The picture above is a montage of U2′s Pop album cover, using more recent pictures of the band members. It seems especially fitting for this post. U2 still hasn’t escaped the shadow of 1997′s Pop, a divisive album that may not be U2′s best (though it’s very good–more on that in a moment) but may be their most most defining in terms of their career arc, recalculation of risk and relevancy, and thematic convergence. If U2′s twelve studio albums were organized in groups of three–the idea being that the next album represents a noteworthy shift in style, story or ambition–then Pop capped a ’90s trilogy that produced one of the most dramatic reinventions in the history of rock music. Achtung Baby is now celebrated as one of rock’s essential albums. Zooropa is praised for its confident, bold experimentation and uncharacteristic spontaneity. But Pop is commonly perceived as a bridge too far with its presumably excessive irony and drift from the band’s distinctive sound. In short, Pop was a career move symbolized by the image of U2 being stuck in giant mirrorball lemon at its own concert.
It is an album both reviled or ignored by the casual U2 fan and an object of devotion to diehards. Pop was subjected to early critical praise (‘After 20 years the Irish quartet have made their first great album.’) as well as later tepid revision (‘straining to keep up with the zeitgeist’). Never the “dance record” it was rumored to be prior to release, Pop did share with its two immediate predecessors a turn toward decidedly European musical influences. But its immersion into the “trash” of popular culture, exploration of an all-encompassing consumerist ethos, and ubiquitous spirituality ironically make it an album with decidedly American themes. Instead, Pop sent U2 into its American exile prior to a return in the new century with the more accessible and critically praised All That You Can’t Leave Behind. I think it’s fair to say, whatever one thinks of the last three albums (also including How To Dismantle an Atomic Bomb and No Line on the Horizon), that the shadow of Pop looms large in relation to their reluctance to experiment, occasional overproduction, and reach for relevance in a rapidly changing music market. Even the band members were willing to throw it under the bus in the book U2 by U2. A sample:
Bono: “We just couldn’t get the fun onto the album. The songs weren’t good enough. The themes were there. Some of the melodies were there. But it couldn’t seem to get airborne….Pop never had the chance to be properly finished. It is really the most expensive demo session in the history of music.”
Larry Mullen Jr.: “I would like someday to rework those songs and give them the attention and time that they deserve. It is a sort of U2ism, being unable to let go, and I am unable to let go of that record.”
Edge: “There was an obvious lack of excitement in America. I don’t think we had to cancel shows but we certainly weren’t looking at sellouts. Suddenly, we knew we were going to have to work our arses off to get the momentum back.”
Those comments came amidst an unsparing track-by-track analysis by band members. Silence also speaks volumes, as not a single Pop song made the regular rotation of the last U2 tour. Mounting evidence, even first-person testimony, seems ready to convict Pop of failure, so why am I writing this blog post? Why did Josh Hurst, in a revisiting of the album several years ago, call it a “lost classic“? Here’s Hurst:
“That’s why they push so hard and so far here– they’re pushing toward a breaking point, toward a place where the hollowness and decadence of this world give way to something meaningful and true. Thus, Pop gives us some of the loudest, noisiest, angriest, and strangest songs in the U2 canon, but these tunes eventually move aside for more intimate, confessional, and straightforward moments of soul-searching honesty.”
Yep, which is why I still find Pop one of the most fascinating albums in the U2 canon. I end up revisiting it a lot more than, say, How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb. The dark hymns of Pop are sung in a “Discotheque,” amidst the plasticity of South Beach, around the halls of “The Playboy Mansion,” and throughout settings of celebrity culture and consumer excess. These ephemeral havens of sensory delight provide the setting for a quest to find meaningful connections, human and divine… “Do You Feel Loved”, anyone? There are also reminders of palpable real world issues (the Northern Ireland of “Please”), snapshots of human fragility (the girl of “Last Night on Earth” and the rock star of “Gone”), theodicy-laden ballads (“If God Will Send His Angels),” and haunting odes to temptation (“If You Wear That Velvet Dress”). The distracting stimuli, personal struggles, and geopolitical quandaries that stymie the quest for a richer existence sometimes leave one in state of willful blindness– “afraid of what you’ll find, if you took a look inside” (“Staring at the Sun”). There’s a lot to chew on here.
If I were to pick two songs that define Pop, I’d go with the somewhat ridiculously titled “Mofo” and the searing closer “Wake Up Dead Man.” “Mofo,” even in the band’s judgment, is their most successful attempt to incorporate the musical trends of that time. It may also be the most personal song Bono has ever written: “It was as if my whole life was in that song” (U2 by U2). Lyrical excerpts:
lookin’ for to save my save my soul, lookin’ in the places where no flowers grow, lookin’ for to fill that God shaped hole
lookin’ for baby Jesus under the trash
Mother, am I still your son? You know I’ve waited so long to hear you say so. Mother, you left and made me someone. Now I’m still a child but no one tells me no.
lookin’ for a sound that’s gonna drown out the world, lookin’ for the father of my two little girls, got the swing got the sway got my straw in lemonade, still looking for the face I had before the world was made.
It’s all here: Bono as a father, as a son whose life was forever transformed by the sudden loss of his mother at age 14, as celebrity and life of the party, and as one whose unabashed and unironic longing for transcendence amidst the “trash” of disposable culture is revealed for the world to see. The intensity of its narrative is matched by the most pulsating sounds (“an unrelenting buzz of beats and electronica rumblings“) U2 has produced.
“Wake Up Dead Man” is usually interpreted as a psalm-like cry for help and inquisition of God’s seeming inactivity amidst suffering and chaos (“Jesus… I’m alone in this world, and a f—ed up world it is too”). But given Bono’s propensity to weave in biblical allusions, one wonders if the New Testament letter to the Ephesians comes into play here: “Awake, O sleeper, and arise from the dead, and Christ shall give you light.” This potentially changes the meaning of the song–from a lament of God’s absence despite promises to make all things new to a conversation that’s part human lament and part divine response. From a monologue to dialogue. The words of the chorus now belong to God, who responds to the railing of the singer with a call to wake up and rise from the dead. This interpretation puts the bridge of the song in a new light:
Listen to the words, they’ll tell you what to do, Listen over the rhythm that’s confusing you, Listen to the reed in the saxophone, Listen over the hum of the radio, Listen over sounds of blades in rotation, Listen through the traffic and circulation, Listen as hope and peace try to rhyme, Listen over marching bands playing out their time.
The sleeper who rises now has ears to hear, if you will, through the chaos and confusion of the world and is able to find a meaning, a rhythm, and an order to reality. Just a theory. Fascinating song.
Pop is not U2′s greatest album. But it is, in all its unfinished glory and despite its prodigal state, a complex and ambitious work. Its humanity is evident even in its failures. One hopes, with the news that U2 could release a new Danger Mouse-produced album later this year, that U2 can recapture the spirit of adventurousness that characterized Pop.
Photo: Michael Barera et al, U2 Montage (Pop Style). Attribution: CC BY-SA 3.0.