30 years ago this year, U2 released their seminal album ‘The Joshua Tree’ to mass critical acclaim, and it has gone on to become perhaps one of the most iconic albums of all time, – its anniversary is being celebrated with a special tour later this year. What U2 almost certainly won’t be celebrating, or perhaps even mentioning, is the anniversary of another album: 1997’s ‘Pop’. 20 years ago, the band released this album to mixed reviews and lacklustre sales, by U2’s standards at least, and the whole thing has been swept under the rug by the band. This is a terrible shame. This article will be looking back over ‘Pop’ and delving into why I believe it to be not only a great album, but quite possibly one of U2’s best.
In the mid-1990’s, U2 had just completed their Zoo TV tour and they were in the midst of a highly creative, experimental period, which drove them on to continue their collaboration with Brian Eno, spawning the fantastically underrated ‘Original Soundtracks 1’ (most famous for the single ‘Miss Sarajevo’) which showcases the band’s little-seen ambient side. The band’s thirst for experimentation only grew and, for a multitude of reasons, they began to explore electronica, sampling, and dance music with producers including Flood, Howie B and Nellee Hooper – these long, arduous sessions eventually spawned ‘Pop’, and while it certainly wasn’t a trouble-free time for the band, there is no denying that the music is among their most daring.
As ‘Discotheque’ fades in we immediately get an image of a transformed band. Gone are the classic delay-soaked guitars they became famous for, replaced with heavy distortion to the point where the guitars are at times completely unrecognisable. While ‘boom-cha, boom-cha, Discotheque’ isn’t the band’s most mentally stimulating chorus, the song boom-chas through your speakers heralding this new electronic era of U2, and it’s followed by two more equally dizzying tracks – ‘Do You Feel Loved’ and ‘Mofo’, the former of which dabbles in sampling and the latter going full on techno. The main riff of ‘Mofo’ is one of the ballsiest things the band have ever recorded, which gives room for Bono to get away with some fantastically personal lyrics about his late mother.
‘Mother, am I still your son?
You know I’ve waited so long to hear you say so
Mother, you left and made me someone
Now I’m still a child, but no-one tells me no’
After the opening three-track salvo, U2 mellow out the mood with ‘If God Will Send His Angels’, a track which could be described as the perfect middle ground between early 90’s U2 and 2001’s ‘All That You Can’t Leave Behind’, and the following tracks ‘Staring At The Sun’ and ‘Last Night On Earth’ continue along this slightly more mellow route, but the distorted guitars and huge sound we were introduced to with the opening tracks are still here, but incorporated into a slightly more ‘classic’ U2 sound. Something to note here is how many of these tracks sound like huge hit singles. Half of the songs on ‘Pop’ were, in fact, released as singles in 1997 and there are certainly a couple more that could have been too – such as ‘Gone’, which was considered for release as a single but was scrapped for whatever reason, likely there had been too many singles already. The songwriting here feels like a band in its prime, with such a huge amount of energy.
Bono’s lyrics on this album are audacious to say the least. Tongue firmly planted in cheek, what I feel the band is trying to put across here is the real sense of excess in the 90’s and the complete immersion in all things kitsch and pop culture. This is U2 for the ‘Fight Club’ era, an era where people were becoming more and more exacerbated with the importance of celebrity and commercialism, and particularly with the vapid picture of America put across in mainstream movies and television. No song expresses this better than ‘Miami’, which is without a doubt one of the strangest tracks the band has released, but the uncomfortable drum loops and brooding vocals paint a picture that is so incredibly vivid – a picture of an America obsessed with image.
The closing third of the album is far more mellow – ‘The Playboy Mansion’ continues the attack on the artificial that we heard in ‘Miami’, and the crooning, sexy tones of ‘If You Wear That Velvet Dress’ take this album from the streets of the city to the hotel room. This is U2’s night-time album, it definitely feels like we’re going on a journey from the rave to the come-down as the tracks segue from loud techno influence and booming choruses into existential lyrics and minimal arrangements.
‘Your Catholic blues, your convent shoes, your stick-on tattoos, now they’re making the news
Your holy war, your northern star, your sermon on the mount from the boot of your car’
Penultimate track ‘Please’ is a definite highlight and up there with the best in the band’s catalogue – there is real political anger on this track, and returns to the theme of the Troubles that Bono has consistently written about through U2’s career – he absolutely nails it with the desperation in his voice here. Album closer ‘Wake Up Dead Man’ contains some startlingly frank, religiously themed lyrics, and leaves the album on a chilling note and yet with all these moods throughout, no track feels out of place on ‘Pop’, they all feel like part of one big canvas, and a canvas that is just as relevant today as it was in 1997.
For all the stick it gets, U2’s ‘Pop’ is one of the most cohesive and inventive albums they’ve released, and while you’d be hard pressed to put any album up there with ‘The Joshua Tree’ and ‘Achtung Baby’, one can’t help but get the feeling that this album deserves to be somewhere near, or perhaps even in that echelon. U2 have not played a single song from ‘Pop’ live since 2005 – while the band likely don’t have the fondest memories of this era (and we certainly won’t be getting a ‘Pop’ anniversary tour…), I hope that this year, on its 20th anniversary, the band finally acknowledge the album for the absolute genius it was and treat the crowd to even just one song from it. Please.