Better by design – Zooropa (1993)

Zooropa is the sort of album that can only be made in a very specific time in a band’s life cycle. Its easily the most experimental U2 album, and part of its power comes from how sharply it contrasts with the rest of U2’s discography. As such it could only be recorded past a certain point in the band’s history, but then if a band gets old enough it hits a comfortable groove where the need to be experimental has largely passed by. U2 would get to that point soon enough, but after the transcendent Achtung Baby they felt like their newfound creative energy needed to be channeled to a new recording.

It’s an anomalous album in more ways than one. Originally intended to be an EP, it was recorded between legs of the Zoo TV tour. The band eventually decided to make it a full album. It was recorded in a matter of months, something that U2 had not done since their early days, and indeed have not done since. There was also a conscious decision to leave off the more traditional rock anthems in favor of weird pop songs. Given all these elements it’s inevitable that Zooropa would feel like a detour, but its quick-and-dirty approach makes for something that, while not completely thought out, is at least fresh and impetuous in a way the band simply cannot manage anymore.

At least a couple of songs on Zooropa feel like they are in conversation with U2’s past, none moreso than the title track, which opens the album. Containing a long intro that recalls “Where The Streets Have No Name,” it shimmers into focus as something beautiful and sad. Rather than an explosion of cathartic joy at the freedom of the wild, it’s a meditation on a world that has become dominated by ad slogans and commercial achievement. It’s a staggering intro, one that the album is only occasionally up to meeting. Likewise, “The First Time” feels like a song intentionally meant to evoke the worshipful songs of the band’s early 1980’s output, but with a strange disquieting effect and ambiguous lyric. Bono famously called Achtung Baby the sound of a band chopping down The Joshua Tree, but Zooropa seems to be far more focused on contrasting with what came before, at least from a sonic standpoint.

Both “Zooropa” and “The First Time” feel like they could have been made by 1980’s U2, or at least like they have some connection to what has come before. Most of Zooropa isn’t nearly that direct. After the opening track, four of the next five songs are intensely rhythmic and a little repetitive in a mesmeric electronic kind of way. “Babyface” has an almost lullaby-like keyboard part and focuses on how sex and intimacy is affected by technology. It’s an eerily prescient track, given that the internet was barely a thing in 1993. “Numb” and “Lemon” were both released as singles, making them some of the strangest singles the band ever released. “Numb” in particular is a bizarre song, almost industrial sounding with a droning chanted lyric from The Edge. It works very well, probably better than it should, because it furthers the idea of personhood lost among technology and marketing. “Lemon” is another strange animal, a song as intensely personal as it is inscrutable. It almost sounds like an outtake from a Prince album, with Bono’s strange falsetto floating above a weird skittering beat for over six minutes. Once again it works better than it has a right to, because the band sounds bold and confident, as if they somehow have been doing this kind of music the whole time. The second half of the album opens with “Daddy’s Gonna Pay For Your Crashed Car,” which is actually one of my favorite songs on the album. Maybe it’s the Soviet anthem that plays at the beginning, or the relentless crashing beat that keeps it moving. I’m sure the sensual lyric helps to focus it as well. It’s on these tracks that Zooropa feels more like a success, as if the band understood everything they needed to accomplish and committed to all of the weird places they were led.

Most of the rest of the album isn’t up to the task, and almost all of those songs are in the second half. While “The First Time” stands as an interesting counterpoint to 1980’s U2, it’s kind of a boring song on its own. “Dirty Day” is a good three-minute song trapped in a five-minute one, and “Some Days Are Better Than Others” is U2 at their frothiest. Here we can see the rushed nature of the album pulling some wind out of the sails. But there are still the tracks that close each half of the album, both of which stand among U2’s finest songs.

“Stay (Faraway, So Close!)” is one of U2’s most beautiful songs, a soaring song where the band thankfully let themselves indulge in all their most U2-ish tendencies. It’s a fantastic lyric as well, filled with morning-after regret and longing. It would go on to become a concert staple, probably the only song Zooropa to attain that status. But I actually think Zooropa‘s finest moment comes at the end. “The Wanderer” is a brilliant song, a post-apocalyptic journey through scorched earth and dark skies. Rightly sensing that Bono’s voice wasn’t up to the task, U2 tapped Johnny Cash for the vocal. It seems strange that the Man in Black would work so well above a burbling electronic melody, but it is astonishingly effective, and it ends Zooropa on a high note.

U2’s output since Zooropa eventually settled into a very comfortable anthemic groove, so people who don’t like that may look at Zooropa with a sense of what could have been. But that feels wrong-headed to me, a case of celebrating a band for the work that is least representative of their personality. It’s true that Zooropa is something of a black sheep, but that’s not totally owing to its experimental nature. At least part of its reputation comes from the fact that it doesn’t totally hold together down the stretch. Still it’s one of U2’s most interesting and compelling albums precisely because of the risks it takes, even if most of those risks didn’t translate into forward momentum.

Into The Heart
In which Nate explores his personal connection to each U2 album

Truth be told, Zooropa is a tough album to connect to emotionally. Of the band’s 1990’s work it’s the one I revisit the least. That being said, when I do revisit it I find that I usually like it more than I remember. Unlike a lot of other “experimental” U2 albums, the parts that work the best are often the really weird ones. I sometimes find myself wishing that they would go back into that really weird mode again, but then that weird mode isn’t really who they are. As such Zooropa often ends up being the album I listen to when I don’t really want to deal with all of U2’s overbearing stuff.

From The Sky Down
In which Nate ranks all of U2’s albums in order of his favorites.

1. Achtung Baby
2. The Joshua Tree
3. War
4. The Unforgettable Fire
5. Zooropa
6. Boy
7. Under A Blood Red Sky
8. Rattle And Hum
9. October

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