On the Record: U2 – Pop

 

Looking back, U2’s 1997 opus Pop may well be the single best album to summarize the rock music landscape of the 1990s. A number of factors led to the creation of Pop, considered by many (but not me) the band’s biggest misstep. First, remember in the 1980s U2 set trends with groundbreaking albums like War (1983) and The Joshua Tree (1987), and for every great U2 single, there were a 100 bands trying to imitate them. The critical backlash over 1988’s Rattle and Hum sent U2 away to reinvent themselves. Emerging in 1991 with Achtung Baby, the band ditched their earnest heart-on-sleeve flag-waving for decadent, electronic-tinged, vague heart-on-sleeve flag-waving. U2 successfully reinvented themselves to critical and commercial acclaim, while remaining relevant to popular music.

Yet, while this was happening, Nirvana and the Alternative Nation were changing the face of popular music, bringing the alternative nation to the mainstream and opening the floodgates for what seemed like an infinite number of alternative bands, who would find success in Nirvana’s wake. Skip a head a few years: grunge and alternative are, indeed, not fads; electronic music, too, found its way into the mainstream. The popular music landscape had changed dramatically between the release of Zooropa in 1993 and its successor in March of 1997.

At the heart of Pop is a rock record, but it’s disguised with electronic experimentation. It treads familiar U2 territory, musically and thematically, but that’s not the problem. Pop has some of U2’s weakest songs, which the band tries to hide by burying them in the production. Strip away the samples, synths, programming, and you’d likely find an album akin to All That You Can’t Leave Behind.

Oddly enough, the album’s best tracks are the ones where U2 strays furthest from their comfort zone. “Mofo” is the most electronic-fueled, and the most enthralling. The track moves like a hurricane, with its propulsive synth riff and pounding percussion. Lyrically, it’s typical Bono-in-existential-crisis mode – “looking to fill that God-shaped hole” – but, damn, it’s so good.

Now, as I mentioned, at its core, Pop is rock record, and nowhere else is that more evident than the middle section. “If God Will Send His Angles,” “Staring at the Sun,” “Last Night on Earth,” and “Gone” are not only stereotypical U2 songs, but they’re symptomatic of mid-90s alt rock: mid-tempo, anthemic, stadium-ready. These are not bad songs by any stretch of the imagination – though “Staring at the Sun” and “Last Night on Earth” are strictly by-the-numbers – they just feel unfinished. And that’s probably because they are. In December 1996, months before the album’s release, “Discothèque” was leaked on the Internet (gasp!) prompting the band to rush the completion of the album. Rumour has it that the band was finishing backing vocals and overdubs minutes before the album was sent to be pressed, which is probably why “Please” sounds like a demo, especially compared to its vastly superior single version.

Actually, U2 would spend the next few years revisiting tracks from Pop, not unlike the way George Lucas insists on tampering with the Star Wars trilogy. Some singles received an overhaul, most times for the better (the aforementioned “Please”), while others were just shortened or tweaked (“If God Will Send His Angels”). And finally, the three tracks from Pop that appeared on the 2002 compilation The Best of 1990-2000 (“Discothèque,” “Gone,” and “Staring at the Sun”) are all remixed and partially re-recorded, downplaying their electronic elements; the new mix of “Discothèque” has more traditional Edge-sounding guitars and sounds painfully forced, though “Gone” works better.

Pop is not an essential U2 record (of which there are many), yet it isn’t the failure it’s remembered for. If anything, Pop is simply the portrait of band trying to keep up with the quickly changing musical landscape of the 1990s.

About James Hrivnak
The H is silent.

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