In Defense of … U2’s ‘Zooropa’
Bono famously described ‘Achtung Baby’ as the “sound of four men chopping down ‘The Joshua Tree.’” If that’s true, then ‘Zooropa’ was the sound of them setting ‘The Joshua Tree’ on fire and proceeding to dance around the blaze.
Hastily recorded between legs of the Zoo TV tour and released less than two years after ‘Achtung Baby,’ 1993’s ‘Zooropa’ produced no hits and has since been dismissed by many U2 fans and even the band itself as a transitional record, a throwaway — or worse, as the beginning of the band’s long midlife crisis, the one that lasted for the rest of the ‘90s and produced their weakest album, 1997’s ludicrous ‘Pop.’
But although it shares that album’s fascination with ‘90s electronica, ‘Zooropa’ doesn’t deserve to be written off in the same breath. It’s not U2’s greatest record, but it’s their most thrillingly experimental — and, contrary to popular belief, it contains some of Bono’s most vivid songwriting.
Working with producers Brian Eno and Flood, U2 exploded their core sound even more than they had on ‘Achtung Baby,’ adding layers of synthesizers and ambient noise, burying Bono’s rock-god vocals in the mix, and discovering new ways to make the Edge’s guitar sound even more alien.
It gurgles like an underwater air-raid siren over the title track’s Tower of Babel radio broadcasts, rides roller coasters of filter effects through ‘Babyface’ and glistens behind Bono’s falsetto on ‘Lemon’ with a single oscillating riff, spinning like a cracked disco ball. The more you listen to ‘Zooropa,’ the more you realize that it’s actually one of U2’s best showcases for the Edge’s genius at creating new guitar effects.
It’s also a great showcase for the band’s rhythm section. Adam Clayton’s slinky bass is the star of the dubby ‘Some Days Are Better Than Others’ and Larry Mullen, Jr.’s metallic snare hits turn ‘Daddy’s Gonna Pay for Your Crashed Car’ into U2’s closest approximation of industrial music. With the Edge delving deeper into more abstract guitar sounds, and the whole band more focused on dance rhythms, Clayton and Mullen had to step up on ‘Zooropa’ — and they did.
But probably the biggest X factor on ‘Zooropa’ was the greater role producer Brian Eno played in the album’s sound. With U2’s other favorite producer, the more Americana-leaning Daniel Lanois, out of the studio, Eno was finally free to push the band in an artier direction.
The weirdly minimalist ‘Numb,’ with the Edge’s colorless, Kraftwerkian lead vocal, is as much Eno’s creation as U2’s, as is the shimmering ‘Lemon,’ whose hypnotic grooves and layered vocals are basically U2’s version of another classic Eno record, Talking Heads’ ‘Remain in Light.’
Over the years, some have criticized Eno’s influence as too heavy-handed, but his contributions here are preferable to later U2/Eno collaborations like ‘No Line on the Horizon,’ where he seems relegated to adding the occasional electronic texture to the band’s increasingly bloated arena-rock anthems.
Of course, no amount of Enofication would make any difference if the songs weren’t there, and while ‘Zooropa’ certainly has its fair share of tracks like ‘Lemon’ that are mainly style exercises, it also has several underrated gems.
Foremost among these is ‘Stay (Faraway, So Close!),’ a midtempo meditation built around one of those deceptively simple Edge guitar hooks and some of Bono’s most unsentimental and heartbreaking lyrics. “A vampire or a victim,” is how the song describes its protagonist, a battered but defiant victim of domestic abuse. “It depends on who’s around.”
Bono can be a preachy lyricist, but when he gets out of the way on his own subject matter, he can also express sadness and suffering as well as any songwriter in rock.
There’s one other brilliant piece of songwriting on ‘Zooropa’ that never gets any credit, probably because it’s also arguably the weirdest thing U2 ever recorded. ‘The Wanderer,’ the album’s closing track, features the weathered baritone of Johnny Cash intoning Bono’s apocalyptic imagery over a tacky synth backdrop that U2 themselves described as a “Holiday Inn band from hell.”
The Edge throws in a few twangs of outlaw guitar, which only adds to the song’s surreal, Lynchian feel, as Cash croons lyrics that sound ripped from a mass murderer’s notebook: “I went out walking with a bible and a gun / The word of God lay heavy on my heart, I was sure I was the one.”
U2 have always evoked evangelical Christianity in their music, but rarely in such a provocative or morally ambiguous way. It’s the perfect end to a provocative and occasionally ambiguous record, one that deserves far more respect from fans, critics and even the band that created it.