By JOHN ELLIS
There were a zillion reasons why U2’s 1997 album Pop was considered to be the band’s nadir. Today, three studio albums and a billion dollars later, U2-watchers remain fiercely divided over the glitterball-y, Warholian K-Mart of an album that The Edge described upon its release as “about as far away from U2 as it’s possible to be”. One need only raise half an eyebrow at song titles such as Discotheque and The Playboy Mansion, or even at the title of the album itself, and wonder where the windswept existentialism of The Unforgettable Fire had been banished to. The reviews were savage, and U2 very nearly disowned the album, writing it off as “unfinished” and performing hardly any of it on the subsequent PopMart tour.
Almost 20 years later, the album’s redeeming features are notable. Here, on the eve of yet another forthcoming U2 attraction, are reasons to be kind to Pop:
Only in 1999/2000, during the making of their U2 tribute album All That You Can’t Leave Behind, did the Edge make attempts to sound like the yearning seagull Edge of yore. On this, the band’s last album of the 20th century, the sonic experiments begun in the weary wake of 1989’s Lovetown tour (that led to the sheer un-Edge-iness of Achtung Baby and beyond) are pushed to the limit. Quite rightly bored of being The Edge, Mr. The Edge (as he would now be known on the PopMart tour) disengaged the stereo delays and set his phaser to “Stun”. It suits him, and it suits U2. He plays staccato, riff-y, unadulterated disco guitar, and he’s forced to confront the good old-fashioned tone of a guitar straight into an amp. Listen to the secondary riff that kicks in halfway through Discotheque or the verse work on Last Night On Earth. Earthy and visceral. And what would Pop be without Edge’s Digitech Whammy pedal, used so unforgettably on 1991’s Even Better Than The Real Thing? Those high-pitched swooping screams on Gone and Mofo are not 48-fret guitars, people. Edge is being as un-Edge-like as possible all over this record, and he would never sound this fresh and progressive again, unfortunately. Elevation be damned.
The second track on Pop is entitled Do You Feel Loved. With no question mark. A printing error? Unlikely, for so fastidious an organisation as U2. Bono later explained, “[‘Do you feel loved?’] is quite a question… But we took the question mark out because we thought it was a bit heavy with the question mark”. Performed only eight times in concert in the band’s history, one of the best recorded U2 songs remains memorable only for its missing punctuation, which, it is suggested, was a public service omission. Can punctuation change the world? Would “U2?” change the public perception of “U2”? Not a debate most casual fans of rock ‘n roll would be interested in having, and yet this is noteworthy feature of Pop: a willingness to get it all completely wrong, and still have a good time doing it. Gobby Dubliners don’t usually mess with the mechanics of language (Joyce and Behan excluded), so this violent jettisoning of punctuation is what it looks like: punktuation.
Larry Mullen Jr. has a “heavy foot”, according to Bono. The martial might of the band’s rhythm section, he always sounded powerful and convincing on record. Until All That You Can’t Leave Behind, that is. Some very dubious mix decisions were taken from that record on with regard to Larry’s recorded drum sounds, with the result that Pop contains some of the last best examples of powerful Larry Mullen Jr. drum tones. Interestingly enough, Larry missed the first three weeks of the recording of this album due to drumming-related back operations, and the issue of ‘live drums’ versus ‘sampled drums’ and drum loops became a contentious issue on Pop. Nevertheless, Larry’s drum tone is mixed sympathetically and his playing is consistently forthright and convincing. Listen to how he dominates Miami when he eventually gets a (heavy) foot in the door, or how he still manages to make his presence felt on the loop-heavy tumult of Mofo. He too, unfortunately, would never sound as good again on record.
This song single-handedly saves Pop. A barn-storming maelstrom of post-rave groove-driven synth-heavy chaos, it did what U2 were often good at, at least once an album: it clobbered you with its sheer weight. And it proved even more show-stopping live, having been chosen to open PopMart shows all over the world. Mofo remains a sledgehammer of a song, and despite its dance-laden intentions, it still manages to include some keening Edge guitar melodies that make your hair stand up. One of U2’s most powerful recorded moments, and worth the price of the whole album. Plus, its title is more linguistic non-U2-ness. Everyone knows what a “mofo” is, and this song is quite simply one heavy rock n roll mofo.
As we all know all too well, Bono is a talker. Admittedly, he gives great interview. Strangely enough for such an eloquent Irishman, he’s been capable of some awful lyric writing in his career. U2’s Atomic Bomb album of 2004 contains pearlers such as “freedom has the scent/ like the top of a new-born baby’s head” and “an intellectual tortoise/ racing with your bullet train”. The less said about 2009’s No Line On The Horizon the better (Unknown Caller, anyone?). Pop isn’t without its gauche cringeworthiness either: “It’s the blind leading the blonde/ It’s the stuff, the stuff of country songs”. We deserve more from the man who stirred our souls with the mysteries of A Sort Of Homecoming or even Heartland, and thankfully, to a large degree, Pop ‘s good lyricism outweighs its bad. The whole of Staring At The Sun stands out, as does the word-painting of Miami. Bono had an artistic agenda on this record, and he was a few years away from saving Africa, NYC, the Third World, AIDS victims and Christians with iPods, RED clothing and Gucci sunglasses. He’s ironic, playful and not too serious on Pop, in other words, very un-U2, which, in the light of what was to follow (Get On Your Boots, anyone else?), makes Pop a rewarding U2 album to return to.