This year's model: U2's Pop mixes old with newBy Scott C. Deskin
These days, it's not hard to feel alienated by pop music. With the alternative music wave finally diminishing (a good thing), and lots of upstart mediocre pop/rock bands filling the void (definitely a bad thing), it's hard to know who to trust anymore. Discounting the talent of most of the Grammy nominees this year (which I normally do), the current state of media overexposure only leaves the established musical megastars in the spotlight. And let's face it: Most of these performers' glory days are behind them. Eric Clapton made his best music 20-plus years ago; Lionel Richie should remain a fixture of the 80s; and Phil Collins should just go away, period. Of current rock musicians, that leaves R.E.M. and Pearl Jam, good bands who were their own worst enemies at promoting their latest albums (which, according to industry expectations, flopped).
Which brings me to the curious case of U2. Industry favorites since their breakthrough album, The Joshua Tree, 10 years ago, this Irish band deserves credit for not resting on their laurels, for continually exploring new territory with each subsequent release. Though they've kept a low profile over the past few years (with the exception of the regrettable "Hold Me, Thrill Me, Kiss Me" contribution to the Batman Forever soundtrack), commercial and critical successes like Achtung Baby and Zooropa still linger in the pop world's collective consciousness. In the case of Achtung Baby, U2's first album of the 90s and their musical/cultural manifesto of synthed-up dance tunes and European decadence, a friend once told me that "all the songs from that album sound the same"; however, I can't deny the thematic coherence of that album, which remains a pop-music touchstone for twentysomethings like myself.
At first, I wasn't sure what to think of U2's promotion for their new album, Pop: Band members in gaudy 70s garb at a Kmart in New York City? The Village People motif in the video for the lead single "Discotheque"? I had my doubts about this apparent bid for nostalgia, concurrent with the band's flirtation with predominantly electronic dance music, as evidenced on "Discotheque." Oh yeah, and the knee-jerk, four-star review from Rolling Stone did little to assuage my fears.
As it happens, "Discotheque" is the lead track on Pop; it's followed by "Do You Feel Loved" and "MoFo", and these three songs grab the listener by the sheer persistence of the Larry Mullen's drums and the hissing, distorted guitars of The Edge. But lead singer Bono's words are often too facile for most teenagers: In the slight "Discotheque," he sings, "You know you're chewing bubblegum/You know that is but you still want some/'Cause you just can't get enough of that lovie dovie stuff." Bono serves up a kinder (though not gentler) tune in "Do You Feel Loved," another song about lovemaking. But "MoFo," a paean to soul-searching and rock and roll, serves up lyrics about "lookin for to fill that GOD shaped hole/mother mother sucking rock and roll," strangely followed by "lookin' for baby Jesus under the trash."
After these dense concoctions of techno-funk and rock, the band hits its stride and segues into the middle of the album, where not coincidentally the best songs are found. "If God Will Send His Angels" is a soft ballad, where Bono is once again searching for salvation (10 years after "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For"). "Last Night on Earth" is "Until the End of the World" redux, only a bit more nihilistic, and the refrain ("You got to give it away") is sung with the right amount of dramatic bravura to hook the listener. The best songs, "Staring at the Sun" and "Gone," carry their strong melodic hooks with anthem-like refrains that, amazingly, aren't mushy: "Not just deaf and dumb I'm staring at the sun/Not the only one who's happy to go blind" ("Staring at the Sun") and "Goodbye you can keep this suit of lights/I'll be up with the sun/And not coming down" ("Gone").
From there, the album winds down with a couple of reflections on America: Both "Miami" and "The Playboy Mansion" (the latter song is just a string of pop culture references) seem more than a bit inspired by the Passengers' (aka U2 and Brian Eno) "Elvis Ate America," although a bit more restrained. In fact, "If You Wear That Velvet Dress" and "Wake Up Dead Man" are the most subdued U2 songs in recent memory. In the case of "Dead Man," which closes the album on a somewhat serious note, in contrast to the frivolity of "Discotheque", Bono, The Edge, Clayton, and Mullen, all pushing 40, still haven't found what they're looking for. But in the process, they've made Pop, which, although not as successful of capturing the cultural zeitgeist as Achtung Baby, is still a fine listen.