Howard Hampton in Spin
Zooropa sounds mostly like a band shedding its skin, trying on different selves for size.
With Achtung Baby, U2 was able to get out from under the suffocating respectability it had worked so hard to achieve. Like seminarians turned loose in a brothel, Bono and the gang discovered sex and chaos, malaise and spectacle, Warhol and the Velvets. Now, on Zooropa, U2 is bidding to up the ante on its new freedom, and to figure out how far the band can take it and what it might be worth.
So Zooropa sounds mostly like a band shedding its skin, trying on different selves for size. A tour of disintegrating borders and fading dreams, it's a record without a center, but also without the uplifting constraints U2's music used to root itself in. "Babyface" isn't just pure bubble gum, a sweetly inconsequential come-on pitched somewhere between Bryan Ferry and Tommy James; it's defiantly so. Bono used to sing like a man terrified he wouldn't be taken seriously, so he etched every emotion in granite tablets. He sang the way Charlton Heston acts. But he's playful here, singing a dumb song without a thought of his sacred image or the band's reputation, each "duh-duh-duh" blurring the line between sincerity and parody with immaculate conviction.
Even reverting to form with the platitudes of "Some Days Are Better Than Others," Bono is willing to let a little irony and distortion creep in to undermine the sermonette. He's also willing to let the music carry the meanings and not spell everything out, so that he becomes less the lead singer than simply another instrument in the suggestive, unsteady mix. Zooropa has the feel of real collectivity. Edge's processed guitar and keyboards, Larry Mullen, Jr.'s free-floating drumbeats, and Adam Clayton's bass pulse are all equally weighted, equally integral. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the enigmatic "Lemon," an almost random chain of images and melodies that at first seems to be going nowhere and then develops into a breathtaking fable of desire and oblivion. The Eno-inspired "A man makes a picture" passages are suffused with the light of a dying world, bleeding into Bono's search for "something other" as quietly as a movie dissolving from a deathbed scene to a funeral at sunrise.
The brutal, terrifying "Daddy's Gonna Pay For Your Crashed Car," with its cross-town traffic in incest and capitalism run amok, is one measure of the state of Zooropa. (The nightmare's unmistakable, but the party's too good to leave anyway.) Another is "The First Time," which winds its way through mansions of gnostic parable - "And I threw away the key" may be the truest line Bono has ever sung, or hoped to. But U2 saves the most perverse and thrilling bit for last. "The Wanderer" turns Jesus into Dion, bringing guest Johnny Cash in to sing it as a cowboy philosopher drifting through the ruins of the West. Here's the song David Koresh never got to sing, but the prophecy he lived all the same. "The Wanderer" is as measured and spooky a vision as the low notes opening it and the falsetto swoops that close it out. Zooropa indicates U2 might be worthy of whatever absurd mutations the '90s throw their way.