A Closer Look: U2’s “The Unforgettable Fire” (1984)

“Oh, don’t sorrow, no don’t weep/For tonight, at last/I am coming home/I am coming home.”-U2, “A Sort of Homecoming.”

I must disclose my bias before starting this post: I have been eagerly anticipating writing about this album because it’s one of my all-time favorites in the U2 catalogue. It shows so much about what guided U2’s transformation from the unkempt rage of “War” to the sophistication and beauty of ‘The Joshua Tree.” How, you ask? Well…

The scene: U2 has finally made it past the stress of cranking out as quickly as possible the albums “October” and “War” so Island Records will keep giving them a chance.

The fun and excitement of recording “Boy” had worn off, and a record a year, combined with extensive touring to build hype for an album, as well as working to pay off recording debts, frequently leaves the band in dire straits. Will this be the day Island drops them for only having 5 songs ready for their record? Will Bono be able to write a song in 5 minutes?

These struggles are surmounted by our four scrappy Dubliners, and they’ve finally made it. Sort of. They have a dedicated fanbase, three successful albums, a reputation they can live with and a working and constantly developing knowledge of their abilities of musicians.

Where to next? Well, bring in producers Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois for a more sophisticated, moody and atmospheric blend of sound, experiment with recording in castles and release “The Unforgettable Fire.” Simple, right?

The sonic strength of this album alone makes it a must for casual fans. But, if you take a closer look, it is a fascinating look into U2’s creative process. You’re still getting rawness and roughness in a punk-inspired and erratic delivery on songs like “Wire” and “Indian Summer Sky.” But you’re also getting a step towards what “The Joshua Tree” served up, with iconic anthems for peace and change like the Martin Luther King Jr. inspired ballad “Pride (In the Name of Love)” and the album’s closer, “MLK.”

At the same time, you’re also getting gorgeous and mysterious tracks that manage to be subdued and mature, yet ooze a feeling of anticipation and sensuality: a uniquely new and definite “U2” sound, transforming their rough edges into a more cohesive blend of sound.

The title track is a perfect example. Eno and Lanois’s production creates an ambiance never before felt on a U2 record, and helps shape an atmospheric and moody aura to the band’s usual vibe. The tune feels like it’s being played from the depths of a smoky, dark jazz club on a rainy early winter night, engulfing listeners in a world previously unimagined in Bono’s lyricism.

“A Sort of Homecoming” is a love letter to coming home after a wild adventure that has forced you to grow up perhaps a bit too fast. It features poetic lyrics that paint a beautiful picture of a fog-drenched coast of homeland. It mirrors the emotions of the band returning to their beloved homeland after a rough and draining tour.

The aforementioned “Pride (In The Name of Love)” is a triumphant fist in the air against oppression, celebrating the life of one of the most influential leaders in the modern era of American civil rights. It shapes from the tragedy of the murder of Dr. King a timeless march that will continue the fight even when confronted with blatant prejudice. The outro of the track instantly makes a listener want to jump to their feet and join the chorus of chanting voices.

And a recurring theme of drug use and abuse, specifically heroin, continues U2’s trend of writing songs inspired by issues around them. Even the title of the album-“The Unforgettable Fire”-was inspired by an art exhibit the band saw in Japan about the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki after the atomic bombs were dropped by the US.

Heroin abuse and unemployment was a common issue in the area of Dublin U2 was from, and this social issue frequently pops up in songs due to Bono’s tendency to draw inspiration from the world around him and simultaneously raise awareness of struggles.

For example, “Bad” is a raw, stripped back and painful ballad that subtly builds into a raging and pleading refrain of “I’m wide awake” in which Bono sounds on the brink of tears. The instrumentation sounds dignified and composed, but also like it’s right on the edge of a breakdown. One wrong move, and the entire structure will come tumbling down, doomed beyond repair.

“Wire” takes this theme in a different direction, delivering a fun and upbeat instrumental performance with lyrics about “Such a nice day/To throw your life away/Such a nice day/To let it go.” The song plays structure fast and loose, erratic and unpredictable.

The slowness and subtlety of “Promenade” and “4th of July” provide a refreshing break between the wildness of “Wire” and the sadness of “Bad.” Thanks to Eno’s production, Bono’s descriptive lyrics and the playfully rolling tempo, this track makes me feel like I’m lounging lazily on a beachside promenade, feeling the summer sun warming my skin as vacationing families mill about the seaside below me.

The only song on here I can just never get through is “Elvis Presley and America.” Something about the track just makes it feel like such a bland piece of filler (and so unfortunately late in such a great track listing, too), recycling a drum beat and full of singing from Bono that sounds almost whiny. After the audio soundscape I’ve journeyed through with every other track, it seems like a gray dud of a track that goes on for far too long.

But the album, like “War,” ends on a beautifully simple note. Eno’s production lays ground for what I imagine a shimmering night of stars and light, gentle rainfall would sound like, as Bono pays a tribute to Martin Luther King Jr. once again. He sings a lullaby, asking “…may your dreams/be realized,” referencing King’s “I Have a Dream” speech and calling yet again for the Lord to help humanity find common ground once again.

On the whole, a change in production and a more descriptive, essayist-style take on songwriting marks a crucial step in U2’s development and maturity as artists.

It also shows a transformation from punk-inspired rage at the cruelty of the world to an intellectual and earnest look at the current state of affairs, with glimpses of both “War” and the coming “The Joshua Tree” apparent in the track listing. It’s a crucial step in U2’s journey as artists that can’t be missed, bridging two wildly different musical worlds with just ten tracks.

Join me next time as we explore U2’s most well-loved and regarded album to date (and rightly so)-the one and only “The Joshua Tree.”

Thank you so much for reading, and God bless.

-A.L.D.

(Photo Credit: U2/Island Records and Wikimedia Commons).

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