Kurt Loder in Rolling Stone
This is not a 'bad' album, but neither is it the irrefutable beauty the band's fans anticipated...
The title of U2's fifth album is perversely suggestive. Over the course of three studio LPs and one live-in-concert item, this stormy Irish guitar band, borne aloft by its grand, anthemic roar and an earnest concern for social issues, had ascended to the verge of substantial rock stardom in this country. Unfortunately, with The Unforgettable Fire, U2 flickers and nearly fades, its fire banked by a misconceived production strategy and occasional interludes of soggy, songless self-indulgence. This is not a "bad" album, but neither is it the irrefutable beauty the band's fans anticipated. What happened?
Actually, that's not entirely true. Singer Bono is certainly at home here - as well he should be, given that his vocals are way out in front in the mix. Lacking consistently strong, well-defined material, the producers attempt to create dynamic tension in the tracks by focusing on discrete musical elements: the rich tone of Adam Clayton's bass, the hypnotic possibilities of Larry Mullen's drum patterns, the subtle symphonic swell of Eno's own synthesizer. And in the process they chop Evans' roaring guitar style into inventive snippets, enriching the mix but draining the band of its fundamental source of power, Bono tries to make up for that loss. His stentorian bellow remains impressive - particularly on "A Sort of Homecoming" and "Pride (In the Name of Love)," the two most successful tracks - and he exhibits a new sense of control (primarily on the title song, in which his fragile, cracked grasp of the falsetto phrase "stay tonight" suggests an engaging vulnerability).
The Unforgettable Fire seems to drone on and on, an endless flurry of chinkety guitar scratchings, state-of-the-art sound processing and the most mundane sort of lyrical imagery (barbed wire is a big concept). U2's original power flickers through only intermittently. When it does, though, you can forgive them the uncharacteristic flounderings found here (among a few memorable tracks) and hope they won't forget where their real fire lies the next time out.
(condensed from original review)