U2's Super Sonics

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The Washington Post, March 2, 1997

U2's Super Sonics

By Richard Harrington
Washington Post Staff Writer

Those who have heard the new U2 single "Discotheque" or seen its hilarious Village People-influenced video might be excused for worrying that the Irish quartet has surrendered its rock soul to the suddenly hip world of dance music.

Them2, so to speak.

What's apparent after listening to U2's new album, "Pop" (Island, in stores Tuesday), is that the lads simply decided not to lock and load with familiar ammunition. Instead, they're adding to their mix some of the new sonic flavors that are reshaping pop's soundscape, albeit more in clubs and edge communities than elsewhere. In U2's case, that means mixing techno, trip-hop and trance with the band's old-fashioned passions, sweeping melodies and guitar-driven rock.

Will "Pop" provide CPR for the ailing record industry? Probably, particularly since, unlike R.E.M. or Pearl Jam, U2 is willing to play the game, supporting its new album with a massive tour.

It's hardly surprising that "Pop" is experimental but ultimately familiar. U2's been breaking and remaking its own mold since 1983's "Under a Blood Red Sky." For the last 13 years, the band's producer of choice was Brian Eno, who has always been more interested in sound than song. Both 1991's "Achtung Baby" and 1993's "Zooropa" were forward-looking and risk-taking ventures. Guitarist the Edge even did a passable techno-rap on "Numb." On U2's recent singles, the band encouraged assorted outsiders to come up with dance mixes to reach a new, different audience. "Pop" simply sounds like a new U2 album that arrives pre-remixed.

Two years ago, the band recorded "Original Soundtracks I," a collection of moody, mostly ambient themes for "real and imaginary films." It was so far off the beaten path that it was released not as a U2 album, but under the name Passengers. That proved to be Brian Eno's last collaboration. "Pop" is produced by Flood and Scottish deejay Howie B. Flood worked as an engineer on "Achtung Baby" and "Zooropa" and has produced Depeche Mode and Smashing Pumpkins. Howie B is best known for ambient hip-hop mixes for Bjork, Tricky and Massive Attack and also worked on the Passengers album. It's Howie B's daft spunk and use of turntables, loops and mixologist magic that gives "Pop" much of its appeal.

"Discotheque" is indicative of one strain on the "Pop" album. Thick and noisy, it's propulsive buzzing techno-funk with just a hint of rock guitar in the middle -- or muddle, as it were. On the surface, the lyrics seem a paean to life in the fast lane, where looking for love in all the wrong places temporarily compensates for an emptiness of the soul. Because the video is so much fun and because the song itself is so energized, it's easy to overlook a spiritually earning that's palpable in the first verse:

You can reach but you can't grab it
You can't hold it control it you can't bag it
You can push but you can't direct it
Circulate regulate oh no you cannot connect it.

Other lyrics and the song's dance-club aesthetic suggest a simpler, physical connection, a celebration of the pleasure principle. But that's just an example of U2's clever use of misdirection, a musical device any magician would appreciate.

At the recent New York press conference announcing U2's upcoming world tour, lead singer-lyricist Bono was asked whether adopting bright shiny beats and pop-friendly lyrics was meant to undermine U2's aura of sainthood. "The honest truth is that U2 are still the bleeding-hearts club," Bono replied. "Our music is still painfully and insufferably earnest. We just got really smart at disguising that fact and throwing people off our trail."

Elsewhere, the Edge has described the new album's themes as "love, desire, faith in crisis, the usual stuff." Faith has been a much-explored topic for this avowedly Christian band, and at least three songs on "Pop" continue the tradition. "If God Will Send His Angels" is a weary, slowly simmering ballad in which Bono acknowledges a loss of faith:

"God has got his phone off the hook babe would he even pick up if he could? It's been a while since we saw that child hangin' 'round this neighborhood".

Somehow, though, the song holds out hope for redemption.

Jesus never let me down you know
Jesus used to show me the score
Then they put Jesus in show business
Now it's hard to get in the door.

On "Pop's" closing track, "Wake Up Dead Man," Bono seems to be calling on God to explain himself, to take some action, to get involved. It's less prayer than challenge:

Jesus, I'm waiting here boss
I know you're looking out for us
But maybe your hands aren't free.

It's delivered in a slightly distorted voice over a stripped-to-basics track. As the title suggests, there's a rudeness born of frustration, millennial blues tempered by doubts that threaten faith:

Are you working on something new?
If there's an order in all of this disorder
Is it like a tape recorder?
Can we rewind it just once more?

U2 doesn't, probably can't, answer that question, but there's some relief in the asking. "Pop" lacks the instantly recognizable anthems of U2's past, as well as the Edge's rock guitar histrionics. You're more likely to hear those elements within a song, not as its core. For instance, the groove-heavy "Do You Feel Loved" reduces the Edge's guitar to squawks, but Bono's vocals, particularly on the chorus, are imbued with a familiar yearning.

The song, which has echoes of "(Even Better Than) The Real Thing," seems to address the dichotomy of obsessive attachment: "Take the color of my imagination/ Take the scent hanging in the air," Bono sings over the cool martial funk of drummer Adam Clayton and bassist Larry Mullen. "Take this tangle of a conversation/ And turn it into your own prayer . . ."

"Pop's" most mesmerizing track, "If You Wear That Velvet Dress," also takes advantage of the Irish ache in Bono's voice. The song's plaint builds gradually, with the singer acknowledging a troubled relationship ("The struggle for things not to say/ I never listened to you anyway/ And I got my own hands to pray") even as he surrenders to sensual desire.

Muddled matters of the heart also get a workout on the trip-hoppy "Please" and "Gone," which deal as much with the search for self as with the search for other. Techno rears its noisy head on "Mofo," which kicks off with some wicked bass 'n' drums before slipping into hyperactive energy with the Edge's distorted guitar jabs. The track's approach is full-throttle, but the lyrical self-examination and anguished declamation are all Bono.

Several songs offer variations on "Discotheque's" questioning of the culture of pleasure and consumerism. "Miami" and "The Playboy Mansion" are trip-hop diatribes with clever lyrics and supple grooves, but they're far less interesting than "Last Night on Earth," which manages to meld cutting commentary on club- life hedonism, a soaring chorus and guitar-meets-turntable effects into one roaring rocker.

To hear a Sound Bite from this album, call Post-Haste at 202-334-9000 and press 8161.

@CAPTION: U2 shows its mirrored image on the new album "Pop," due in stores on Tuesday.

Copyright © 1997 The Washington Post Company. All rights reserved.

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This page contains a single entry by Jonathan published on March 2, 1997 4:20 AM.

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