U2 Is Still U2, Even When Using The Tools Of The Techno Trade

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The Boston Globe, March 1997

U2 Is Still U2, Even When Using The Tools Of The Techno Trade

By Jim Sullivan, Boston Globe Staff

"Discotheque," the advance single from U2's "Pop" album (out Tuesday on Island records), is something of a tantalizing tease, with its oozing hedonism, its dizzy disorientation and clattering electronic rhythms. The video has the four Irishmen dolled up as ersatz Village People. Is U2 - singer Bono, guitarist the Edge, bassist Adam Clayton, drummer Larry Mullen Jr. - continuing with the pseudo-Elvis, faux-glitz approach from their Zoo TV tour, in effect, deciding that they're eager to pay the price - willful irony - for their younger passions? Are they issuing a challenge to the denizens of the dance floor, the highly charged 120-beat-per-minute Wizards of Oz who rule the chemically inflected world of techno or electronica?

Well, no. For all the murmurings and mutterings about U2's immersion in the world of techno - and, yes, U2 is using the tools of that trade here with co-producers Flood and Howie B. - U2 remains identifiable as U2, and this work might also be titled "Conversations With God." As with Prince, it's been a thread that's been woven through much of the group's work since they were teenagers in 1980, and it remains so here.

U2's ideas do come near the realm of traditional Christian rock - Bono bemoans Jesus's dive into show biz (come to think of it, probably the same way old U2 fans might) - and it closes with "Wake Up Dead Man," Bono's rousing plea for Jesus's help because he's alone in this, uh, messed-up world. (It wasn't Jesus who dove into show biz, actually, in "If God Will Send His Angels"; it was those fundamentalist hawkers using TV Jesus.) In "Mofo," Bono's "looking for a place to save my soul...looking for to fill the GOD-shaped hole." "Mofo," a tense, pulsing song, has Bono looking down from the mountain he once looked up at. "Boy," their first album, is all about the bridge from boyhood to manhood. Here, at manhood, Bono asks, "Mother, am I still your son?" The song also has a nice twist on the Tubes' "White Punks On Dope" with a "white dopes on punk" line.

Make no mistake, though: This is a serious record - more art than rock, more meandering and moody than exhilarating and defiant, more intimate than broad-based. In this it's much like "Zooropa" or the Passengers album they recorded with longtime (but not here) producer Brian Eno. It certainly doesn't sound like stadium rock, and those are the venues the band will be playing this summer, reportedly opening up shows with a string from "Pop." U2 has long been about finding new language, struggling to maintain integrity in the face of superstardom that borders on worship.

On "Pop," U2 finds itself asking us to look for meaning, be it love or faith, amid the chaos and media onslaught of the modern age. "Last Night on Earth," with its urgent "You got to give it away" refrain, is about living each day as if it might be your last. Not as Pink Floyd once put it - "shorter of breath and one day closer to death" - but with a sense of purpose and community.

The lyrical content is often at odds with the dark-tinged musical content, which creates, mostly, agreeable tension. Bono's the voice, but the Edge is the sonic master, his guitar style ever expanding beyond the chiming riffs of yore. There are nods to U2's anthemic rock past here, especially in "Do You Feel Loved" and "Gone." But there's a lot here that is watery, and nearly everything moves at a midtempo drift, with techno beats, Clayton's ominous bass lines, and Edge's scrapings and scrawlings adding detail.

It gets quieter, but more engaging, near the end with "If You Wear That Velvet Dress," "Please," and "Wake Up Dead Man." It's in the last song that Bono's voice takes on the most urgency, a wake-up call to himself, if he feels dead, and you, if you do. Edge has a brilliant riff that jars you and sucks you further into the vortex.

"Pop" is a moving record, but it is not a thrilling record. While not quite up to "Zooropa" or "The Joshua Tree," it is by no means the misguided stretch of "Rattle & Hum." Its charms are subtle, and its distance from today's common currency - be it Live or Oasis - is profound. Will fans follow? The name-brand stamp of the band suggests many will, especially those who've followed it through "Zooropa" and the Passengers. Those new to the U2 game or those missing the call-to-action anthems will likely pass.

Copyright © 1997 Boston Globe. All rights reserved.

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This page contains a single entry by Jonathan published on March 1, 1997 4:06 AM.

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