20 Years Ago: U2 Digs Deeper Into Electronic Music With ‘Pop’
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U2’s early-‘90s transformation from stadium-shaking messiahs to experimental-rock giants doesn’t sound all that revolutionary in hindsight.
Don’t get us wrong: 1991’s Achtung Baby — and to a lesser degree its hastily assembled 1993 follow-up, Zooropa — is a great album, one of the band’s best. It just doesn’t sound out of place on U2’s timeline now. But 1997’s Pop still does.
The group’s members – together, solo and in side projects – spent the downtime between Zooropa and Pop playing around with electronic beats, most notably on the album they recorded in 1995 with producer Brian Eno as Passengers. So they went into their ninth album operating under the premise that it would be a techno record. They enlisted electronic producers Flood, Howie B and Steve Osborne and wrote a bunch of songs that shifted rhythm to the beats. It was a grand experiment and a bit of a mess. And it’s way more exciting than you think.
But beneath all the electronic glitter and machine grime lies a pretty solid set of songs. “Discothèque,” “If God Will Send His Angels,” “Last Night on Earth,” “Gone” and, especially, “Staring at the Sun” are prime ‘90s-era U2, all ringing guitars, roof-raising vocals and, yes, digital dusting. Strip away the electronic elements that alienated many fans and you’d have a hard time pinning the songs to anyone’s techno album.
Even though it doesn’t receive much love these days, Pop debuted at No. 1 and eventually went platinum. Six singles were pulled from the album, but only “Discothèque,” which hit the Top 10 and No. 1 on Billboard‘s Modern Rock chart, and “Staring at the Sun” (also No. 1 at Modern Rock) made much noise. It would be another three years before U2 made another record, and they learned their lesson: All That You Can’t Leave Behind was their most U2-like album in years. It stalled at No. 3 (the first U2 album since 1984’s The Unforgettable Fire to not reach the top spot), but it sparked the band’s rebirth. It took their electro-techno experiment to get them back on path.
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