Wall of Sound Pop Review

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Wall of Sound, March 12, 1997

Label: Island
Genre: Alternative
File Under: Masters of reinvention
Rating: 85

by Gary Graff

U2 is a band that likes to move in what it believes are mysterious ways. Following the sonic expansion of its first two albums of the nineties, Achtung Baby and Zooropa, U2 was rumored to be working on a record that would roaringly return it to the guitar-soaked rock of its early days. Then came word that the disc was instead a full-on embrace of electronica, as telegraphed by the ambient Passengers side project and the industrialized Mission: Impossible theme worked up by bassist Adam Clayton and drummer Larry Mullen, Jr. This enigmatic posturing suits both U2 and its fans. After all, how many artists these days — R.E.M., Pearl Jam, Pat Boone, maybe — get us excited enough to engage in such breathless speculation?

What finally emerges on Pop, however, is nothing as dramatic as these early suppositions. There is plenty of guitar work on the album, but it is not an early-U2 redux. Nor is it a full-on electronic album, though production whizzes Flood and Howie B. do bring the noise of tape loops, samples, ambient textures, and other sonic bric-a-brac to such songs as "Discotheque," "Do You Feel Loved," "Mofo," and, in a more subtle way, "Last Night on Earth." This is merely U2's next album — no small assessment, considering the high standard the group has consistently set since bringing its anthemic clarion call out of Dublin at the start of the eighties.

For U2, electronica is a tool, like any other instrument. Had Pop adopted the disjointed, better-living-through-technology sensibility posited by many techno, industrial, and ambient artists, it would have seemed downright unnatural. U2 has always been about passion, not ironic detachment. So, while U2 would have us believe that Pop is about "bubble-poppin', sugar-droppin' rock and roll," it's as earnest, sober-minded, and spiritual as any of its predecessors. Even "The Playboy Mansion" contemplates the House That Hef Built as a crucial cultural artifact, with a bluesy groove and hymn-like chorus generating a smooth, solemn vibe.

Mind you, all of this makes for another fine, captivating album which reveals new depth with each listen. The techno elements meld well with U2's spacious rock aesthetic, and a song such as "Do You Feel Loved" churns stadium-sized energy with an underbelly of subversive, extra sounds to keep the ears locked in. Where "Mofo" is frenetic and industrial, "Please" is sly and jazzy. "Miami" rides along the phat-funk groove of a low-rider, while "Staring at the Sun" revisits the band's familiar terrain of rock-and-roll hymnals. Throughout Pop, Bono keeps looking for God — and wondering if he's left the building. "If God Will Send His Angels," for instance, asks if omnipotence really equals power. But, hedging his bets, Bono beseeches Jesus to put in a good word for him in heaven, on the gripping album-closer "Wake Up Dead Man."

Ultimately, Pop sounds like an album full of songs that will translate wonderfully to the concert stage when U2 hits the road in late April. As with Achtung Baby, the band has sophisticated its music without sacrificing its core integrity, opting for refinement rather than a re-invention, which is fine, since the latter is an empty buzz word these days anyway. And as much as it likes to play with image and style, U2 has always been committed to the kind of content and substance that make this much more than just a throwaway Pop album.

Copyright © 1997 Wall of Sound/Go.com. All rights reserved.

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This page contains a single entry by Jonathan published on March 12, 1997 4:20 AM.

Bono on the Pop album and tour was the previous entry in this blog.

Salon Pop Review is the next entry in this blog.

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