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The first genuine classic U2 album.
on 30 November 2009
Originally released in 1984, the dark ages of Wham and Ronald Reagan, "The Unforgettable Fire" was, at the time, a brave move. U2 ditched their conventional rock writing and production, roped in Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois, and became impressionistic, ambigious, brave, visionary. The songs became shimmering things, built on arpeggios and fragments, never afraid to pull back instead of the suckerpunch stadium chorus. This was, until 1993's "Zooropa", U2's most experimental record in every sense, and the first time U2 latched onto a concept - that of nuclear war and the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki : a clear parallel between then, and the now-of-then (of 1985) where we all lived under the threat of instant extinction in a Dr. Strangelove farce.
Aside from the poking-you-in-the-eye lyrical sledgehammer and thumpingly workmanlike structure that was "Pride", every lyric and melody on this record is something other. U2 were stepping into a new dimension of work, and this would serve them well for the rest of their career. From here on, U2 were two bands at once, obvious stadium rockers in love with the big chorus, and also, trying to weld to that a desire to explore and invent. The album threw away the obvious lyrical clunkery and sincerity instead of impressions and ideas, suggestions of music and wordless melodies that exist in the keening, crooning lift of a modern hymn. "The Unforgettable Fire" was a brilliant record that challenged your idea of what U2 are with ambiguity and fog.
Next, U2 would stand in a desert in sharp focus. Here, they are barely visible in overgrown ruins. The listener brings to this their own imagination. And this combination is wonderfully effective. Songs hover into view, stay for a few minutes, then fade out with cloud and form new shapes. U2 would never be quite so accessably obtuse again.
The songs have never sounded so clear or so bright. Thankfully, there is little if any of the ugly compression and squashed sound of modern mastering. Whilst the tracklisting lacks, to me, much in the way of narrative focus - the songs don't always sound as if they fit well together - the material itself is some of the best U2 ever produced. "Bad" - still featured in live sets today - leaps off the deck with clarity. I've been hearing these songs for 25 years, and there's something new I heard in the remaster I'd never noticed before. In fact, all of this material deserves to be heard more often : "Elvis Presley and America" is a formless, halfspeed jam, but one that transcends such beginnings with Bono's imaginary words and invented dialect that moves beyond English into some kind of impressionistic new vocabulary. It's the inarticulate speech of the heart that can barely grasp whatever vision is evaporating in front of your eyes. Miles Davies would sit and listen to this album on repeat on his death bed.
"A Sort of Homecoming" is possibly the greatest lost song U2 ever written. There's three versions on this remaster : a staid studio recording, a thrilling rearrangement by Daniel Lanois that was clearly destined for a hit single, and best of all, a version re-recorded at a London soundcheck that deserves to be on every compilation they release. Normally three versions of the same song would be boring, but each variant is substantially different. Quiet why this song isn't a staple of their live set today is baffling to me - it knocks better known but lesser songs into the dust.
Filling out the second disc are two unreleased songs - the superior, fabulous "Disappearing Act" that is the equal of anything on the album itself, and the more abstract "Yoshino Blossom" that is a compelling blur of sound that sounds akin to a wonky, broken, frazzled "New Years Day". Around this time, U2 also pushed some of their greatest material onto b-sides : "The Three Sunrises" and "Love Comes Tumbling" are better certainly than a couple of album cuts and could very well have elevated the band to stadiums sooner. There were also some unusual b-sides : "Sixty Seconds In Kingdom Come", "Bass Trap", "Boomerang I", were all odd, fragmentary improvisations, and thus often shunted to the fourth side of double 7" singles.
Rounding out the bonus disc are alternate versions of "Wire" (lots more everything, and less Bono), "A Sort Of Homecoming", "Pride" (more choruses), "11 O Clock Tick Tock" (more guitars), and "Boomerang II", a vocal version of the aforementioned improvisation that is light years beyond, and practically a different song, It's surprising to see how little work could turn a formless jam into a realised song, and here U2 provide both parts of the song. A fascinating look. They should do more of this.
What there is though, is a faithfully presented and packaged version of U2's most interesting album, replete with worthy extra material that expands the original and reveals a few, oft-unheard nuggets from the time. The alternate versions and unheard songs are as good as most of the material on the album itself, and well worth a second glance. If you are to re-visit U2, this is their most intruiging work : before age, guile, money, and fame corrupted them, when they were young, almost naive, and hungry to explore.