The high street never looked so low – Pop (1997)

No one seems to know what to do with Pop, least of all myself. It’s the sort of album I could spend all day discussing without ever really arriving at what does or doesn’t work. Certainly it comes with a lot of baggage, usually regarded as the album that broke U2 and forced them to go back into hiding before regrouping in the new millennium. It has a reputation for being highly experimental, but after the strange detours of Zooropa, Pop feels a lot less outer-spacey. It’s regarded as something of a flop, even though it made it number one in several countries and went platinum a few times over. It feels like every time one tries to nail Pop down, it wriggles away and forces a reassessment.

U2 had run themselves hard during the early 1990’s, rushing through two albums and numerous legs of the Zoo TV Tour. The years immediately following that tour were ones of decompression and relaxation. It was a sunny time that the band hoped to capture on their next album. That’s where the central concept of Pop originated, as a celebration of a sunny, almost hedonistic, lifestyle. From the beginning there was a strong association between this feeling and the club music the band was enjoying at the time, and that was beginning to become popular in mainstream culture.

The curious thing is, anyone who has listened to Pop can tell you that it is anything but a light-hearted romp. It embraces the hedonism for about three songs, seems to sense their emptiness, then settles into a groove of regret, spiritual quests, and above all a sense that the world is fundamentally broken. Even the club influences that were supposed to be so strong are largely abandoned a quarter of the way through. They definitely strong on the first three tracks though. “Discotheque” was the lead single, a weird song that is sometimes regarded as being a lame attempt to be cool but never plays that way. “Do You Feel Loved” embraces that hedonistic, sensual edge perfectly, partially because it doesn’t shy away from its inherent darkness. It’s followed by “Mofo,” which more than any other track on Pop takes the concept to its limit. It’s a furious maelstrom of a song, all swirling drum machines, electronic shrieks, and heartbroken lyrics. It’s actually a pretty staggering beginning to the album, and we’re only three tracks in.

But then something happens starting with “If God Would Send His Angels,” which opens without any of the fury or intensity of “Mofo.” Instead it feels like a conversation in the wee hours, filled with observations about the cheapness of claiming to pursue God while still being part of a machine that doesn’t do much to promote godly behavior. It’s a sharp turn to which the album commits from there, whether it’s the spiritual doubts of “Staring At The Sun” or the ruminations on the hollowness of fame in “Gone.” Still, as transitions go it’s actually pretty effective. I’m not sure the blast of energy in the first three songs is something that would have felt honest throughout a whole album, since U2 isn’t really a hedonistic band in the first place. It makes more sense that they would push in that direction and then feel laden with regret for a while. That’s a narrative that definitely fits Pop, which would make it conceptually one of the strongest U2 albums ever.

There does however seem to be a sense in which U2 didn’t really intend for the album to go in that direction. The indication is that they really did want to make something that embraced the concept of “pop” with less irony. If that’s the case then it makes sense that they regard Pop as black eye. Indeed, I sometimes wonder if the people most responsible for Pop‘s poor reputation are U2 themselves. Only “Discotheque,” “Staring At The Sun,” and “Gone” have had any real presence on their setlists, and those are indeed the three tracks from Pop that appeared on the Best of 1990-2000 collection. It’s telling that they were all drastically reworked for their appearance on that collection to bring them closer in line to how U2 wanted them to sound. All four members have been open about their dissatisfaction with the final project, that they needed more time to really get it to where it needed to be. That they had already spent two years on what we actually got doesn’t change the fact that the album was rushed down the stretch, owing to the bizarre decision to book the accompanying Popmart tour before the album had been finished. They all seem to agree that the album escaped more than it was released.

I could understand U2’s ambivalence better if the final product were loaded with filler. But the truth is that there are a lot of worthy songs here. Even outside of the songs U2 has deemed worthy, tracks like “If God Would Send His Angels” and “Last Night On Earth” play a lot better than their tepid response seems to indicate. The back half of the album is filled with great work, like the coiled political mourning “Please,” and the experimental-yet-bracing “Miami.” “If You Wear That Velvet Dress” wins for one of the most sensual Bono vocals ever, doing nothing to disguise its lust or its menace. And “Wake Up Dead Man,” which closes the album, is frankly staggering. It’s U2 at their least pretentious and most effective, a song that seems sadly more relevant with every passing year. In fact on the whole album only “The Playboy Mansion” really bombs, heavy with 90’s references as it is. Pop actually features some of Bono’s strongest lyrical work as well. While it lacks the universality of Achtung Baby‘s lyrics, it feels more personal and unique.

The closest album to which I would compare Pop is Weezer’s Pinkerton. While they sound nothing alike, they both share a feeling that they were intensely personal albums whose creators immediately regretted their oversharing. Rivers Cuomo was eventually able to make peace with Pinkerton, after it was thoroughly embraced by his fans. In that sense U2 doesn’t really need to embrace Pop, because they already have so much other great music that their fans love. But it remains a strangely misrepresented album by the band. It may be that they didn’t intend to create the album they did, but what they did create is far better than they give it credit for.

Into the heart
In which Nate explores his personal connection to each U2 album

My opinions on Pop have evolved drastically as I’ve gotten older. My first listen was one of surprise, and frankly, a touch of betrayal. Almost all of that was centered around “Wake Up Dead Man,” which opens with the line “Jesus, Jesus help me. I’m alone in this world, and a fucked up world it is too.” At the time I felt it was too vulgar a sentiment, but the more I see of the world the more appropriate it feels. There are moments on Pop that seem to track extensively with how the world has revealed itself as I’ve entered adulthood, particularly from a Christian viewpoint. It’s an album about sin, redemption, repentance, and disappointment that things aren’t how they should be. Thankfully this dark view of the world isn’t the whole story, but there are times when Pop feels like the most candid Christian album of all time.

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. Pop
5. The Unforgettable Fire
6. Zooropa
7. Boy
8. Under A Blood Red Sky
9. Rattle And Hum
10. October

No new installment of Luminous Times next week, since I’ll be on vacation. I’ll be back on January 2nd to talk about All That You Can’t Leave Behind.

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