U2’s Pop: It’s better than you think

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You ever have a great idea that you think of, say, while you’re taking a walk or some mundane task? Maybe you’ll even have a dream and get excited about something your mind conjured up? You’ll think to yourself “holy crap I’m a genius” and set in action whatever idea you thought of. Then, after putting said idea into motion you quickly realize you aren’t the genius you thought you were and if that idea sees the light of day you’ll be rightly ridiculed? The execution got in the way of a good idea.

Welcome to the band U2 and their 1997 album Pop.

For those Millennial’s who happen to be reading this article I’ll provide some much-needed context to what U2 was circa 1997. Strictly in terms of popularity think of Drake, Kendrick Lamar, Taylor Swift, combine them into one, and add in massive album sales (back when albums were still bought) and stadium tours and you will get U2 of the 1990’s. Without any doubt, U2 was the biggest rock band on the planet.

This earnest but rocking and ambitious band from Ireland which produced the epic masterwork The Joshua Tree in 1987, one of the biggest selling albums of all time. Then band successfully reinvented themselves after the critical savaging of their 1988 album Rattle and Hum (more on this later) and produced their second masterpiece the dark, iron- filled Achtung Baby! in 1991.

U2 Joshua Tree

They were a band that enjoyed being the critics’ darling — so much so that it became a joke with my friends and I which Rolling Stone review of U2 would be more glowing — and nearly broke up while pursuing a different direction with their music in 1990. They triumphed and spent much of the decade cashing in on that critical and commercial cache. That’s not to say that their results were anything but spectacular. Both Achtung and to a much lesser extent the experimental and techno-driven Zooropa were the fruits of a band who was at or near the peak of their collective musical experience. Add in stadium tours that featured singer and lyricist Bono creating characters of poke fun at rock stardom and at media in general. After the Zoo TV tour was completed the band undertook a side project with longtime co-producer Brian Eno called Original Soundtracks Vol. 1 under the pseudonym Passengers which wasn’t a financial success (received little to no publicity after it was released) but was another critical triumph for a band that could do no wrong.

Maybe the subsequent backlash was predictable?

U2-Pop-cover

When Pop was finally (after a six month delay) released in March of 1997 people were greeted by the aggressive European club sounds of the lead track and lead single Discotheque. A single (released a full month before the album debuted) that wasn’t really “single material” in the classic sense … so much as it was easy(er) to digest. My own personal memory was one of complete and utter revulsion to the new single. It was U2 but my thought was that the song was grossly gimmicky and not terribly catchy with it’s forced techno/disco vibe. The video was a cheesy, flashy disaster (featuring the band in full Village people garb) and meant to poke fun at the band’s public image. They definitely got off on the wrong foot. Subsequently when the album was released I gave it no shot. I had been a fan of U2 since Joshua Tree and with each subsequent album in the 90’s I felt like the band was still great but not quite the one I fell in love with. I had my defenses up and it seemed to me like Discotheque was an extension of how deliberately up themselves the band had become during the decade.

U2 Discotheque image

I wasn’t the only one. Despite loads of promotion and a massive stadium tour booked the album was doomed. As the months passed the more people criticized U2’s attempts to broaden their sound with new producers (namely DJ Howie B and Flood with some production done by Steve Osborne) and tap into a burgeoning club/dance culture in Europe (which, admittedly, was ahead of it’s time), a trend which began all the way back pre-Achtung for the band. The songs, however, were regarded as half-baked attempts to capture something that either the band themselves struggled with or their increasingly aging audience wasn’t ready for. U2’s American audience, their bread and butter, responded with a collective raised eyebrow.

In any case the sales receipts came in…
Despite going to the #1 spot the album was later considered to be a commercial failure, and the tour to support was criticized for it’s over-the-top nature. At one point, in a Spinal Tap-esque moment the band — supposed to exit onto the stage from a giant lemon — were trapped inside the giant malfunctioning prop, causing snickering and derision from a fanbase that was rejecting U2’s seeming descent into self-parody. Or so the perception was. It was a weird time to be a U2 fan and it seemed like the band needed to do some self-examination before taking on the new millennium.

U2 Lemon

A reassessment

After nearly a decade of rejecting Pop and regarding it as the band’s nadir, I took it upon myself to take an honest look at the album. I had been wondering for years if my prejudice (the whole “I KNOW what U2 should sound like” thing) unfairly affected my perception of that music and I never gave a real shot.

Circa 2004 I began to put aside some prejudices and listen to the album instead of rejecting it without a chance. You know what, I was mostly wrong, and I suspect others were as well. There are seven tracks that rank among some of U2’s best 1990’s compositions and two that are kinda ok and three that are among the worst that U2 ever recorded. A ratio that probably impacted sales in hindsight. It’s a difficult album to absorb because it’s decorated with tons of production tinsel which, I believe obscure songs that really hit home.

For example, the aching beauty of If God will send his Angels was hidden by odd production choices (the single version with a different mix is far superior to what ended up on the album) which included Larry Mullen’s drums loudly overpowering much of the melody. It is STILL however one of U2’s most beautiful compositions and to my ears one of Bono’s best chorus hooks. (Side note: Because U2 had their manager book a world tour before the album was finished, the album version of If God will … had unfinished lyrics because the band hand to rush to get the album finished. Another reason why the single version was better. It was complete)

Indeed the same could be applied to arguably the best song on the album, the anthemic Gone. Easily some of Bono’s best post-Achtung singing. It was one of those U2 songs you expect, anthemic, uplifting and earnest. “I’ll be up with the sun/I’m not coming down”. The mix/production was muddy and unfocused. Dominated by Adam Clayton’s bass and Edge’s searing lead breaks. Much of the rest of the instrumentation is kinda buried. Not quite there. Still, much like Angels the song is superior and I’d stack it up against U2’s best.

If you’re noticing a theme here it’s that U2’s songs were subservient to the “thing” they were going for. The production became their master. Rather than concentrate on making the songs the standout the production theme became the dominant aspect of the album. A group that wrote great songs before suddenly was hoping great songs came out of the way they were producing the album and … it just didn’t work. The great songs were buried. And the awful songs were made worse. Mofo, Miami and The Playboy Mansion are absolutely unlistenable and reside in the what the f*ck were they thinking category. There’s some weird techno stuff on Zooropa but at least that stuff was focused. The unlistenable trio (as I dub them) on Pop don’t even sound inspired album filler sent to fit a theme.

One song that succeeded largely because of the production is If You Wear that Velvet Dress. It is slow and sultry, and really benefits from the bass-heavy mud. The seduction comes through. Please and Wake up Dead Man close the album strongly as great compositions. Please with it’s building urgency and Wake Up Dead Man keeping with U2’s tradition of closing with a religious theme.

In reality, the consistency of Pop would have been greatly aided (even in spite of the production issues) if the three worst songs were left off the album entirely and maybe Staring at the Sun (another good song) used as the lead single instead of Discotheque if the album’s fortune’s would have been better? Who knows? (after 22 years I’ve decided that Discotheque is merely mediocre rather than terrible)

All in all though I find Pop to be a good but not great U2 album. Certainly not the worst album they recorded … and it contains songs that I listen to consistently to this day. It was a great idea that the band themselves struggled with and maybe could have benefited from a stronger production crew. Even though the band didn’t seem comfortable with what they were doing they still came up with some epic songs that deserve play in any U2 playlist. It needed to be given a chance in hindsight.

Postscript

U2 was clearly shaken by the reaction to Pop. After the Popmart tour ended in 1998 the band retreated from public sight for two years, rededicating themselves to focus … something that the Pop album and subsequent Popmart tour lacked for the most part (it must be said, however, that by the end of the Popmart tour the band were in fine form and rank those performances among their best). They re-hired Daniel Lanois and Brian Eno to produce their next album and keep their pretensions in check, a retreat to a more song-based approach than Pop or even Zooropa in 1993.

The subsequent All That You Can’t Leave Behind album (2000) and Elevation tour (2001) were massive successes. All That You Can’t … is their fourth biggest selling album and seeming retreat to a simpler sound benefited U2 is an colossal financial way. So much so that it fundamentally altered their approach to album making and song craft after their heady, experimental forays in the 90’s. The fans came out to support a U2 that was simple, soaring and anthemic. That much was evident.

As far as the band’s own view of Pop; apparently it was more in line with Jeff circa 1997 than we thought. On their second best-of, released in 2002, every song from Pop was either remixed or re-recorded. Each to the song’s benefit, and you saw what potential the songs had with better production. On subsequent tours the band rarely played songs from Pop and now don’t even reach into that part of the catalog.

There is no doubt that Pop fundamentally changed U2. The level of criticism from their own fans wasn’t something they were used to and through the 2000’s the band would continue the “U2 sound” to great financial (if not critical) successes. Until the 2010’s that is….

That is a story for another time…

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