"You can reach, but you can't grab it," Bono sings at the start of "Pop." That statement is a fitting summary of U2's explorations into electronica and "Britpop" which hesitantly began with 1991's "Achtung Baby," continuing through 1993's highly-experimental "Zooropa" and on to "Pop." Bono and the gang sound considerably more confident with their new sound at this point, but they aren't holding on to it too tightly; they sound like they could shed it at any moment and move on to something new, like a snake shedding its skin. Though the common cliche is that David Bowie, who was going through a similar phase in the 1990s, is a "musical chameleon," U2's trio of deeply explorative records suggests them as a band more fit for the title.
Because whereas Bowie's more recent records have little in common with early masterpieces like "Hunky Dory" and "Ziggy Stardust," U2 continues to effortlessly swim with the flow of time, setting down one sound and picking up another, and yet still crafting albums which are unmistakably the work of U2. Comparing "Pop" to the album which preceded it ten years earlier, the now-classic "Joshua Tree," there is little similarity on the surface. Bono has ceased his spiritual wailings, his cries of "I still haven't found what I'm looking for," his search for a deeper meaning in everything, and replaced it all with superficial reflections on selfish desires. He even seems to be afraid to look inside anymore, with admissions like, "To the ones staring at the sun/afraid of what you'll find if you take a look inside/not just deaf and dumb ... staring at the sun/I'm not the only one who'd rather go blind." But although this less introspective and more what-you-see-is-what-you-get U2 could easily make an effort like "Pop" fail miserably, it's clear that the band is still searching on the inside, and this is just a stage of their eternal quest for self-discovery: later on in the same song, Bono asserts, "I'm staring at the sun/not the only one who's happy to go blind."
Perhaps the group was having an early mid-life crisis. The subject matter of the songs, below their shallow exteriors, deals with a number of more meaningful issues. In "Do You Feel Loved," it's deception in relationships; in "Mofo," a man cries for the loss of his mother (Bono lost his own mother when he was 14 years old); he muses that things would be better "If God Will Send His Angels"; and in the album closer, the more earthbound "Wake Up Dead Man," we see the group at their most lost. "Jesus, Jesus help me," Bono whails, "I'm alone in this world, and a f---ed up world it is too." The most pertinent explanation of the group's stumble into more superficial territory is "Gone," each verse a more sincere and pained admission.
But the band can be silly as well as serious. The pounding, grunting opener, "Discotheque," is a blast, a perfect melding of the "dance pop" which was taking Europe by storm at the time, and the tough, full-strength-ahead razor rock which propelled much of "Achtung Baby" upward at such a sturdy pace. Unquestionably, though, the silliest songs on the album are "Miami" and "The Playboy Mansion." "Miami" is the most ridiculous song the band has ever written (the chorus finds Bono singing "Miami my mammy," and one can just imagine him doing so with a wide smirk on his face). But despite the lyrics, which are just short of trash (with the exception of "Her eyes, all swimming pool blue," which Bono delivers with a shaky-kneed whine), the song is sonically a delight, bringing the group closer to achieving the "superficial pop hit" that they strive for throughout the record. The dreamy sway of the Edge's guitar on "The Playboy Mansion" and the heavy bounce of the drums are more than enough reason to overlook the enormously cheesy lyrics, and even establish the song as one of the best on "Pop."
Any U2 album where a song titled "The Playboy Mansion" is one of the highlights seems like it should be avoided and, hopefully, forgotten as soon as possible. On the contrary, "Pop" is a valuable record. Its distinctly intricate sound and apparently shallow (but truthfully very meaningful) lyrics make it one of U2's most unusual and, therefor, fascinating efforts. There are moments of no-holds-barred nonsense, like Bono contemplating whether he will be permitted entry into the Playboy Mansion while musing that "if Coke is a mystery/and Michael Jackson ... history," what must the world be coming to, but there are also moments of unparalleled beauty, like the Edge's utterly heavenly guitar solo in the divinely sensual "If You Wear That Velvet Dress." At the very least, it's important because it was the group's final venture into the 90's electronica buzz, and the point where Bono sang, "What you leave behind you don't miss anyway." The group stayed in their new terrain just long enough, because as they realized upon "Pop"'s aptly-titled successor, there are some things you can't leave behind.
There are certain unavoidable subjects which will always pop up during any conversation about the music of the 1990's: Nirvana and the entire grunge movement, Kurt Cobain's suicide and the ensuing rush to fill the alternative void it left, the beginning of the east/west rap wars, the rise of the manufactured teenybopper scene, and the ill-fated electronica craze which lasted for about two years, headed by the likes of Prodigy, Tricky, Chemical Brothers, Crystal Method, and others. Rememberin … more
Pop is not the most commercial U2 recording on the planet. Nonetheless, this is certainly an intriuging piece of work. The band utilizes a lot of creative rhythms and varying tones specifically on such tunes like Discotheque, Please, Staring At The Sun, and Last Night On Earth.The Edge is in fine form on guitar. Even though the guitar sounds are not always front and center, the solos are pretty unique from track to track. Bono is a bit inconsistent in the vocal area. On tracks such as Mofo and If … more
Get one thing straight: Techno is merely the fairy dust sprinkled atop another massive, brilliantly conceived slab of dense, drug-like rock & roll from the only band this side of the Smashing Pumpkins who could pull off such a feat. Mainstream audiences are desperate for something fresh yet familiar, and this Warholian treatise on the plasticity of pop culture expertly mixes new sonic colors with the band's signature art-rock genius. "Discotheque" is an exhilarating opener, "Staring at the Sun" is their answer to relative upstarts Oasis's hit "Wonderwall," and "If God Will Send His Angels" has the makings of a crossover anthem. This is U2 in peak unit-shifting form.--Jeff Bateman