on 21 April 2016
"Pop" seemed to burst U2's bubble a little (critically and ultimately commercially, though the record sales & ticket sales would still make most other bands envious). The album didn't seem to get the same positive response that the arguably equally-experimental "Achtung Baby" and "Zooropa" did, but I feel this is unfair. Despite the numerous problems which afflicted its creation (drummer Larry Mullen jnr had back problems and the timeframe was rushed to fit in with the tour schedule) "Pop" is a further progression of their sound through these two and the experimental side-project "Passengers:OST1" where Brian Eno assumed the dominant role. Here, without Eno, they did themselves proud, creating a record of battered humanity and a unique darkness, amid all the drum loops, programming, hip-hop flourishes and treatments, and perhaps it was the sombre, damaged nature of the record that ultimately scared fans away.
Personally I don't feel "Pop" can be bettered in their catalogue at mastering a slow change of mood, from the effervescent opener (the disco-funk of the hedonistic "Discotheque") through to the despairing ballad "Wake Up Dead Man" which finds the narrator bereft of hope at Jesus' absence. The tone darkens throughout, and unlike the exuberant "Achtung Baby" and the quirky, unpredictable "Zooropa" an ominous cloud seems to hang over the LP - even "Discotheque" seems to have a desperate feel to the lyric and Bono's delivery of it. This sense of desperation runs through "Do You Feel Loved", where Clayton's bass pounds the song along, the typical, sweeping U2 power ballads like "Staring At The Sun" and the grim subject matter of songs like "Mofo" (apparently about Bono's late mother) and "Please", where he berates Irish politicians and terrorists for apparently failing at the peace process. Other highlights are the haunting "If You Wear That Velvet Dress" with its Lou Reed-style spoken introduction, "Gone" with the Edge's guitar in the chorus at its most screaming and exhilarating, and the controversial "Miami" with its jagged electronic menace and John Bonham-style drum breaks.
on 15 July 2004
Many fans and especially rock-critics slated this album when it first appeared back in 1997, due in part to U2's previous diversions into pulsating electronica & wayward experimentation - with career peak Achtung Baby setting something of a template, whilst the criminally underrated Zooropa followed to even greater disdain, before the band even went as far as to dash off a full-experimental album under the pseudonym, The Passengers. The negativity also had a lot to do with the era that this was released... with 1997 being the apex of Britpop; a time when bands were supposed to be playing things down, going for the stadiums and producing the kind of music that drunken louts could sing-along to with their lighters out. It was certainly no time to be embracing a band that performed on the roofs of supermarkets with giant TV screens, costume changes and a 10 ft luminous lemon.
The music press would evoke notions of progressive-rock and cite self-indulgence as the cause of the band's behaviour and, as a result of this negativity, ticket & album sales began to dwindle, prompting the band to disappear once more... then - faster than you could say Joshua Tree - they returned with a new album of straight rock ballads and a MOR sound that the critics and fans, unsurprisingly, devoured with glee. I see this as a shame really, since the albums produced during this era (1990-1998) represent the peak of U2; coming across as edgy and creative, without prostituting their sense of melody and expert musicianship. Pop would be both the summation and the climax of this period, with half the songs sounding intense, free-wheeling and utterly post-modern, whilst the other half of the album seemed like a compromise, with those typical 80's style U2 ballads creeping in; but advanced on, by the inclusion of dance-beats and state of the art production.
This is hardly a problem though, as the ballads remain amongst my favourite tracks on the album... whilst the overall sound of the record is great. I remember the first time I saw the video for lead-off single (and first track on the album) Discothèque and thought it was the most amazing thing I'd ever seen or heard in my life... with the band gleefully parodying the Village People, whilst female dancers in skin-tight body-suits paraded around under mirror-balls and strobe-lights! The guitar sound is great, with the Edge taking the whole song into the realms of funk, with dirty distorted bar-chords continuing the fuzzy sound developed in the production, whilst Bono's vocals alternate between growls and falsetto, to enliven his nonsense lyrics. Next track, Do You Feel Loved? seems like an attempt to ape the previous track, whilst also calming things down a little... though, in all honesty, it lacks focus and, to some extent, sits uneasily in front of track three, the blistering and funked-up Mofo! The production here is intense, as the dance rhythms return, pulsating from left to right speaker as the Edge does some of his most subtle-distorted guitar work since Zoo Station from Achtung Baby.
This leads into the first, for lack of a better word, U2 ballad, If God Will Send his Angels, which points towards future tracks like Stuck in a Moment (& that one with Samantha Morton in the video), whilst also looking back to classics like With or Without You & Bad. Once again, the production is great, whilst the use of instrumentation (the drums and guitar are the standouts) create a languid and melancholic atmosphere for Bono to croon over. The next two tracks were both singles and remain my favourite tracks on the album, with Staring at the Sun following the same aural design as the previous track, with striped down instrumentation highlighted by the bells & whistles of Steve Osborne's production and the Edge's always interesting guitar work. For all it's musical memento though, the lyrics are perhaps Bono's most simplistic ever, with the chorus, "you're not just deaf and dumb, staring at the sun, I'm not the only one..." being worlds away from some of the oblique, poetic couplets from Achtung Baby tracks like The Fly and Acrobat. Last Night on Earth is even better though, and has probably the dirtiest guitar riff in U2 history, or at least, one that brings to mind something like Even Better than the Real Thing or Numb.
From this point things begin to lose their way a little, with certain elements failing to come together, or various ideas and ideologies feeling strained or incomplete. I personally think this is where the record company started to step in and U2 felt the pressure to deliver that trademark 80's sound, so rebelled with something that was slightly more out-there, in terms of funk and dance stylings, though, were maybe a little more half-arsed with it than some of their earlier experiments. I don't know. Maybe they were just getting bored. At any rate, songs like Miami and The Playboy Mansion are a little off the mark, and don't really hold up to the songs that came before, whilst If You Wear that Velvet Dress is possibly the biggest waste of a great title on a mediocre song in the history of pop (no pun!). It takes the song Please to finally restore some order, and a classic Achtung Baby sound, and it leads us nicely into the final track, Wake Up Dead Man, which remains another highpoint from this album.
Pop still has some problems, largely in it's cohesion and in it's track sequencing, and really, there were probably better songs laying around the studio than Miami and Do You Feel Loved? However, it has dated brilliantly, with the overall sound seeming completely alien, even when we compare it to similar electro-dance-arty-types like Goldfrapp and even the post-punk indebted likes of the Rapture and Franz Ferdinand. Half the tracks are absolute classics, whilst the other half, though miles away from some of their previous master-pieces, still have a lot of interesting elements that do become enjoyable with repeated listens. Pop may be something of a come down following the euphoric highs of Achtung Baby and Zooropa, though, suffice to say, it's certainly a more worthwhile purchase than 2000's supposed return to form, All That You Can't Leave Behind.
on 19 October 2000
If the glam rockers of the 1970s could come back now, after the musical changes from the last two decades, someone like Slade would be releasing singles like those on POP. Though to say that the whole album can be generalised like this would be wrong.
The most noticable difference in U2 since their late 1980s albums has been the difference in 'mood' in their songs. Gone were the love songs, and small political messages towards the US, now the band were digging at commercialism and consumerism. Along with this change, Larry Mullen Jr (the U2 Drum machine) has evolved with the times, and this is very noticable on POP - it's U2 to a different beat.
The songs... aha, what was that 'Discotheque' all about? Well, it was OK wasn't it? 'Please', 'God will send his angels', 'staring at the sun'... You've probably heard them. However, 'Miami' and 'Mofo' could be the most experimental songs on there, both with beats to die for and 'sing-a-long-a whatever' lyrical mix.
Basically, some people will be disapointed with the fact that this album, along with Achtung Baby and Zooropa, is not the Joshua Tree. However, it isn't 1987 - so U2 should be commended for their way of making new music, and not the way they don't make the same past successes all over again....