U2 again braves new worlds
The Edge has written seemingly stream-of-consciousness lyrics
It's hard to argue that at this point in their 15-year career U2 is anything but a pre-sold commodity: a critically acclaimed band with massive mainstream appeal. U2's 1991 album "Achtung Baby" was their most experimental to date, and its sales went through the roof. Consequently, the powers that be at Island/PLG re-signed the Irish quartet to one of the most lucrative contracts in the business, and the company has shipped a mega- healthy 1.6 million copies of U2's "Zooropa" to US music stores, anticipating the consumer deluge when the disc goes on sale Tuesday.
"Zooropa" came together quickly -- sort of an unplanned, but not an unwanted, baby. Last year, U2 went in the studio and worked on tracks during a break in their worldwide Zoo TV tour. They realized they had something viable, not just a bunch of out-takes. Recently, lead singer-main lyricist Bono told Rolling Stone that U2 used some leftover bits from the "Achtung Baby" sessions, "but the more interesting stuff came out of improvisation, which was a call of co-producer Brian Eno.
Hail, Eno. It's in Eno's nature to explore the outer limits, and, indeed, on the 10-track "Zooropa" U2 is even more out on a limb than they were on ''Achtung Baby" -- although it's still recognizable as U2. Despite its quick assemblage, "Zooropa" is no throwaway effort. It's a creative stretch. Keep in mind that rock's most enduring artists have always been willing to reinvent themselves at various junctures -- the Beatles with the so-called ''White Album," the Rolling Stones with "Their Satanic Majesties Request" and David Bowie with "Low," to name but three. U2 is willing to roll those dice.
"Zooropa" doesn't have the yearning anthemic reach of days gone by; it doesn't even have an obvious, slinky pop charm of the last album's ''Mysterious Ways." It's got darker corners, more disruptive interjections, more moodiness.
"Dirty Day," a gently disorienting tune dedicated to barfly-beat poet Charles Bukowski, warns early on, "You can hold onto something so tight/ You've already lost it" -- and then launches into a dead-father-to-son discourse about art. "The Wanderer" is a minimalistic, haunting, synth- based, apocalyptically tinged spiritual written by Bono and sung by Johnny Cash. That's followed by a long pause and, then, an eerie, album-closing coda -- 40 some-odd, treated, staccato guitar bleats.
"Zooropa" has some semidirect pop gestures, too -- the Bowie-esque, ''plastic soul"-styled "Lemon" and the low-key, Reed-ish quietude of ''The First Time." But "Zooropa" is primarily a textural album, one where the background swirls and synth-blips that are spun into the sonic web by the production team of Eno, Flood and guitarist The Edge are as interesting as the action in the foreground -- the melody, Bono's voice.
Speaking of the latter, it's not much there on the first single and video, ''Numb," a brooding, pulsing electronic number with seemingly stream-of- consciousness lyrics written by The Edge. He delivers a series of negative commands in a relentless, detached monotone: "Don't fill out any forms/Don't compensate/ Don't cover/Don't crawl/Don't come around late/Don't hover at the gate." Bono enters midway with devilish, high-pitched aside: "I feel numb . . . too much is not enough." The spooky video adds another level or two -- submission, sex, black humor, with The Edge's head slowly wrapped in rope. He's tortured by water, teased and taunted by tongues and toes, but remains (dis)comfortably numb.
Other left-field "Zooropa" entries include "Some Days Are Better Than Others" -- not a cheap beer ad slogan but a winsome, industrially based grinder that wrestles with emotional conflict -- and "Daddy's Gonna Pay For Your Crashed Car," which features cool polyrhythms, a comforting/disquieting musical framework and down-in-flames lyrical imagery. The most conventional song is "Babyface," a smooth-glider where the subversiveness is half-buried in the rolling rhythms and the soft, seductive melody. On "Zooropa," U2 climbs the rock mountain again, finds a different peak, likes it there -- and brings us to it.