a discussion on U2's growth as a band

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There are many U2 fans who prefer the albums of the 1980s to those of the 1990s, or vice versa, but whatever the argument is there, it is generally agreed that Achtung Baby(1991) was the bridge between the two styles. There are distincively different tones and styles in the albums that make up Pre- and Post- Achtung Baby.

Some of the Early U2 fans would argue that The Joshua Tree was the last good album U2 put out, or that Achtung Baby was the beginning of the end -- in that it led to Zooropa.

I can understand this attitude; The Joshua Tree was the first U2 Album I invested in. I remember hearing Pop on the radio, but that I was never hit hard by such singles as Staring at the Sun or Last Night on Earth. It wasn't until I picked up Achtung Baby and dedicated myself to it that I really gave (or had any desire to give) Pop and Zooropa a chance.

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Achtung Baby doesn't quite fit in with the other albums. It is definitely past the Early U2 stuff -- The Joshua Tree culminated that era -- and yet Achtung Baby is not quite as extreme on the U2 Spectrum as Pop and Zooropa. Achtung Baby's singles managed to maintain U2's mass appeal while the album was just another piece of evidence that U2's music was evolving into a completely different style. Simply compare Mysterious Ways and One to any of their older hits. But however similar Achtung Baby is in style to Zooropa and Pop, it didn't create the controversy that Zooropa gave birth to.

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What changed U2? What happened between The Joshua Tree and Achtung Baby? How could the same band produce The Joshua Tree and Zooropa (One an ultimate favourite, the other an ultimate failure) with only one album in between? Doesn't Pop seem to fit in better between Achtung Baby and Zooropa? Did U2 finally learn the lesson and appease us with All that You Can't Leave Behind? What changed U2?

U2's method of expression, lyrics and overall style may have changed, but the substance remained pure U2. Every album has Bono's eternal anthems of love and religion (or some sort of combination of the two) and the Edge's guitar. While not all fans enjoyed U2's albums of the 90s, many found a striking chord in the much-debated Zooropa or Pop. These fans saw what many critics couldn't, or wouldn't, see: that " ... this was just the end of something for U2 ... it wasn't a big deal, it was just -- they had to go away and ... and dream it all up again" (Bono, 1989).

July 17th, 2001

disclaimer: I happen to like Zooropa. When I wrote 'an ultimate failure', I was referring to the general fan base.

A footnote to this last node: Agreed that Actung Baby seems to have come out of nowhere.


To consider Zooropa a failure is deeply unfair by any and all standards. Critically, it was their best-received album (for good reason, more on this later) outside, perhaps, The Joshua Tree. Commercially, it moved its fair share of units (though perhaps not compared to Actung Baby) and spawned the band's most successful tour: Zoo TV - where Bono's now infamous Macphisto character found its origin.

This album was imagined completely on the road. Meaning that any of its songs found their origin outside of the studio entirely. That U2 would produce a decent album, let one of this scope, was not anticipated.

But they produced a masterpiece. Some people wrote Zooropa off (as they would subsequently do for the less even POP) as merely U2's fling with dance music. This is unfair for several reasons. First of all, the band had been flirting with dance rhythms, really, since War - just check out the backbeat to Seconds.

Second of all, the experimental drive behind the album. As one reviewer put it, the opening moments of the first track alone demonstrated that U2 could wring maximum raw emotion out of a mere note or two; to open with an ambient soundscape that runs for over a minute was unprecedented in U2's catalog. Two songs on the album feature lead vocals by singers other than Bono; only one other U2 album has risked this, and one on Zooropa became a hit single: Numb. There are tape loops buried into that song, Bukowski references in Dirty Day, innovative sampling and production throughout -- the result of the band's growing intimacy with Brian Eno as co-producer. Daddy's Gonna Pay for Your Crashed Car starts off with Russian propoganda music. By the standards of more independent music, these are not large risks, but to hear them in an album by a band like U2 in the mid-1990s was nevertheless pretty shocking.

Bono, prone to overstatement and frequently a clumsy writer, was perhaps at his most subtle as a lyricist when he approached this album, and it shows in his careful, almost opaque handling of difficult subjects as pornography (Babyface), ennui (Numb, Daddy's Gonna Pay for Your Crashed Car), art (Lemon), and most difficultly of all, suicide, in the album's closer The Wanderer. Religious themes abound as well, but are relatively subdued, especially by the band's prior standards.

Finally, witness the songs themselves: the moody opening of Zooropa, the operatic, emotive Lemon, the self-conscious nostalgia of Stay, the surprising beauty of Bono and The Edge's harmonies on The Wanderer, and the uncharacteristic vulnerability of The First Time - among U2's finest songs.

In conclusion, I submit that Zooropa reflects not a band groping with an artistic failure, but in production of one of its most remarkable and imaginative successes.

U2 is a pilsner beer brewed by Unibroue since 1999. It is redder in colour than Unibroue's other laconically named pilsner, U, to which it is a sort of sequel, if beers can be said to have sequels. Alcohol content 5% by volume.

Source: http://www.unibroue.com/products/u2.cfm (English), http://www.unibroue.com/produits/u2.cfm (French).

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