Top positive review
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Possibly the apex of experimental/Zoo-TV era U2...
on 26 July 2004
Quite why this was so derided on its initial release (and still, to some extent, today!) is beyond me. This was U2 sounding like the biggest band in the world, eons away from the tired stadium act of the Rattle & Hum LP/concert-film/clothing-range/etc, which postured towards trad-Americana, but with none of the soul (instead, sounding hollow and conceited)... this, on the other hand, was U2 sounding fresh and exciting, referencing the music of the time, with acts like Disposable Heroes, the Happy Mondays and My Bloody Valentine, not to mention the edgy music being produced by their post-punk peers, with bands like Talk Talk and Depeche Mode both producing self-consciously weird albums with Laughing Stock and Violator, respectively.
So, we had U2 doing likewise with the landmark Achtung Baby, which remains their greatest album... though, for all intensive purposes, it was still the Joshua Tree, just with more layered and modernised production. Zooropa on the other hand is the first step towards the alien-U2 landscape that would be further developed on the Original Soundtracks album; a record so 'out-there' they had to release it under a different name (The Passengers). This was a band that had little in common with the group that had released such earnest, political, new-wave stuff like Bullet in the Blue Sky, I Will Follow and Sunday Bloody Sunday, & instead, produced music that was self-aware, ultra-post modern and seemed to be taking the p*ss out of the whole idea of U2 as a franchise ("...be all that you can be"). Understandably, the fans and critics of the time wrote the whole thing off as an arty-self-indulgent exercise, criticising U2's decision to experiment with dance rhythms and techno production and generally, missing the point of the whole endeavour, entirely.
It seems stupid to think of this now, with Zooropa prefiguring Radiohead's similarly elating trek into the realms of ambient, experimentation, with albums like Kid & Amnesiac... though, there too, we saw a public furore, all because music critics seem to think all modern rock bands should sound like Coldplay & Keane. Yawn!! Still, U2 were pushing the boundaries in 1993 and the world seemed a better place. Don't believe me? Just sit back and pop this record on and force yourself to put aside all reservations you have about U2 doing anything other than All That You Can't Leave Behind, & just listen. Then, when it's all over, go back to the start and listen again. This is intoxicating stuff, filled with tight rhythms, bold instrumentation and soaring lyrics. The production too, from Flood, Eno & the Edge is great, sounding positively futuristic for 1993 standards, and still holds up exceptionally well, over a decade on.
Listen to the opening of Zooropa to see what I mean; with the three producers creating a real Dark Side of the Moon moment, with distorted sound-scapes, white noise, breaks from commercials and a rising bass. It picks up where Achtung Baby left off, with emotional lyrics fusing with advertising slogans and really shows U2 as still, perhaps the most pretentious band in the world, but certainly having fun with it. Babyface continues this with the sound of the opening, as beautiful as any U2 ballad that came before, with Bono's vocals fitting the instrumentation perfectly, before the whole things shifts and pulsating keyboards and Adam Clayton's bass emerges, as the chorus "babyface, babyface, slow down child... let me untie your lace" becomes a sort of mantra. Numb was the single, and takes off around a dirty-guitar loop, with lots of synthesised back-beats devised by Eno going on around it. The Edge even raps over it, in a way that seems like a joke, until Bono's fat lady, soul-singer backing vocals come in... (suggesting Lou Reed's Satellite of Love, which is incidentally, back in the charts with a disco beat!).
Speaking of which, Lemon is post-industrial, loved-up U2 techno soul in all it's neon glory, with the band creating a really funky back-beat for Bono to sing nonsense lyrics over the top of. At almost seven minutes, it remains the album's centre piece, and is a great deal of fun if you can buy into Bono's disconcerting vocals, sounding almost like Van Morrisson on classic track, Linden Arden Stole the Highlights. It's all fairly throwaway and has a touch of the novelty about it, until the Edge and Eno come in on backing vocals and breathe the refrain "man paints a picture... a moving picture, through the light projected he can see himself up close" which is one of those beautiful, transcending musical moments that are so very rare in our days of homogenised pop. The next track, Stay (Faraway, So Close), was used in Wim Wenders' sequel to his angels film, the Wings of Desire, and sound absolutely stunning... up there with other great U2 ballads like With or Without You, One and If God Should Send his Angels. It's probably my favourite U2 song of all time, with Bono's most heartbreaking lyrics ("stay... with the demons that you drowned, stay... with the spirit that you found, stay... and the night would be enough...").
The following tracks all continue the same formula, being both edgy and experimental, but also conforming to that trademark U2 emotion and intensity. Daddy's Gonn'a Pay for Your Crashed Car finds the group sampling the fanfare from Lenin's Favourite Songs and a loop from MC900 ft Jesus, which is quite audacious, whilst The First Time is more of that bleak, almost spoken-word stuff. However, the band leave the most bizarre construction till last, with closing track The Wanderer, which could have been a gay disco anthem... which is shocking really, trying to imagine the punters at the G-A-Y shaking it to the dulcet tones of the late, great Johnny Cash! Still, that said, Bono's infamous backing-vocals don't help matters much, fusing, as they do, with an electronic-muzak take on an old country and western theme, which tows the line between sublime genius and high camp. It's all great fun though, and is followed by a brief silence, then a short burst of ambient white noise (very Motion Picture Soundtrack!), which brings the record to a close in a way that could just about be described as perfect.