“Looking for the one/But you know you’re somewhere else instead/You want to be the song/Be the song that you hear in your head.”-U2, “Discotheque”
Oh man. I love U2 so much that it pains me to write about this one. Not because I don’t want to be overly critical of their work, but because it just pains me to see how a group as talented as U2 made an album as lackluster as “Pop.”
The album’s main sin for me is that the six songs that were remixed and recorded after the album’s release date-“Discotheque,” “Please,” “Gone,” “If God Will Send His Angels” “Staring at the Sun” and “Last Night On Earth”-are infinitely more interesting of a listen than the album tracks. This shows to me the unfortunate fatal flaw of the album-just how rushed the production was, and how much potential was squandered because of the need to put the album out by a deadline.
It’s not that U2 shouldn’t make dance music. Sure, it doesn’t really play to their strengths as a classic-lineup rock band that specialized in guitar heavy work and earnest lyrical deliveries throughout the 80s. Heavily processed and synthetic instrumental performances doesn’t really suit them the best. But with good production and mixing, the songs really can sound like solid U2 tracks worthy of their place in the catalogue.
But if you don’t have time to give the songs that proper dosage of strong production, you get half-baked barely-U2 sounding U2 songs with semi-interesting production on a sound that doesn’t flatter them at all.
But hey. What’s the point in focusing on the negative? Despite it’s flaws, “Pop” still has some interesting musical themes developing throughout it. For one, it’s the group’s most electronic and dance-oriented album to date, and I really do enjoy the re-released versions of the aforementioned six tracks.
“Discotheque” is probably my favourite off the album, partially because the version on “The Best Of: 1990-2000” is just so much fun to work out to. The band makes full use of their disco pastiche, relying on a funkadelic riff from The Edge, heavy distortion and phasing in drums from Larry, and falsetto vocals that sound like Bono is trying to do as self-aware as possible of a Barry Gibb impression. The album’s “BOOM-cha!” outro, while pretty ridiculous, is nevertheless an iconic moment of being ridiculous in U2’s catalogue.
“If God Will Send His Angels,” while a nice moment of subdued clarity in the tracklist, suffers from less-than-subtle lyrics that hit the listener over the head with imagery of the social issues of the world and the struggle to hold on to hope and faith in a messed up time. But I do really enjoy the instrumentation.
It sounds like the band is playing on their most basic versions of the instruments available to them from the center of a dark and empty front room, adding to the desperate and solemn vibe of the track.
“Gone,” another track which was remixed for “The Best Of: 1990-2000” ends up sounding fantastic with some re-recorded vocals from Bono and a crunchy, blurred out guitar line from The Edge. Bono sounds breathless and dazed with the prospect of fame as he delivers lines about “You change your name, but that’s ok/It’s necessary/What you leave behind you don’t miss anyways.”
“Please” is a heartwrenching moment of a ballad in the track listing, delivering a surprisingly emotional moment in the synthetic rapture of the songs. It focuses on the 1997 peace settlements about The Troubles, a topic U2 is no stranger to writing about.
While the track kind of lags on a bit too long for my taste, and also is lacking in subtlety, the re-released version I heard originally really struck a nerve with me because of how desperate it sounds in its delivery. It really does fit its title; “Please.”
But here’s something that really surprised me the first time I listened to this album. I find “Wake Up Dead Man” to be a sneaky great closer. The burying of Bono’s vocals under layers and layers of production, distortion, haze and fuzz from the instrumental performance reminds me of the kind of music the band was putting out on “The Joshua Tree”-it’s earnest, it’s heartfelt and now instead of being hopeful and determined, the band sounds worn out and defeated.
They tried to fight the battles of the world. They tried to make a difference. They’re trying to keep the faith. They’re definitely down, but definitely not out either.
Honestly, I think it gets across Bono’s feelings surrounding the passing of his mother brilliantly too, featuring very personal lines surrounding the questioning of his own faith after something that catastrophic happened, working through that doubt and the lasting effect it has on him today.
“Pop” really does have some alright moments on it that may’ve worked on another 90s U2 record, or may’ve worked if the album had gotten the time it needed. But ultimately, it’s an important step for U2 musically, an important moment of realizing their strengths as artists through exploring their weaknesses.
Join in next time as we check out the first installment of U2’s 2000s work, the Grammy-winning return to form “All That You Can’t Leave Behind.”
Thanks for reading, and God bless.
(Photo credit: U2/Island Records; retrieved from Wikimedia Commons).