U2’s Unappreciated Pop masterpiece

In 1997, U2 released the album that would become widely considered a major disappointment – Pop. Twenty years later, the band would celebrate the 30th anniversary of its biggest success, The Joshua Tree, while further relegating Pop to the proverbial dustbin of music history. Though it might seem hard to imagine any album in the U2 catalog as “irrelevant,” or more accurately, “forgotten,” Pop comes close. The band would simply like to pretend it never happened.

There are many reasons for this very unfair attitude, or at least, according to the band, there are. For one, U2 reportedly considers the album unfinished – it was rushed to meet a deadline artificially imposed on the recording process due to the schedule of the upcoming world tour. In other words, U2, or those who manage such things for U2, allegedly got the cart before the horse – the tour and its demands ahead of the needs of the album. Pop, in the opinion of its creators, was rushed out the door in time for the epic PopMart trek to commence – at a cost to the artistic quality of the album.

For another, the band has always seemed dissatisfied with what actually went on the album. Pop features an unusual number of remixes, or what I like to think of as “takes” – OK, maybe we’ll get this one right.  It’s as if they could never agree on a finalized version of many of the songs on the record.

For still another, sales of Pop weren’t up to U2 snuff – it went Gold and maybe Platinum a few times over in 1997, but that was about all. U2 was on top of the world after The Joshua Tree; 1991’s Achtung Baby had merely solidified its status as Biggest Band Since The Beatles. For Pop to move only a couple million units was a little embarrassing; it resulted in more than a few unsold seats during the tour.

So – 20 years after the first single, “Discotheque,” hit MTV, Pop remains an overlooked entry in the discography, which I consider a shame. It isn’t perfect, but it is by no means a bad album – or even a mediocre one. I would love for the band to have remastered this album in celebration of its 20th anniversary, but that didn’t happen, for two possible reasons: The Joshua Tree turning 30, and the next album, allegedly Songs of Experience, gearing up for release.

U2 has poured its considerable resources into a 30th-anniversary package of Joshua Tree material – a new version of the album and two giant box sets containing a treasure trove of JT stuff – remixes, videos, live concert performances, never-before-seen photographs, etc. And why not? The Joshua Tree is a watershed moment. Fans love the nostalgia and U2 loves “Where the Streets Have No Name.” Later this year, or so we’re told, Songs of Experience will come out, and the band can launch another huge world tour.

The timing could not have been worse for Pop.

Starting about 10 years ago, U2 went on a “remastered” kick, taking such early classics as Boy, October and War into the shop for a digital tune-up. Almost all the albums got a facelift – up to and including The Joshua Tree, which never looked or sounded better. In 2011, U2 unveiled a massive new Achtung Baby, complete with remastered audio, souvenirs, vinyl, videos, concert DVDs, rare singles and B-sides – even the 1993 studio album, Zooropa, spruced up for the 2000s. (You had to look hard for Zooropa among all the CDs in the box.) They were terrific for collectors and a great way of housing all the songs and assorted memorabilia from specific U2 eras. I bought them; of course I did.

No such love, however, for Pop. No remastered audio. No new photographs. No respectful analyses written by rock/U2 scholars. No concert DVD. No videos. But, hey, we’re gonna do “Red Hill Mining Town” live in the U.S.! And “One Tree Hill”! And, look, moody new pictures by The Edge!

Pop deserved better. It’s a thick, heavy slab of pulsing electronica mixed with powerful rock and roll, fueled by Adam Clayton’s propulsive bass and Larry Mullen Jr.’s unstoppable snare drum. Bono plays a character like no other in his repertoire, and The Edge … well, U2 was still channeling Edge’s guitar via psychic medium, but he’s there, too. This is a fucking great record, in no way to be confused with any of its predecessors. It is thrillingly original, and U2 is wrong to slag it.

To paraphrase Larry, Pop takes us on a musical journey. Similar to The Joshua Tree, it’s a quest album, telling a story about the search for meaning in a harsh, superficial, consumer-oriented world. It begins in a nightclub and ends the morning after, with a hungover Bono begging God to “rewind it all just once more.” Violence, lust, temptation, doubt, self-loathing, fear, loneliness, isolation, and spot of fun in Miami cycle in between. Not all the songs work perfectly – I’d rather they included “North and South of the River” than “The Playboy Mansion” – but hey, Coldplay doesn’t have an album like this in its catalog, so why complain?

“Discotheque” is the album opener, a solid mission statement in the same vein as “Where the Streets,” “Gloria,” “I Will Follow” and “Zoo Station,” setting us up for the ride ahead. Bono’s club-hopping reveler wants “to be the song that you hear in your head” while Edge provides a swirling and seriously funky riff. (U2 recorded a much tamer version for The Best of 1990-2000; I prefer the original, which is, for lack of a better word, insane.) This is followed by the hard-rocking and frankly sexual “Do You Feel Loved,” which, for some reason, U2 was never able to perform live – a form of impotence, perhaps, for the band’s most flamboyantly sinful song?

“Mofo” gets the key track position on the album – the coveted third slot, historically occupied by such tracks as “New Year’s Day” (on War) and “One” (on Achtung, Baby). This is the darkest and most bizarre song U2 has ever devised. Edge plays heavily treated guitar over Bono’s wailing, moaning sojourner. It’s about searching “for the baby Jesus under the trash,” but it’s also about the death of Bono’s own mother and how her passing left him permanently scarred. (“Mother … you left and made me simple … now I’m still a child … no one tells me no.”) I can’t imagine anyone listening to this song and thinking it’s fun, but I guess it was something U2 had to get off its chest – a thundering attack on the ears.

The fourth track, “If God Will Send His Angels,” is more bearable, if only because it’s quieter – so quiet you have to turn it all the way up to appreciate it. Here we find Bono lamenting the absence of God in our lives and the fact that televised entertainment has turned the church into a circus. “Staring at the Sun” is a mid-tempo, heavy-rock track about perseverance in the face of soulless consumerism. (I think of the musical style of this song as U2-meets-sci-fi.) “Last Night on Earth” closes out Side A with a compelling story about a superficial woman and her final moments in this world (“she’s at the bus stop/with the News of the World and The Sun/Son/Here He comes”).

“Gone,” the first track on Side B, allows Bono to confess his hatred for his own band (“you can keep this suit of lights”) and fantasize about life outside the rock world (“I’ll be up with the sun/I’m not coming down”). From this point on, the songs get a little too weird for their own good. “Miami” never quite comes together as a rock-and-roll tour of that Florida town (to which U2 decamped for a brief vacation); “The Playboy Mansion” ambles softly about, in search of Hugh Hefner, and “If You Wear That Velvet Dress” is another slow number, albeit an erotic one. Next, we arrive at “Please,” a slow burner that chides a terrorist for suffering from self-doubt.

U2 Pop Mart Tour 97

There’s an interesting coda to “Please” – a few stanzas in which the band actually seems to be predicting the events of Sept. 11, 2001. I am not making this up. If you listen to the song, pay close attention to how it ends. The images are eerily specific. (“September/streets capsizing …”)

The final song, “Wake Up Dead Man,” is at least as unpleasant as “Mofo.” It signals the bitter, burnt-out end of a decade that saw U2 almost run itself off the rails to escape its past. Here, the party is over; the character played by Bono has a splitting headache; he’s begging Jesus to save him from “a fucked up world,” and it is possible – quite possible – that someone besides the titular man is dead. (“Jesus, did you think to try and warn her?”) Bono began in search of that elusive it (“you can push/but you cannot direct it/circulate/regulate/oh no/you cannot connect it”) and ends looking for a way out (“if there’s an order/in all of this disorder/is it like a tape recorder/can you rewind it just once more”). Pop becomes something like U2’s first (and only) blues album, only without BB King. It’s an argument with God, a long, dark night the soul, and it ends on a note of despair.

U2 followed up this album (and the Nineties) with the return to form, All That You Can’t Leave Behind, three years later, in 2000. It redefined the band’s sound – or acknowledged it officially as the “classic sound” U2 had sought to obliterate with albums like Achtung, Baby. Some fans complained that, after the colorful adventure that was Pop, the band retreated into traditional “pop” songs like “Beautiful Day.” I say the truth is somewhat simpler – U2 followed its Nineties line of thinking all the way to the end, decided it wasn’t working anymore and changed direction. Few bands are willing to admit when something no longer works; U2 at least deserves credit for shaking things up. (Improved album sales inevitably followed – consumers will follow “weird” only so far.) We’ll have to see what kind of record Songs of Experience turns out to be, but I’ll bet real money (well, OK, Monopoly money) that it won’t be half as crazy as Pop.