The Unforgettable Fire is a strange beast, as U2 albums go. Despite possessing one of the greatest of all U2 singles, it is generally not as radio-friendly as other U2 albums that are normally thought of as being great. Some of the songs still deal in big soaring melodies, but have hooks that are more subdued. Still other songs function only as mood pieces, soundscapes that set up atmosphere more than anything else. It would be easy for such a work to be almost unlistenable, especially given how the moodiness of October resulted in a rather half-baked album.
But U2 had come a long way over a three year span, coming off of their greatest artistic achievement to that point in War. Their songwriting took a giant leap forward of course, but they also sensed that fiery passion might become a little one-note given enough time, an observation they might not have been able to make until this point. So they made the choice to work with Brian Eno and Danial Lanois. At this point Eno was already known for his pioneering work in ambient music, which seemed like a strange match for U2’s earnest anthems. It proved to be the most fruitful recording relationship in U2’s history.
Most of The Unforgettable Fire‘s power comes from the constant struggle between Eno’s moodiness and U2’s desire to make a big obvious statement. Rather than curdling into a pretentious mess, it gave U2’s music a depth and beauty that they had never come close to achieving to that point. It might be the only U2 album to not go for the obvious payoff at every turn. Tracks like “A Sort Of Homecoming” and “Wire” soar with U2’s grand statement, but both follow melody lines that are memorable without feeling pandering. Instead they have a meandering quality, even while they pulse with energy. Others, like “Promenade” and “MLK,” wander into focus just long enough to create an impression, and then fade out once again.
Two tracks in particular feel totally unlike anything else on a U2 album. The first is “4th of July,” a the woozy, shimmering opener to the second side. It’s a quiet instrumental piece, not a little unsettling. Such sonic detours haven’t been absent since then, but they remain firmly in the realm of B-sides. This isn’t a big loss, though not because it isn’t a lovely track. I just have trouble seeing how it could even work in any other album context besides this one. The other offbeat track is the far less successful “Elvis Presley And America,” an interminable rambling drumbeat where Bono mumbles improvised poetry. It’s in the running for the worst song to appear on a U2 album, though I still find it interesting in a “Revolution 9” kind of way, a swing for the fence that fails mightily. This kind of experimentation is what makes The Unforgettable Fire so special.
But such experimentation would be a chore to listen to if it wasn’t anchored by three of U2’s best songs ever. “Pride (In The Name Of Love) is justly remembered as one of the catchiest singles the band ever did, but title track might be even better. It manages to be both menacing and lovely, a best-case scenario for what U2 could accomplish with Eno and Lanois. But both songs take a back seat to the emotional centerpiece of the album, “Bad.” A six-minute epic that talks about addiction in a very abstract way, “Bad” is not only the perfect slow-burn U2 song, gradually building to a heavenly climax. It also contains what might be considered Bono’s finest vocal performance, and I can’t listen to his repeated refrains of “I’m wide awake” without getting chills. It’s on the shoulders of “Bad” that U2 would make such an impression at Live Aid, another one of those moments when the legend of the band really began to take hold.
More than any other U2 album, The Unforgettable Fire seems to have a cult following. That’s a strange thing to say with any of this band’s albums, but keep in mind that this is usually considered a second-tier release from U2. And yet I’ve met countless fans who hold it beside such masterpieces as The Joshua Tree. It’s a very specific vision of U2, one that they would keep with them through the years but would (or could) never replicate. That alone makes it special and worthy of admiration.
Into The Heart
In which Nate explores his personal connection to each U2 album.
The Unforgettable Fire is kind of a weird album to come to when your first frame of reference is U2’s 21st Century output. For a while I considered it to be a little overrated, not unlike how I viewed most of their early work. But sometimes age comes with a bit of wisdom, and now I would put it in the upper echelon of the band’s work. While it colored the bands output for years to come, nothing else they have done works in quite the same way. I’d even argue that it holds together as a whole album as effectively as anything they’ve done.
From The Sky Down
In which Nate ranks all of U2’s albums in order of his favorite
2. The Unforgettable Fire
4. Under A Blood Red Sky