “Wild Honey” was ok, and “New York” had some of their old spirit, but even the ballads passed by without notice when listening to the album. The usual slow closer, “Grace,” was instantly forgettable.
What was puzzling about this album was that the band didn’t draw on any of their strengths from their history, so it didn’t sound like a U2 album, but unlike the albums of the ‘90s neither did they seize on anything new to make it interesting. It was if they just went through the motions, as if they wrote a bunch of songs just to put a new album out. Of course, the four singles separate themselves from the rest and make this album a success, but increasingly it looked like U2 couldn’t put together a complete album, something they hadn’t achieved since Achtung Baby, nine years prior, and really the only great album since The Joshua Tree fourteen years prior.
Crumbs from Your Table \ How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb (2004)
Things didn’t improve with the next album, which I place firmly at the bottom of their list as the weakest of their career. There was the promise of the opening track and lead single, “Vertigo,” which reminded me of the song, “Desire.” It was a rock n’ roll song that had Edge’s scratch guitar and sounded like a great, modern rock update on the U2 sound. It was the best song they’d issued since Achtung Baby and were rewarded with a #1 spot in the UK, though only #31 in the US, who seemed to be losing interest in the band. But like “Desire” and Rattle and Hum, the great lead single didn’t make for a great album. Of course, for reasons I don’t comprehend, the album went to #1 around the world and sold almost as many copies as All That You Can’t Leave Behind. The fact that this album has outsold Boy, October, and The Unforgettable Fire is a travesty.
My issue with this album, again, is the complete lack of originality. There are some nice songs like “Sometimes You Can’t Make It on Your Own” and decent rockers such as “All Because of You,” but otherwise it was a generic rock album. It was filled with so many forgettable songs that it was hard to believe it was a U2 album. “Crumbs from Your Table” offered a reasonable example of the album’s vibe, a song that was redeemed by a nifty groove throughout.
In 1999 Bono also directed his energies back into his philanthropy work, regularly meeting with world leaders and leading campaigns to help poverty stricken nations and get western nations to forgive the crippling debt they held over such nations. No longer sensitive to the backlash this had caused previously, Bono seemed determined to use his music profile to make the world a better place, and while many have criticized him for overstepping his bounds, he has remained committed to his causes without apology.
No Line on the Horizon; White as Snow \ No Line on the Horizon (2009)
Once again U2 offers an intriguing case study on the dynamics of the modern rock career. As the first generations of classic and modern rock acts reach their later years, and in the contemporary fractured musical environment, how do older acts stay relevant and get their music reviewed on fair terms? I’m aware I’m being much harder on U2’s recent work than the albums I grew up with and in which they made their name, and therein lies the challenge. How do you evaluate music from a band in which you’re so familiar, without comparing it to the old stuff that existed in another musical environment and had a different emotional impact on both critics and fans alike? Many older acts, U2 included, have made really good albums in the past twenty years, but can’t get radio, critics, and fans to give it a fair shake. U2 is lucky in that people are still buying and listening to the new music, comparable to others, but in concerts that’s not what they want to hear, they want the greatest hits package from thirty years ago. I don’t think there’s a simple or ‘correct’ answer, it’s just the challenge both artist and listener alike have had to manage on their own terms. To U2’s credit, unlike many other veteran acts, they continue to make music, though I still yearn for them to innovate more.
So with all that in mind, No Line on the Horizon was a very good album. There was an energy, variety, hooks, and consistent groove to the album that the prior two albums had lacked. Ironically the album lacked the sort of standout singles those albums had, and as a result the album, while still going #1 around the world as per usual, was the lowest selling for the band since October, or perhaps Pop for a more contemporary sales environment comparison. Though given it was released in a music sharing era, but still benefitting from purchased digital downloads (streaming had not yet taken hold), the 5 million units sold worldwide was a stunning achievement and provided continuing evidence that, critical reception and backlashes aside, U2 was still held aloft as one of the biggest bands in the world. Their world tours, always tops in revenues, continued to support that fact also. So compared to most other veteran rock acts, U2 has been able to fare better than any.
Sleep Like A Baby Tonight; This is Where You Can Reach Me Now; The Troubles \ Songs of Innocence (2014)
Summer of Love; The Little Things that Give You Away \ Songs of Experience (2017)
Despite having been the biggest selling rock band in the world for thirty years and one of Ireland’s leading exports, U2 has always been subject to criticism. Admirably they have experimented and altered their sound over the years, and in doing so inevitably faced some backlash from variable corners of their fans and critics. When they dove into blues on Rattle and Hum, they were criticized. When they experimented with alternative and industrial rock on Achtung Baby and then electronica on Zooropa and Pop, they were criticized. Their actions have also invited harsh scrutiny when they changed their shows from being band (and really, Bono) focused into more of a dazzling spectacle of lights, lazers, set pieces and video, they were criticized. When Bono has spent much of his celebrity capital on campaigns against world poverty, he has been criticized.
So it shouldn’t have been a surprise that, in a music world that had become harder to succeed within and as U2 faced a decline in relevance, they have innovated with their marketing, and in doing so invited more criticism. U2 has always been open to PR stunts, performing on a flatbed truck in New York, or on a rooftop in LA, but in the digital age they had to adopt to selling their music through advertising and product placement, a concept that would have been unthinkable in prior decades. For How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb the song “Vertigo” was used in a cross-promotional campaign with Apple’s new iPod launch, for No Line on the Horizon they were the featured musical act for an entire week on the Late Show with David Letterman, and for their thirteenth album, Songs of Innocence the band participated in Apple’s new iPhone and Apple Watch launch event and then made their album available free to every iTunes user, which invited the biggest backlash they’d faced in their career. It was likely a rude awakening, even for U2, to learn that many in the world did not want U2’s music uninvited into their digital library, even if for free. For a band that has sold over 175 million albums, it was a dispiriting comeuppance when Apple had to provide a utility to remove the album from people’s iTunes libraries.
While at times U2 has seemed sensitive to criticism, to their credit they soldier on, touring constantly and releasing new music. In 2017 they released Songs of Experience, a companion-LP to the prior album, but followed it with a nostalgia play, giving in to the reality of their condition, with a thirtieth anniversary tour celebrating The Joshua Tree. Between the controversy of the iTunes release, debates over declining sales of their huge tours, and the nostalgia factor, the new music has been overlooked. These last two albums were filled with good songs and were more consistent than those released in the years prior. Chart results and sales mean little in the modern music world of streaming, and what matters for U2 is they’re still the leading live act in the world. The two Songs of… albums have sold a pittance compared to their historical trends, and Songs of Innocence, perhaps as a result of being given away free, was the first since The Unforgettable Fire to not go to #1 around the world (actually, only All that You Can’t Leave Behind hasn’t gone to #1 in the US since The Unforgettable Fire, while all but Achtung Baby have reached #1 in the UK since October – simply a staggering run of success).
If there’s a musical criticism of U2’s last two releases, it’s that they’re too familiar. Despite being very listenable albums, they’re entrenched in the ‘U2 sound’ and offer nothing new to die-hard or casual fans alike. The lack of inventiveness or any aggressiveness in the songs has lost U2 their modern rock audience, who are as likely to express outward disdain towards the band now as compared to even back in the 1990s. For today’s music fans, profiling U2 as a modern rock act might seem incongruent to their status, but that misses the role of their first four albums and the embrace of their 1990s work by the modern rock world.
U2 has now been together, without a single line-up change, for 42 years. They have sold over 175 million albums, had nine #1 albums in the UK and eight in the US, and seven #1 singles in the UK and two in the US. Their phenomenal success distracts from the fact that they were one of the most innovative, distinctive bands of the early ‘80s and released several of the greatest albums of the modern rock era. Their 1990s reinvention was more successful than any other modern rock act of the ‘80s, helping keep them atop the mountain for a longer run than any other rock act. Bono has one of the most recognized voices in the world and is one of the world’s leading philanthropists and lobbyists. Their influence has been extensive, influencing legions of rock bands over the past three decades from Simple Minds to Coldplay. The band’s profile is simply remarkable, and worthy far more of accolades than the heaps of criticism thrown at them over recent years. While there naturally have been musical, marketing, and political missteps over their career, Bono, the Edge, Larry, and Adam have forged an uncompromising, innovative, and fantastic musical career that has been emblematic of the modern rock era and deservedly placed them in the upper echelons of the musical universe.