U2 have not reinvented themselves so much as rediscovered themselves...
The word was that this would be U2's intrepid and possibly self-destructive entry into the dark heart of modern dance music. It was going to be a techno album. It was going to be simmering trip-hop. The much discussed involvement of DJs Howie B and Nellee Hooper (the former Soul II Soul/Bjork/Massive Attack producer) implied that there was some truth in the rumors. The reality is much less unsettling and much more interesting than could have been hoped for. After 20 years the Irish quartet have made their first great album.
Released on March 3, POP is not a dance record. You would no more dance to it than you would recite poetry to a toaster. U2 have done what Blur might have done with their eponymous fifth album, unfavourably reviewed here three weeks ago. They have not tried to co-opt a sound wholesale: instead, they have taken the spirit of the new electronic music and used it to inspire a fabulous rock album. This, in other words, is the flip side of the Prodigy's Music for the Jilted Generation. U2 have not reinvented themselves so much as rediscovered themselves.
POP sees the happy coincidence of two new developments. First is a wholly unexpected melodic and atmospheric subtlety -- a heightened sense of light and shade (rather than just loud and quiet, as so often before) seems to have infused the material. The simple truth is that the tunes sparkle like gems. Second, the dalliance with dance styles renders traditional songcraft even less important than it was before. U2 are playing to their strengths, a fact that is instantly made clear by the breathtaking force of the 15-minute opening sequence, which consists of the fine single "Discotheque," followed by "Do You Feel Loved," and "Mofo." All three pieces mesh pulsing, technofied synthesizers and/or synthetic beats with the reliably pneumatic bass and drums of Adam Clayton and Larry Mullen. They rock, to be sure, but with a rare fluidity. Driven forward by the Edge's vivid, adventurous guitar playing, galvanized by Bono's finely judged vocal performances, U2 have never sounded better.
It seems obvious that, from here, things can only go downhill. They do not. The spell cast by that monumental opening never wears off. "Miami," co-produced by Howie B, is the first dark offering. There are breathy, industrial rhythms, robotic, walking bass lines, lots of drones and clangs. If U2 were going to slip up, it would be here, but the clever way these unfamiliar elements combine with shifting chord changes and ghostly, half-submerged melodies has an unexpectedly compelling effect. Elsewhere, "Last Night On Earth" establishes a pattern to be followed by several songs, starting off as a pretty piece of nothing much, before growing into an intense, moving gale of a piece. The best of these is "Please," so underwhelming to begin with, so devastating by the end. Again, Bono's delivery is passionate without once giving the impression that his hemorrhoids are on fire. And as with "Mofo" and another sweeping stand-out track, "Gone," the content is unusually raw, the standard stuff about faith and disillusionment rubbing shoulders with some exclusively personal demons. "Mofo" does appear to be an interesting meditation on the emotional legacy of his mother, who died when he was 14.
Of 12 tracks, only two fail to satisfy (the pretty mundanely U2-esque "If God Will Send His Angels" and the whimsical "The Playboy Mansion," for the record). By anyone's standards, this is a favorable ratio, making it all the more surprising to learn that, reading between the lines of recent statements from the band there was a lot of tension and conflict in the studio. On the other hand, perhaps this was necessary. As Bono commenting on the current state of rock music, said recently: "There's a difference between liking something because it's great and liking something because it reminds you of something that was great." For the first time in 10 years, U2 have had something to react against, other than themselves and their runaway success.
It is time to give U2 their due, then. They have in the past been accused of pretentiousness, as with the Zoo TV tour (which they got away with) and 1995's 'experimental' Passengers album (which they did not). Yet the latter case is interesting. Even Mullen detests Passengers, though the Edge thinks his drummer will come round to it in a few years' time. Personally, I doubt this, but, in retrospect, you could look upon it as a kind of sketchbook, a preparation for POP.
This is a terrific album.
(edited version of original review)