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.
Remembering that last one triggers a recollection of how every critic and his mother knew - not thought, but KNEW - beyond a shadow of a doubt that electronic music was the future of music forever. This idea crept its way into the day's music, and never was that more apparent when U2 hopped on board the bandwagon. They released Pop, an experimental album, complete with the gaudy, garish Popmart tour with its enormous TV screen, golden arch stage prop, shimmering disco ball, and lemon. The response was such a disaster that U2 went into hiding for the next four years - with the vast majority of the public believing the band had run its course - before returning to the fame with the stripped-down, booming arena rock that made them in the first place.
Pop is widely considered U2's worst career move, although it's little more than an extension of the pop culture critical parodying they began with the far worse Zooropa four years earlier. If anything, Pop is actually a little bit more true to the U2 we originally got to know in the 80's and on Achtung Baby than Zooropa. There's a bit less of the studio experimentation which dominated Zooropa and made the second half of that album close to unlistenable.
The first half of Pop is actually very good, which shouldn't come as a surprise considering U2's constant album front-loading. The first three songs have the experimentation everyone loathed about Pop in spades. They also have a very powerful influence of disco music, and that may have been their downfall. Personally, I always thought "Discotheque" - the album's first single - and "Do You Feel Loved" were unfairly maligned. I can't quite give the explanation why. The best way I can explain it is by saying they have more of a musical basis than the third song, the awful "Mofo." They have their studio magic set against a backdrop of a general, shall I call it a ground rhythm while "Mofo" just revels in its noise, beatbox, and rapid-fire machine-manufactured bass work. (Shame on Adam Clayton!) When your ears are crossed by what sounds like electronically spliced yelling, you know you're in for a long album.
The three of them also begin a problem which infects Pop on a lot of tracks, even many of the good ones: Bono is holding back on us. He pulled a lot of punches on Zooropa too - and for that matter, he did it on No Line on the Horizon too, and that album was a masterpiece even by their high post-millennium standards - but rarely has his voice been so drowned out, and he tends to rely a bit much on his indoor voice when a few more decibals would have really helped out.
"Discotheque," "Do You Feel Loved," and "Mofo" are followed by a bit of a throwback trinity. "If God Will Send His Angels" and "Staring at the Sun," in fact, both provoke evocations of The Joshua Tree. The studio work sounds a little bit advanced to really fit onto that classic album, but the rhythms and content are both very typical of their best 80's work. "Last Night on Earth" has a bit more of a modern sound, with a verse buildup and a booming chorus. This is one of the spots on Pop where Bono does exactly what his voice is capable of, restraining himself and blowing the walls out at all the precise, right times.
"Gone" is a very likable but somewhat frustrating song which uses the wrong electronic sound against music which is otherwise pretty good, and a sterling vocal performance for a chorus which otherwise seems to be deprived of a real meaning. "Last Night on Earth" flows nicely as its lead-in, but the beginnings of a real drop off can be heard here.
After "Gone," everything on Pop that can go wrong does go wrong. The electronic music, at first simply a distraction, ceases to be merely distracting and outright clashes with everything else the band is trying to do. "Miami" is the worst U2 song I've ever heard, and I think I own their entire original discography. It has a very nasty stop/start sound to it which would be bad enough without Bono screaming "MIAMI!" at the top of his lungs toward the end. On this, Bono makes the biggest vocal mistake he possibly can: He mistakes himself for Robert Plant. Bono is at his best when he sings in tones set to the loud falsetto he was meant to belt out, and he's proven to be competent singing other forms of music as well. Pretending to be the reigning giant of Led Zeppelin doing a punk music imitation is definitely not one of them.
"The Playboy Mansion" and "If You Wear that Velvet Dress" try to slow things down a little bit. The pair of songs, while indeed slow, is also the kind of music you would hear while trapped in a mall elevator. They both have whirling, low music and Bono singing in a lazy fashion.
You may have noticed I'm not talking about the general musicianship of The Edge, Adam Clayton, and Larry Mullen. Well, the reason for that is because I simply can't tell when it's showing up and when it isn't. It's entirely possible U2 is trying to be The Beatles and failing for much of the album. All of the instruments on Pop have a habit of just whirring into one another when they're not being drowned out. It has less of an experimental sound than Zooropa, as I mentioned, but Zooropa's songs had much finer craftsmanship. They had a more consistent sound. Pop lets loose and flies everywhere with the worst aspects of Zooropa.
The final two tracks, "Please," and "Wake Up Dead Man" try to salvage the last few songs with more of a throwback routine. Both are worthy efforts, and you can hear the band over the studio for the most part. The difference is that in these two songs, the band is drowned in its own textures, which have about 638 levels of density. They're also soaked up in enough syrupy melodrama for the more soft-hearted listeners to blow their noses with pancakes. The killer is that both of these songs had great potential, and 80's or millennial U2 could have made them somber and emotional. What it sounds like was that U2 listened to the material and either forgot what made them special in the past or decided what the hell and just gave them a studio whitewashing so they would go better with the rest of the album.
U2 started the 90's off well when they released Achtung Baby, which is still my favorite CD ever. But after such promise, they went way too wild in the studio. Although Pop is generally more listenable than Zooropa, the construction of it isn't nearly as tight. No wonder everyone thought the band was finished after this.
"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 … 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