On the occasion of U2 pissing off the world, and since you already – hopefully – know that they were once a great band, let’s take a different step to defend them and remind you that they were once an interesting band.
Zooropa is, if you didn’t know, their most divisive work, with people claiming it to be one of the lowest points in the band’s discography and others claiming it to be a massively underrated masterpiece. The truth, as often it does with polarizing works, lies in the middle. The people who claim the former are likely more rock-inclined and the people who claim the latter usually admit that they hate U2 (their second favorite pick would probably be Passengers’ Original Soundtracks 1, a U2 album in all but name and deviates even further from their sound than Zooropa). If you don’t know what this album sounds like, picture a broader focus on the electronic elements from Achtung Baby (but without as many melodies) and the sonic universe of The Joshua Tree (but without being as transportative).
It’s not as good as either of those records, obviously, but it’s one of U2’s easiest-to-listen to albums because of the following three reasons. One, the quality is uniformly distributed instead of being top-heavy as other U2 albums; every song has something worth hearing. Two, Bono isn’t as annoying here as he was before or after; he was always a man whose arena rock pretensions grew annoying unless you were there in the arena with him. It’s not just a matter of him giving up mic time on “Numb” (for the Edge), “Lemon” (for Brian Eno) and “The Wanderer” (for Johnny Cash), it’s because he’s likeable. It turns out “Lemon” isn’t about lemons, it’s about a picture of his mother wearing yellow and thus, keeping the memory of his mother alive through technology. And most of the album is about the same – the simultaneous wonder and perils of technology; David Bowie – usually a good judge of musical character, having saved the lives of certain acts (Mott the Hoople), kickstarted others (Lou Reed and Iggy Pop) or promoted others with his mere presence (Arcade Fire and TV on the Radio) – said, on Zooropa, “I feel that [U2] are one of the few rock bands even attempting to hint at a world which will continue past the next great wall—the year 2000.” Not only does he mean that lyrically, he’s also talking about it sonically; the drumming on “Daddy’s Gonna Pay For Your Crashed Car” was probably one of the reference points to his own industrial-minded 1.Outside two years later (and “Daddy’s Gonna Pay For Your Crashed Car” seems to nod to David Bowie’s “Always Crashing in the Same Car,” so this is a whole lotta meta). Three, and most importantly, it’s U2’s most interesting album.
For its 20th anniversary, stereogum‘s Ryan Leas wrote a wonderful essay about the album to celebrate because no one else seemed bothered to (to wit: Zooropa was thrown in as one of the ten – ten?!?!?!? – discs for Achtung Baby‘s “Super Deluxe” reissue instead of getting its own multi-disc reissue as it deserved). I’d really suggest reading the whole thing, but here are some snippets to walk away with:
~”Zooropa has always felt like U2′s night album. Zooropa is the one about diving deep, totally disappearing into something, in a manner that doesn’t work in the light of day.”
~”Though not an album recorded on the road per se, Zooropa was an album completed in motion, the band constantly bouncing back and forth between far-flung locations. Fittingly, Zooropa has perhaps the widest range of sounds of any U2 album. It feels like an album about faraway places, both geographically and spiritually.”
I’ll warn you right now that not all of the tracks are perfect. In fact, all of its highlights seem to go on for longer than necessary, but while these songs are happening, it’s particularly hard to notice what could have been cut (except the useless hidden track at the end of “The Wanderer”; welcome to the nineties a.k.a. hidden track fuckville). Let’s talk broadly about the sonics. Let’s talk about the piano line in the intro of “Zooropa” that seems to be trying to update “Where The Streets Have No Name.” Let’s talk about the music box beat of “Babyface.” Let’s talk about the juxtaposition between the Edge’s monotonous mutter and Bono’s high-pitched wandering in “Numb.” Let’s talk about how the Edge shortens the first, brief solo from “Love is a Blindness” into a single scrapping second and uses it to drive that same track. Let’s talk about how the vocal sample (/Bono?) plays hide and seek with the drums that it imitates. Let’s talk about how surprisingly likeable Bono’s falsetto sounds on “Lemon.” Let’s talk about the piano line in the same song, which, combined with the falsetto and the information about the song’s context, makes it more moving than any songs born out of the same pain from Boy. Let’s talk about the lovely guitar line on “Stay (Faraway! So Close).” (Which isn’t even close to being on the album’s upper echelon of tracks.) Let’s talk about how fucking aces it is to hear the band kick out the USSR in the opening seconds of “Daddy’s Gonna Pay For Your Crashed Car.” Let talk about the backing vocals in the same song. Let’s talk about the guitar tone of “The First Time.” Let’s talk about how cool it is to hear Johnny Cash over the backing of “The Wanderer,” more in touch with their “American roots” than anything on Rattle and Hum even though it ironically doesn’t sound American.
Broader, let’s talk about the motherfuckin’ rhythm section on this album. In the same essay, Ryan Leas notes that all but one member writes this album off now, “Bono lamented in hindsight that the band had lost touch with its pop sensibilities. […] The Edge writes it off as an interlude; Larry Mullen, Jr. regularly implies that the more loop-fueled experiments the band indulged in during the mid-’90s were not his most beloved outings. Only Adam Clayton seems to own Zooropaas one of his consistent favorites.” And the obvious reason why Adam Clayton is the only one kind to Zooropa is because it’s the only U2 album where he plays lead; he was a supporting character at best on other albums, and especially on some where Brian Eno took the production reins, he was an extra. Here, though? His bass lines seem to be the backbone of every song (especially on “Some Days Are Better Than Others,” which has Bono pretending hard to be Bob Dylan, and “The Wanderer”). Add to this the focus on drumming (especially on “Numb,” “Daddy’s Gonna Pay for Your Crashed Car” and “Dirty Day”) and we have songs that feel shorter than Achtung Baby’s shortest songs.
~”[H]ere’s how Zooropa is important. It may never rise above a general estimation as a minor work in U2′s catalogue, but it’s important because it’s an example of a massively successful pop band taking some big chances, molding their sounds with all sorts of elements of the underground. This might be a bit extreme, but I’m not sure Kid A happens without predecessors like the one-two punch of Achtung Baby and Zooropa. I’m not sure Yeezus happens. For those of us who grew up when How to Dismantle An Atomic Bomb was new, it’s hard to imagine that this version of U2 ever existed, and certainly hard to imagine them ever becoming so bold again. But we can hope. Until then, there are a lot of highways and a lot of nights, and plenty of static and clatter to still dive into with Zooropa.”