Thursday, December 6, 2012

After The Hype: Zooropa Is U2's Perfect Album!

The Good: Writing that fits the music, Interesting instrumentals, Intriguing vocals, Endures over the years
The Bad: None (a few repetitive lyrics)
The Basics: Zooropa is U2's perfect album not because it defies the band's prior experiences, but it uses the best of those and experiments in different directions from there.

There is something nice about returning to things after the hype. After all, especially in the music world, few things truly live up to the hype and promotion that is associated with it. One of my favorite examples would have to be the Oasis album Be Here Now (reviewed here!). Coming off their sophomore album that was a worldwide hit, Be Here Now promised something different with its huge anthems and soaring songs and because of all of the pressure on it to be something it was never intended to be, it pretty much mortgaged most of that audience (outside the UK). Years later, people are finding their way back to that album, though, and finally acknowledging that Oasis rocks on it and they do it in a way that endures long after they hype has passed.

Recently, as I was listening to R.E.M.'s album New Adventures In Hi-Fi (reviewed here!) and I continued to make - in my mind - comparisons to U2's album Zooropa, which I've never gotten around to replacing (the last copy I had access to belonged to my ex) and reviewing. Thinking about how much hype there was around U2, their tour supporting Zooropa and the album itself, it does not surprise me that there are so many mixed reviews for it. The truth is, though, that Zooropa is a perfect album for many of the reasons so many despise it; it is unlike anything else U2 produced before and as a result it can be listened to over and over again by fans of U2 and those who do not like the group. And years later, it still sounds fresh and has something to say.

With ten tracks clocking in at 51:21, Zooropa is U2's experimental masterpiece. Diverging from the standard pop-rock that defined much of U2 in the 1980s and into the 1990s, U2 exploded with synthesizers, drum muting and - more than anything else - alterations through production. Vocals and instrumentals are shifted, altered and warped and it works. And this is the musical vision of U2 - at least at the time - as all of the music was written by the band and all of the songs were written by Bono and/or The Edge. In fact, it is The Edge who breaks out on Zooropa with the superlative track, the eerie, listing drone that is "Numb." The Edge also takes a co-production credit, which is important in this highly-produced album and his presence at that level of the disc makes it hard to argue that it was not the band's desire to get the resulting album. Of course, why they would want to deny Zooropa, especially now seems silly to me as the group has certainly not done better on its latest album(s).

Zooropa can be argued to be all about sound, but that neglects the equally significant potency of the lyrics. Sure, it is about sound, but the album comes together because the sound matches the lines. The perfect example is "Numb." "Numb" has the Edge droning down a list of all of the things we are told not to do in society, like "Don't talk out of time / Don't think / Don't worry everything's just fine / Just fine / Don't grab / Don't clutch / Don't hope for too much / Don't breathe / Don't achieve / Don't grieve without leave" and the net effect is to numb the listener. The song DOES instead of just SAYING. The muted instrumentals combine with the mellow vocals to create the sensation of losing sensation and the brilliance of the song is that the listener is not rescued from that. The song ends, yes, but not because the listener is broken from their reverie. Instead, we are numbed and forced into the light of the real world with the next song. Sadly, "Numb" could be the anthem for the last few years in the United States and we find ourselves waiting for that mood to break.

Similarly, it is the combination of the lyrics and music that define the sense of longing and loneliness on "Stay (Faraway, So Close!)." The song is softer and mellow, like the time passing without a loved one. It has a smoky sound to it, slowly dispelling like hope arriving for the abused. This fits wonderfully the lines ". . .You stumble out of a hole in the ground / A vampire or a victim / It depends on who's around . . . And if you look, you look through me / And if you talk it's not to me / And when I touch you, you don't feel a thing / If I could stay ... then the night would give you up / Stay, and the day would keep its trust / Stay and the night would be enough" ("Stay (Faraway, So Close!)"). The song is one that is smart enough in both song and lyrics to offer some measure of debate to its meaning and its resolution and, frankly, as someone who suffers through a lot of music to help steer people toward the better stuff, there are far too few albums and singles that do that anymore. Fortunately, Zooropa is rich in them.

While others seem to think that Zooropa is not the typical U2 album, it is hard to argue that by the lyrical quality and even the content. Like most U2 albums, it has love songs ("Babyface," "Stay (Faraway, So Close!)"), social commentary ("Numb," "Daddy's Gonna Pay For Your Crashed Car") and songs evoking hope ("The First Time"). U2 calls out for brotherhood ("The First Time") and later acknowledges that the goals do not accomplish themselves ("Dirty Day"). And frankly, it's rare for a band to make something in pop-rock that so beautifully deals in irony the way "Daddy's Gonna Pay For Your Crashed Car." As the title suggests, the song is all about a girl who is her father's favorite, who spoils her past any sense of reason or responsibility. And it makes for a perfect pop-rock song!

Vocally, Zooropa is one of U2's most diverse outings, with Bono ceding the stage to The Edge for one song ("Numb") and to none other than Johnny Cash for another! "The Wanderer" has been criticized by some as not being a very U2 song, but outside the vocalist, it sure seems like one. After all, if one had to guess which band would sing about ". . .walking with a bible and a gun" ("The Wanderer") U2 is just strange enough in the mainstream to pull a number of votes, I think. But to be fair, "The Wanderer" is U2's exploration into mellow, bluesy electronica; their method is simple: provide a classic Country vocal and pair it with muted, somewhat incongruent bass and see what happens. The result is a track that vocally does not sound like U2, but lyrically and instrumentally, it is very much where the group was at this time.

Vocally, Bono still dominates much of the album. The instrumentals are almost entirely muted for "The First Time," forcing the song to work musically mostly on his vocals. He rises to the occasion, singing in mid-range tones with clarity and a melody that is a strange and beautiful combination of inspiring and haunting. And he is still able to rock, which he does on the subsequent track, "Dirty Day," which also illustrates more of his range.

And instrumentally, Zooropa is all about change and experimentation. “Zooropa” (the opening track) is an explosion of guitars, synthesizers and bass. The band does not just leap in that direction, though. They slowly build to a very string-based crescendo on "The First Time" and they provide much more traditional rock and roll tunes on "Daddy's Gonna Pay For Your Crashed Car" and "Dirty Day." But despite the preponderance of synthesizers and bass, no two songs on the album sound alike and as a result, it truly feels like a musically diverse experiment.

Perhaps this is why it is very easy to pick this album up after years away and listen to it in high rotation for a few weeks. Even if it slips out of rotation, it is one of the best, most enduring candidates to come back into heavy play in anyone's pop-rock collection. And unlike some artists' musical experimentation, Zooropa pays off for U2 as the group manages to produce enduring tracks, none of which flop, even after dozens of listens (I've listened to the album about a hundred times since 1993 on and off!).

The best track is "Numb;" there is no weak link. This is a perfect album.

For other U2 works, please check out my reviews of:
The Joshua Tree
The Best Of 1980 – 1990 & The Singles
All That You Can't Leave Behind
The Best Of 1990 – 2000 & The Singles


For other music reviews, please visit my Music Review Index Page for an organized listing of all my music reviews!

© 2012, 2008 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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