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.