More than half of Pop is indelible U2.
In early 2000, U2 contributed a handful of songs to The Million Dollar Hotel, the soundtrack to a little-seen, critically reviled film by Wim Wenders starring Milla Jovovich and Mel Gibson. It had been three years since U2 released a record and it was time to start gearing up again for the album-touring cycle. The soundtrack featured “The Ground Beneath Her Feet,” a song that Bono wrote after reading a Salman Rushdie novel by the same name. A sensuous lament, the song marked a bold and dark new direction for U2, one that Rushdie himself lauded as one of “the most beautiful melodies” that Bono ever wrote. A sympathetic cousin to haunting “Acrobat,” “The Ground Beneath Her Feet” portended a mature and interesting direction for a band that spent the ‘90s experimenting, pushing its sound towards techno and dance music. It could have been an astonishing critical juncture for U2. Sadly, things didn’t work out that way.
Let’s go back to early 1997. U2 hadn’t released an album since 1993’s Zooropa, its worst-selling record since October (1981). Although moving 7 million copies worldwide is nothing to sniff at, it’s hard not to compare the sales of Zooropa to the 18 million units Achtung Baby shifted two years earlier. Zooropa garnered critical praise, but it did feel a little weak in comparison to Achtung Baby. The album featured some wild experimentation that not all fans appreciated, from the heavily processed vocals by The Edge on “Numb” to giving Johnny Cash the mike on album closer “The Wanderer.” Perhaps not enough time passed between the releases of Achtung Baby and Zooropa for fans to develop an appetite for U2 music.
Two years following Zooropa, U2 recorded a side project with Brian Eno under the Passengers moniker entitled Original Soundtracks 1 which allowed them to experiment without pushing the U2 brand too far out of its comfort zone. Though much of the music went unnoticed, the band scored a modest hit with “Miss Sarajevo,” featuring Luciano Pavarotti, a song that sounds not too dissimilar to “The Ground Beneath Her Feet.”
U2 began work on Pop soon after they completed the Passengers project, working with a handful of songs leftover from the Zooropa sessions. Rather than retreat from experimentation, the band wanted to push their sound even further, seeking the input from various producers, including Flood, who worked as an engineer for the band on past albums. As part of the writing process, the members of U2 visited dance clubs, looking for ways to incorporate that sort of sound into their own. Electronica, while gaining a foothold in Europe with acts such as Daft Punk and Massive Attack burbling to the forefront, had yet to make an impact in the United States. Maybe Bono figured he would be the one to carry the torch across the Atlantic. Either way, Pop became U2’s final challenging record to date, one that pushed the sonic envelope rather than retreated.
The sessions were difficult as some of the producers talked the band into using loops and samples, something the members of U2 hadn’t ever done. Larry Mullen Jr., recuperating from back surgery, was unable to drum when the sessions began and had to use samples from other sources. Once recovered, however, the drummer recorded his own samples. With deadlines looming, the band finally wrapped up the record in time for the subsequent tour to begin in April 1997.
More than 20 years later, Pop remains a fascinating and frustrating U2 album. Time has knocked the novelty off some of the production, making some of the songs sound hopelessly dated and it also the first U2 record that features one or two embarrassingly bad tracks. However, Pop is also a startling sonic experiment for a band that was unwilling (up to that point) to turn to retread. According to Bono, Pop “begins at a party and ends at a funeral,” a very true assessment of a record that sounds confectionary at first but finishes in darkness.
Lead single “Discothèque” starts with a distorted guitar, a sound the Edge had been tinkering with since Achtung Baby, until a techno dance beat kicks in. The irony plays thick here and the band recorded an appropriately garish video, where they appear to be trapped inside a mirror ball, to complement the song. Though energetic and wildly different than any prior U2 songs, “Discothèque” can’t help but feel dated now. The same cannot be said for the second track, “Do You Feel Loved,” which is more of a slow-burner. Using some of the same sounds that would propel the Prodigy to stardom, “Do You Feel Loved” feels heavier, less purposely cheesy than “Discothèque.” Bono plays with his vocals, lowering himself down to a whisper on some verses. The idea of love has always been a preoccupation of Bono and the singer claims he purposely left the question mark off the song title, claiming that its inclusion would make the title feel too “heavy.”
For fans who remember Pop as the record where U2 went techno, the track that most embodies that statement is “Mofo.” Once again exploring the themes of his mother’s death, who passed away from a brain aneurysm that she suffered at her own father’s funeral in 1974, Bono eschews the anthemic sentimentality of “I Will Follow” with one of the band’s most inorganic tracks ever and easily the best of the three opening songs. “It was as if my whole life was in that song,” Bono explained. “Electronic blues death rattle. It takes the cliché insult ‘motherfucker’ and turns it into something raw and confessional.” U2 frequently kicked off their concerts with this song, a rattling lament turned dance party.
If the first three songs on Pop stunned fans, Bono and company returned to more traditional territory on the album’s middle portion. “If God Would Send His Angels,” an acoustic-tinged ballad, features U2’s traditional sound as Bono has yet another conversation with God, “Staring at the Sun” – the album’s second single – is a paint-by-numbers U2 single that didn’t chart well, but found new life live where Bono and the Edge played it stripped down as an acoustic duo. Meanwhile, “Last Night on Earth” and “Gone” are fuzzy rockers that sound like they could have fit in on Achtung Baby but are somewhat interchangeable. If you removed the first three tracks, Pop, up to this point, could have been U2’s return to form.
U2 returned to experimentation with “Miami,” easily the worst track on Pop and one of the worst songs the band has ever recorded. Almost a decade later, Q magazine included “Miami” in a feature entitled “Ten Terrible Records by Great Artists.” Featuring a looping drum and Mullen’s hi-hat played backwards, “Miami” also sees Bono rhyming the title with “my mammy.” This could have been a song best left to rot in the middle of the record, but the band trotted it out more than 60 times on the PopMart tour. It also begins the trend of bad U2 songs named after cities. Meanwhile, “The Playboy Mansion” is pleasant enough but feels dated with references to Michael Jackson and O. J. Simpson.
Just like Achtung Baby, Pop closes with some of U2’s strongest ever songs. The trio that finishes Pop redeem the atrocity of “Miami.” A dark calm surrounds “If You Wear That Velvet Dress,” Pop’s most ambient track. Bono’s vocals rarely rise above a whisper, making it sounds like some of the sensuous songs Pulp released in the second half of the ‘90s. The real showstopper is penultimate track, “Please,” one that has aged into one of the band’s most underappreciated masterpieces. Like God and love, “Please” deals with another one of Bono’s preoccupations: the conflict in Northern Ireland. Mullen’s drumming recalls his work on “Sunday Bloody Sunday” and the Edge’s guitar adds a sinister dimension. If the song had been released a decade earlier, it would have likely been a hit. The album ends with “Wake Up Dead Man,” a leftover from the Achtung Baby sessions, a strong, if somewhat downbeat way finale. As Bono pleads with Jesus to save the world, the song goes from dirge to full-on anthem. It is also likely the first U2 track to feature the f-bomb.
While Pop burst out of the gate and debuted at one number one on the charts in nearly 30 countries, its sales quickly flagged. It ultimately went on to sell 6.7 million copies, even less than Zooropa. Even the band seemed to distance itself from the record, claiming that it was made of compromise and would have sounded different had the band had more time to record. Since its release, U2 has re-recorded and remixed many of the tracks.
Still, without Pop, U2 never would have recorded “The Ground Beneath Her Feet.” Rather than press forward, however, U2 retreated and put out the backwards looking All That You Can’t Leave Behind three years later. Featuring mammoth hits such as “Beautiful Day” and “Elevation,” the album felt like a stab at commercial, rather than artistic, success. It worked, as it sold 12 million copies worldwide. Still, All That You Cannot Leave Behind feels like a strong U2 record but isn’t nearly as daring or audacious as Pop. As the ‘90s came to the close, so did U2’s most adventurous period. The proof is there on record. More than half of Pop is indelible U2, better than most of the band’s post-2000 songs.