Sunday Times Pop Review

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Sunday Times, March 23, 1997

By Andrew Smith

The word was that this would be U2's intrepid and possibly self-destructive entry into the dark heart of modern dance music. It was going to be a techno album. It was going to be simmering trip-hop. The much discussed involvement of DJs Howie B and Nellee Hooper (the former Soul II Soul/Bjork/Massive Attack producer) implied that there was some truth in the rumors. The reality is much less unsettling and much more interesting than could have been hoped for. After 20 years the Irish quartet have made their first great album.

Released on March 3, POP is not a dance record. You would no more dance to it than you would recite poetry to a toaster. U2 have done what Blur might have done with their eponymous fifth album, unfavourably reviewed here three weeks ago. They have not tried to co-opt a sound wholesale: instead, they have taken the spirit of the new electronic music and used it to inspire a fabulous rock album. This, in other words, is the flip side of the Prodigy's Music for the Jilted Generation. U2 have not reinvented themselves so much as rediscovered themselves.

They have tried to recast themselves before, with varying degrees of success. First there was the liaison with Brian Eno, which began on The Unforgettable Fire in 1984. Unfortunately, the Fire turned out to be more easily forgotten the title foresaw, but it is worth remembering just how bizarre and imaginative this alliance seemed at the time. Picture Eddie Izzard lining up with Vinnie Jones at Wimbledon's midfield or Jeffrey Archer joining the editorial board of the New York Review of Books and you have it. People thought Eno was slumming it, creatively speaking, but the partnership proved as fruitful as could have been expected. Their second collaboration, The Joshua Tree, turned U2 into the monstrously popular stadium act they are today -- though, typically of all pre-POP U2 albums, it contained only one unarguably great song, the subtle, slow-burning "With or Without You."

There again, until now songs have never been the whole point with U2. They rose to prominence in the wake of punk and were part of a barely conscious project to define a new, non-blues-based brand of rock. Nearly all of the influential guitar groups of the 1980s were on this same mission from Simple Minds to the Smiths, New Order, the Jesus and Mary Chain, My Bloody Valentine, Happy Mondays and the Stone Roses. U2's first serious champion was John Peel, and their songs still tend to have a linear quality that is at odds with traditional tunesmithery. When the group tried to engage with American blues and R&B, as they did on the misguided Rattle and Hum (their Blur), it was about as unconvincing as a phenomenon can get without Mulder and Scully turning up to investigate. It seems a strange thing to say about the most consistently popular band of the past 15 years, but if you liked U2, you liked the grand chiming noise they made rather than their songs. Nothing wrong with this necessarily, but it will be interesting to see how mega-selling works such as War and Achtung Baby (again, one great song, "One;" a few good ones) are judged by future generations.

No such worries about POP. POP sees the happy coincidence of two new developments. First is a wholly unexpected melodic and atmospheric subtlety -- a heightened sense of light and shade (rather than just loud and quiet, as so often before) seems to have infused the material. The simple truth is that the tunes sparkle like gems. Second, the dalliance with dance styles renders traditional songcraft even less important than it was before. U2 are playing to their strengths, a fact that is instantly made clear by the breathtaking force of the 15-minute opening sequence, which consists of the fine single "Discotheque," followed by "Do You Feel Loved," and "Mofo." All three pieces mesh pulsing, technofied synthesizers and/or synthetic beats with the reliably pneumatic bass and drums of Adam Clayton and Larry Mullen. They rock, to be sure, but with a rare fluidity. Driven forward by the Edge's vivid, adventurous guitar playing, galvanized by Bono's finely judged vocal performances, U2 have never sounded better.

It seems obvious that, from here, things can only go downhill. They do not. The spell cast by that monumental opening never wears off. "Miami," co-produced by Howie B, is the first dark offering. There are breathy, industrial rhythms, robotic, walking bass lines, lots of drones and clangs. If U2 were going to slip up, it would be here, but the clever way these unfamiliar elements combine with shifting chord changes and ghostly, half-submerged melodies has an unexpectedly compelling effect. Elsewhere, "Last Night On Earth" establishes a pattern to be followed by several songs, starting off as a pretty piece of nothing much, before growing into an intense, moving gale of a piece. The best of these is "Please," so underwhelming to begin with, so devastating by the end. Again, Bono's delivery is passionate without once giving the impression that his hemorrhoids are on fire. And as with "Mofo" and another sweeping stand-out track, "Gone," the content is unusually raw, the standard stuff about faith and disillusionment rubbing shoulders with some exclusively personal demons. "Mofo" does appear to be an interesting meditation on the emotional legacy of his mother, who died when he was 14.

Of 12 tracks, only two fail to satisfy (the pretty mundanely U2-esque "If God Will Send His Angels" and the whimsical "The Playboy Mansion," for the record). By anyone's standards, this is a favorable ratio, making it all the more surprising to learn that, reading between the lines of recent statements from the band there was a lot of tension and conflict in the studio. On the other hand, perhaps this was necessary. As Bono commenting on the current state of rock music, said recently: "There's a difference between liking something because it's great and liking something because it reminds you of something that was great." For the first time in 10 years, U2 have had something to react against, other than themselves and their runaway suceess.

It is time to give U2 their due, then. They have in the past been accused of pretentiousness, as with the Zoo TV tour (which they got away with) and 1995's 'experimental' Passengers album (which they did not). Yet the latter case is interesting. Even Mullen detests Passengers, though the Edge thinks his drummer will come round to it in a few years' time. Personally, I doubt this, but, in retrospect, you could look upon it as a kind of sketchbook, a preparation for POP.

The point is that there is no such thing as pretentious pop, because, having no rules, it can go anywhere. The 1970s group Yes were not pretentious, they merely mistook musicianship for musical worth, possibly as a consequence of over-restrictive legwear. The Who's Tommy was just a really, really bad story. No, the worst thing pop can be is boring, the second worst over-ambitious, meaning that the scope of its ideas fails to match the sales pitch they are given (the complaint against Zoo TV). But is creative ambition such a crime ? Sometimes the ideas catch up in the end. So it is with POP.

This is a terrific album.

Copyright © 1997 Sunday Times. All rights reserved.

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This page contains a single entry by Jonathan published on March 23, 1997 4:19 AM.

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