There are those great pieces of art which are the result of years of meticulous planning, hours upon hours of arduous work, all of which hopefully forms a great final product. And then there are those great works which form almost by accident, taking a shorter amount of time because the artists are on a roll and before you know it you have a work on your hands.
For the latter kind, look no further than Zooropa. Originally meant to be an EP and created in a four month period during a break from the ZooTv tour – though more time was taken in between shows to complete the record – it built around the themes and ideas of the tour, mainly that of sensory overload, and with that framework constructed what is undoubtedly the bands strangest release. Ten tracks of electronic experimentation, dance and house grooves and many voices and characters, it was the first time that the band had truly moved away from sounding like a traditional rock four-piece.
As a result it has drawn somewhat hesitant responses from the band themselves, no more so highlighted then when, in the deluxe edition release of Achtung Baby, they included with it the entirety of this record. Bono said that it lacked the proper hits to be considered a great release (if you ever wanted an explanation for the worst of U2’s 00’s output, here it is), but that it contained his favourite U2 song. Edge calls it an interlude, and Mullen never seemed particularly keen of this period anyway. Some publications still seem confused by it, with Spin releasing an article saying it nearly destroyed their career, because they were thinking of Pop and big publications don’t research properly (this article is proof that people act somewhat arrogant when they feel there’s a general consensus around a piece of work).
Only the great and true Adam Clayton loves the record wholeheartedly, and I’m here to give the rest of the band a rhetorical slap in the face for him. Because Zooropa is one of U2’s best releases, its loose feel like washing in the wave of an out of signal television and bathing in LED light. Its themes feel just as timely in the wake of the internet, where you can read my thoughts about a record on sensory overload on a light emitting screen whilst probably listening to music, watching a video or having multiple tabs on at the top to read afterwards.
The title track, another great U2 openers, comes out with these ideas from the outset. A song whose sound was based around mic checks done on the ZooTv tour, it opens with strange radio-like distortion of piano chords, synth strings and whispering voices that builds up for almost two minutes. A definite contrast to their work seven years prior, where a two minute song build up was epic and uplifting, this is intimate and somewhat haunting. Only after fully laying the scene do the sounds of the band begin to come in, and with it a psychedelic piece with lyrics about advertising lyrics. Not a novel idea – previous Record Club entry Tom Waits also did this – but here instead of Beatnik derision we get a kind of modern inevitability, that in the rest of based on traditional songs of love that aspect of culture is somehow integrated.
The second track, “Babyface,” is the only song on the album that I would consider somewhat lacking. Like a perverted version of “With or Without You” – including the same chords – Clayton’s bass rings through waves of guitar distortion and a very intentional nursey chime sound from a toy piano. The problem is that its structure makes it the most orthodox song, and whilst much can be said in a great pop song changing the formula of a strange sound, it doesn’t have the same effect that, say, “Pride (In the Name of Love) does on The Unforgettable Fire (a comparison highlighted by their similar placement on their respective records.
Fortunately Zooropa makes up for this by moving on to a stream of greatness. “Numb” was released as one the lead singles, which seems like such an unusual prospect even now; Radiohead didn’t release “Fitter Happier” to give us a taste of OK Computer (incidentally, Radiohead clearly got many ideas for that record from Zooropa). The Edge’s monotonous speech of contradictory ideas of what not to do whilst Bono caterwauls in the background, all over what sounds like a glitchy videogame with a couple of dentil drills played over it just shouldn’t work in any kind of catchy way. But it does. The sparse notes hit hard, the electronic drums feel both tense and bouncy and all the sounds coalesce into a captivating rhythm.
Just as strange is the disco track “Lemon,” though in an intentionally contrasting manner. Where the previous track was monotone and quiet, Bono sings in the falsetto pitch of his Fat Lady character (Zooropa would be the best those falsettos have ever sounded). Over sweeping synths and a funky Clayton bassline, Bono sings what is in actuality a melancholic story of preserving a memory of his mother (so he can “see himself up close” as the song cries). That melancholy starts to creep in with acoustic string sounds and the choral voices, but it ultimately maintains a dancing tone and maintaining emotion in spite of, or even because of, that voice
This half way point announces itself with what is another strong contender for the best U2 song, a statement which Bono himself agrees with: “Stay (Faraway, So Close).” If not that, this song could certainly rank as Bono’s single greatest moment as a lyricist, if only because every choice of word just adds to the atmosphere of the music, from green light to car crash vampires to talk-shows. Adding again to the ideas of sensory overload interlocking with personality (You would stay in to watch the advents/you could lip-synch to the talk shows), the sound sounds ultimately beautiful instead of accusatory. All of which couldn’t be noted without the song’s amazing sound, starting with a brittle guitar riff before moving the kind of guitar colours that would be a staple of late nineties alternative rock and drowned in all sorts of feedback tone and powerful voices.
The second half begins with almost another album introduction (that of trumpets and fanfare coming from a sample of a Russian Folk song that could easily fit into a Wes Anderson movie), before moving into “Daddy’s Gonna Pay For Your Crashed Car.” A title that could imply themes of entitlement is actually more about a sense dependence “Daddy’s a comfort/ Daddy’s you best friend/ Daddy’ll hold your hand right up to the end.” Rolling Stone called it “a highly studio-processed piece of metallic dance rock grounded by a corrosive backward bass loop,” which is a classic example of a criticism that could easily act in another context as something of a compliment. Either way the thing that makes this song are the drums, in their intrustrial, screeching splendour.
“Some Days Are Better than Others” is a pretty overlooked U2 song, having never been played online and compared to the rest of the album a Wikipedia page of but a few lines. Still, it is a great showcase for a tight and rough bass line from Clayton, with it forming slight and quiet cymbal taps before moving into a cavalcade of guitar tones ranging from bright, to a sense of bubbling, to a full on fuzz onslaught before laying that fuzz back with the familiar bright tone amidst the chaos.
As we get to the final third we get to a familiar period from a U2 album of slowing down. “The First Time” is maybe the most Velvet Underground sounding song of the entire U2 oeuvre, with quiet guitars, elegant piano and Bono taking on a Lou Reed like diction whilst singing what is probably the most personal song on the album. Compared to the brashness of much of Zooropa, here his position is so much more vulnerable, from his tone down to the simple but poignant choice of rhymes and lyrics, relating to a retelling of the story of the Prodigal Son in which the son actually refuses to come back (in an album on sensory overload, it can also be a symbol of throwing away kinds of extravagant, particularly with emphasis put on his father being a rich man).
“Dirty Day” also maintains that quieter tone for the majority of the song, with suspended synth chords and a loud bass being the most prominent sounds. Bono ranges from lower registers to falsetto cries, with lyrics referencing both Charles Bukowski and his own dad all building up to a further sense of vulnerability and even a kind self-loathing. This leads to a kind of biting anger at the end of the song, which eventually erupts with an eruption of phasing guitars that is only quelled by fading the track out.
And with that fade out comes the fade out of Bono’s voice from Zooropa. Instead, to end the record, the album pulls the kind of weird left turns that only a band as accomplished as U2 could pull off, by having the final voice be none other than Johnny Cash (pre-American Recordings revival). It’s a bold decision (one that producer Eno originally fought against) but its one that Cash manages to pull off. If his version of “Hurt” turns that dark industrial whine into pathos-ridden reflection on life (and a music video that if you don’t cry to you must not have a soul), then bringing his voice onto an actual track brings a mixture of the two, with lyrics about looking for God in an Earth post-Apocalypse (the religious angle of both songs also must have been something that appealed to Cash). The sombre bass of Cash’s voice is perfectly complimented by the bass of Clayton, processed to sound almost like a synth, and choral voices that end the album on a track that is at once electronic, gospel, rock and folk. Talk about sensory overload.
Zooropa is a record of strange ideas and – oh sorry! Whilst I was writing this the alarm at the end played and startled me – strange ideas and mixtures that only a band with the clout of U2 at the time could have pulled off easily If this record had replaced “Babyface” with “Hold Me, Thrill Me, Kiss Me, Kill Me” – which they would end up giving to the Batman Forever soundtrack – there would be a serious contention whether or not I could put this above Achtung Baby (though for sheer scope I would probably still give that one the edge (ha)). Despite the bands hesitations they must have been proud of it, considering many of the songs immediately made it into the setlist of the second leg of ZooTV tour, and with came the new character of MacPhisto, a parody of aging washed up rock stars, and possibly the devil himself. Hey, a ten minute monologue in character with an accent Bono? That’s certainly interesting. Hey, do you not worry that those kind of indulgences might cause the same kind of backlash that Rattle and Hum did?
Still, before we get to that area of conversation, we’ll do as the band and Eno did and take a little detour into an interesting side project. Let us be…<sorry>Passengers</sorry>…
What did you think, though?
U2 Album Rankings
- Achtung Baby
- Joshua Tree
- The Unforgettable Fire
- Rattle and Hum