The Good: Moments of musical intrigue, Three songs
The Bad: Generally lousy lyrics, Uninspired music, Overproduced lyrics
The Basics: A disappointing musical outing, Pop illustrates that U2 can go too far in trying to push the musical envelope!
Often, I advocate albums where the best tracks do not appear on "Best Of" albums that a band might have produced. So, if an album has truly wonderful tracks that were never singles or would not appear on a "Greatest Hits" album, I will often make sure that is highlighted and recommend the album. This is not the case with Pop.
With Pop, one of U2's albums from the late 1990s, even the best tracks that did not appear on their Best Of 1990 – 2000 (reviewed here!) are not worth picking up Pop for. Indeed, when I reviewed that album, I criticized it for using remixes as opposed to the original tracks. From the first "Boom!" that the men of U2 call out in "Discotheque," I revised my feelings of that practice. Perhaps the remixes were included on that "Best Of" album because the originals were simply not good or clever enough. While I would take exception to that for the tracks that came from Zooropa, I think Pop makes the argument fairly well.
With twelve tracks, clocking in at 60:13, Pop is an abysmal album that is surprising for its lack of quality. Continuing with the trend of electronic experimentation that the group exploded Zooropa with, Pop extends the experimentation with production, looping and sampling to the point where many of the songs do not have recognizable tunes (like "Mofo"). Sadly, this does appear to be well within the abilities and purview of U2. The group wrote all of the music, Bono and the Edge wrote all of the lyrics, and they generally play the instruments that they have been. So, for example, Bono is not simply a lead vocalist, he also plays guitar. The only thing Pop lacks as far as U2's creative control is concerned is any form of production credit. Since most of Pop does seem to be about production, this could give U2 an out for why the album is so bad.
Sadly, the band never seemed to disown this album and as a result, some people might see it in the $1.00 bin at the local gas station and think of picking it up. I'd save your buck. Pop is, to be fair, adequately titled. This album presents U2 as a pop-rock, dance-pop band in a way that is a clear departure from many of the group's other more straightforward rock and roll collections. Instead, this is largely pop-rock and it is definitely trading on the popularity of the bells, whistles, synthesizers, looped samples and deprioritization of lyrics that tends to characterize most commercially successful pop-rock and dance-pop music.
There are but three exceptions to this disappointment on Pop: "Staring At The Sun," "If God Will Send His Angels," and "If You Wear That Velvet Dress." These three songs have something superlative in the way of lyrics, vocals or instrumentals to make them worth listening to. While "If You Wear That Velvet Dress" has never made it onto a U2 anthology album, the quality of the song is not enough to nudge this album up into anything remotely near the point of recommending.
"If You Wear That Velvet Dress" is a simple song with Bono presenting murky vocals. It carries with it a real sense of desire and longing and the uncertainty of a payoff for that eagerness. The song works in creating a mood with the vocals that mumble out poetically, "I've been good 'cause I know you don't want me to / Do you really want me to be blue as you... / It's her daylight that gets me through / We've been here before... last time you scratched at my door / The moon was naked and cold I was like a two year old / Who just wanted more" ("If You Wear That Velvet Dress"). The song resonates and has something to day and like the best tracks on "Zooropa," like "Numb," the music, vocals and lyrics help show as well as simply tell. The poetry of the presentation makes for a song that illustrates what the lines are saying and that is often the best one may hope for from music.
The sense of having to say something is not completely lost on Pop. "Staring At The Sun" might be one of the most neglected great tracks by U2. The group has long been politically active and had statements to make and "Staring At The Sun" is one of their better ones as they clearly articulate, "I'm not the only one starin' at the sun / Afraid of what you'd find if you took a look inside / Not just deaf and dumb I'm staring at the sun / Not the only one who's happy to go blind / there's an insect in your ear if you scratch it won't disappear . . . Do you want to see what the scratching brings . . .Will we ever live in peace?" The song is clever and anthemic, correlating personal misery with the hive mind mentality that they want their listeners to rebel against. It's a decent concept and U2's lyrics have a diction and direction that gives it the impact to say what they want it to.
Perhaps there is no greater message than the one that comes from U2's current (as of the release of Pop, anyway) plea for world peace and understanding, "If God Will Send His Angels." It might strike some as odd that I would praise this song, especially given the references to god and Jesus, but it's a decent song. In fact, if Christian rock artists wrote songs like this AND presented them as straightforward as U2 does with "If God Will Send His Angels," I wouldn't have my beef with them. After all, U2 does seem to present a very Christ-based view of Christianity (as opposed to Paulist) when it attacks commercialism and hate with lines like "Does love... light up your Christmas tree? / The next minute you're blowing a fuse / And the cartoon network turns into the news / Hey if God will send his angels / And if God will send a sign / Well if God will send his angels / Where do we go" ("If God Will Send His Angels"). Moreover, the song has a tune, the vocals are clear and it all balances quite well.
That said, these are the exceptions on Pop. The vocals in "Miami" are so sloppy and the instrumentals are disorganized that it is hard to argue with the reviewer who put it on their list of worst songs by great artists. "Please" is a whiny song that sounds like Bono is being tormented while singing it. "Wake Up Dead Man," which closes the album, is muddled and far more boring than it is clever and I swear "Gone" opens the same way "Hold Me, Thrill Me, Kiss Me, Kill Me" (not on this album) does. Similarly, "The Playboy Mansion" lacks any real social commentary and instead lackadaisically lists through things like U2 decided to make a song about what they were reading in the newspapers.
But more often than not, Pop simply fails to connect. The lyrics are not the most clever or original in the band's career. There seems to be a lot more repetition on the songs on this album, like how "Gone" repeats "I'm not coming down" ad nauseam. Moreover, with the level of production elements, looped tracks and the use of a drum kit on some tracks, one has to wonder why all of the quartet needed to even show up for this album. After all, if the band is using a drum kit does Larry Mullen even need to show up to drum? I suppose not, but on tracks like "Gone," he programmed the drum loops, so I suppose he's planning for the worst.
And with the sheer number of tracks on Pop that fizzle, one hopes that this might be U2's worst. When the songs aren't mumbled or inane, the instrumentals overwhelm the lyrics and vocals. If you're on a budget buying U2, this is one it's safe to pass over in adding to your collection.
The best track is "When You Wear That Velvet Dress" and I'll support the idea that "Miami" is the worst; I cringe every time I hear it!
For other works by former Artist Of The Month artists of mine, check out the reviews of:
Rumours (2-disc version) – Fleetwood Mac
Actually (2-disc version) – Pet Shop Boys
Seal (2) - Seal
For other music reviews, please visit my Music Review Index Page for an organized listing!
© 2012, 2008 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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