I’ve always kinda liked U2. When I was growing up the songs I most frequently caught on the TV were catchy, distinctly not-classics “Beautiful Day” and “Elevation” (a personal favourite music video for my kiddy mind), along with the likes of Coldplay’s “Yellow” and “The Scientist”. I didn’t grow up in the 80s, but through my parents gradually allowing me to get their CDs I got a quick-and-dirty version of U2’s evolution: immature Cure-loving post-punkers, machine gun punks, soaring stadium rockers and country-fied Cash and Dylan wannabes. It’s a damn impressive evolution, regardless of your feelings on the band overall; the switch-up from Rattle and Hum to Achtung Baby easily ranks up with those of, say, Radiohead (disregarding that nothing else in the universe really sounds like Kid A). It’s the common narrative that U2 went off the rails after Achtung, if you ever thought they were on the rails at all. Allow me to try and set the record straight.
I still love this video, screw you all.
Following on from Zooropa – undeniably an EP’s worth of content stretched out into an album, but a weirdly compelling mess of ambient, soundtrack and electronic rock nonetheless – came Pop. A quite literally unfinished album full of dead ends, empty spaces where additional guitar or keys or noises were probably meant to go. A trashy, shallow, flashy album, as if Bono’s Fly glasses were transmuted into musical form. An album of dance-pop demo cuts, desperate to snatch the waning late-90s audience. Nothing to write home about.
Except it’s so, so much more. Pop is the sound of a million-dollar band stripping away all the Enoisms, studio tricks and effects pedals that made them sound so huge in the first place and finding out what’s left. An album of ridiculous contrasts from the start, the literal bubblegum pop of “Discotheque” gives way to the horrific nihilism of “Do You Feel Loved”: a really good night giving way to a horrific morning, an existential breakdown wrapped inside a club banger. “MOFO” is genuinely terrible, even I cannot deny, but the way it cleanses the palette for the crushed minimalism of “If God Will Send His Angels” – a ballad easily on par with “One”, just less appealing to the commercial radio – is something thrilling to behold. It’s just shamelessly more and more insane from there on – the sentient plastic 90s porno of “The Playboy Mansion” (which genuinely begins with the lines ‘if coke, is a mystery/and Michael Jackson, history’); “If You Wear That Velvet Dress” like a cheapskate late-night jazz band who bribed Bono into being on vocals; and, most infamously, whatever the grotesquely anti-musical “Miami” is meant to be, the end result sounding like a drum track played in reverse while a slam poet takes shots at celebrities leading into a punk breakdown. (So it’s basically a precursor to Yeezus.) This is an album of jagged edges and protruding angles, unwieldy and hollow, a giant disco ball made of plastic with a plughole at the centre spewing out trash. (I’m really selling the hell out of this as a positive experience, aren’t I?) But, friends, believe me when I say the last song changes everything.
To accurately explain, I’ll need you to quickly think back to the U2 of a decade previous. Take a second to remember – the U2 of sweeping religiosity and grandiosity, frustratingly confident and self-assured, pissing most people off with their self-righteousness. The band that made The Joshua Tree with utter confidence in their abilities, in their faith, in their lives. If I didn’t know better I’d say that someone planned out a narrative arc for that band from the start, because “Wake Up Dead Man” is the sound of them with everything they believed in, needed or owned ripped away. A barely present Edge vamps some chords on the guitar. Larry Mullen Jr. sits almost half the song out before crashing in sounding half-drunk. And Bono: hardly in key, ghostly and vampiric, pleading with the creator he used to have utter faith in to just make a single fucking appearance, give a single fucking sign. That powerful, confident Bono we knew is completely gone; this broken, desperate man gets more and more unhinged over four lonely minutes, ending in a near scream as the Edge’s guitar tone gets buried in layers of muck and grime and plasticky filth. There’s no closure, no epic finale. The Miami machine has taken the party animals from the start of the record, run them through the wringer and spat them out in a junkyard. Hard to imagine a darker ending for our pretend narrative arc; hard to imagine anything more satisfying than those mighty stadium rockers brought to rock bottom.
“Wake up, wake up dead man!”, but of course, nobody comes. Nobody’s there and never was.
Imagine if the narrative ended there. Just imagine. Instead we got another two decades of glossy, inoffensive pop rock. Fuck. Some folks just don’t know where to end a story.