U2's Striking 'Pop' LP Both Pushes, Polishes The Edge

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San Diego Union-Tribune newspaper, March 2, 1997

U2's Striking 'Pop' LP Both Pushes, Polishes The Edge

Rating: 4 stars

by George Varga, POP MUSIC CRITIC

Forget what you've read or heard. Or to invoke the Firesign Theater-inspired slogan from U2's 1992-93 "Zooropa" tour, everything you know is wrong.

At least it is when it comes to "Pop," the bold and audacious new album by U2, the Irish rock supergroup that performs April 28 at San Diego Jack Murphy Stadium.

"Pop," contrary to previous reports (and there have been many), is not U2-goes-techno. Nor is it U2-goes-disco, U2-goes-trip-hop or U2-goes-berserk in the recording studio and loses its direction, along with its heart and soul.

The album does contain obvious elements of techno (the hyperactive, Prodigy-inspired "Mofo" and the current, dance-happy single "Discotheque") and trip-hop (the satirical "Miami" and the deliciously wry "The Playboy Mansion"). But "Pop," which is due in stores Tuesday, assimilates these styles in much the same way accomplished painters might utilize new color combinations and techniques to expand their range and choice of options.

"Pop" represents an evolution, not a revolution. Even in its most daring moments, the music is carefully considered and executed, not a wild and random explosion of ideas that may or may not stick.

Working for the first time in 13 years without erstwhile producer and musical provocateur Brian Eno, who is replaced here by Flood and Howie B, U2's four members looked both inward and outward for inspiration. What they've found (or, given the high level of angst on many of the songs here, haven't found) is worth shouting about, even if lead singer Bono operates most effectively at a whisper during some of "Pop's" best moments.

Abandoning cliches

On the band's previous two albums, 1991's "Achtung Baby" and 1993's "Zooropa," U2 reinvented itself in much the same way the Police did a decade earlier with its 1983 album, "Synchronicity." Understandably alarmed at the prospect of growing stale and predictable, U2 abandoned the oft-copied modern-rock sound it pioneered in the 1980s (chiming guitars, bigger-than-life vocals, galloping rhythms, quasi-mystical lyrics and epic, fist-clenched anthems).

In its place came "Achtung Baby's" stripped-down yet highly textured sound and "Zooropa's" raw, experimental edge and disorienting moods. And where the band's previous tours had been serious, almost solemn affairs, U2 suddenly embraced all that was gaudy and pompous about stadium-rock showmanship -- then took it to a new, even more overblown level by celebrating (and ridiculing) the band's own celebrity.

"Pop" is another, equally intriguing story. Moody and introspective without being cold or detached, the album continues the band's previous penchant for experimentation but achieves its greatest impact with its subtlety. What makes "Pop" memorable is how intimate its best songs are, and how refined the band sounds even when audibly pushing to expand its musical envelope.

Drummer Larry Mullen never has sounded better or played with such funk-driven authority. Guitarist Dave "The Edge" Evans is at a creative peak, producing distorted shards of sound one moment and bluesy contrapuntal lines the next. Adam Clayton's pulsating bass work provides a firm yet flexible anchor. Together, with Bono, they perform with liberating force and -- when called for -- impressive restraint.

Bono has declared publicly that "Pop" is a "man's record." Happily, that designation does not refer to macho bluster or hard-assed, tough-guy posturing. Rather, it refers to maturity, the quest for meaning and wisdom and the inevitable need to question in order to find answers.

Undeniably, some of "Pop's" dozen songs rock as hard and ferociously as any in U2's formidable past repertoire. Particularly impressive is "Last Night on Earth," which boasts a stirring, Beatles-inspired chorus and chronicles a young woman's potentially fatal, live-hard/die-young attempts to numb the pain of everyday existence.

Bono sings: She's not waiting for a saviour to come . . . she's not waiting for anyone . . . she's living next week now, you know she's going to pay it back somehow.

If "Last Night on Earth" questions the very real dangers of such a devil-may-care attitude, the midtempo, acoustic-guitar-driven "Staring at the Sun" examines the challenges of retaining faith in an increasingly grim world. Performing in a falsetto-inflected voice, Bono sings: Do you want to see what the searching brings? Waves that leave me out of reach . . . God is good but will HE listen? I'm nearly great, but there's something that I'm missing.

As good as these songs are, U2 scores just as strongly on "Pop" with several quiet yet edgy ballads that probe issues of personal faith and spirituality with unflinching candor and naked honesty.

Witness such striking songs as the dread-filled "Gone," the angry, questioning "Wake Up Dead Man" and the half-hopeful, half-cynical ballad "If God Will Send His Angels." In each instance, Bono sounds very much like a man who is questioning his beliefs in the face of the often unspeakable horrors in the world around him.

Jesus, Jesus help me, Bono sings on "Wake Up Dead Man." I'm alone in this world, and a f---ed up world it is. Tell me, tell me the story, the one about eternity and the way it's going to be.

With "Pop," U2 sets to music stories that pose questions, which go unanswered or are not answered satisfactorily. And those questions about faith, temptation, sin and the hope that redemption is still possible are as pertinent to an unemployed laborer and music-loving high-school student as they are to multimillionaire rock stars like the members of U2.

Ultimately, "Pop" is the sound of a band growing and searching, musically and spiritually. If U2 is far better at asking questions than answering them, well, the band's members are only human. But their quest for answers is what gives "Pop" its unmistakable emotional resonance.

Copyright © 1997 Union Tribune Publishing. All rights reserved.

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This page contains a single entry by Jonathan published on March 2, 1997 4:18 AM.

U2 Goes On A Successful Spiritual Quest With 'Pop' was the previous entry in this blog.

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