Zooropa PIc

For about a week before I wrote this piece, I was looking for an excuse to go for a long drive at night and listen to Zooropa. That was how I first discovered the album, on late night drives home from my high school girlfriend’s house, the blue and red glow of my dashboard and the gentler strobe of the tall highway lights passing through my window the closest approximation I could muster in small-town Pennsylvania for whatever bizarre European discotheque I thought U2 was trying to conjure. I never did get around to that drive this time, but instead listened to it during the day, a circumstance in which Zooropa makes no sense. The idea that this came out 20 years ago, and that someone would have had to walk into a record store in broad daylight on a hot summer day to purchase it, does not translate for me. Because Zooropa has always felt like U2′s night album. Zooropa is the one about diving deep, totally disappearing into something, in a manner that doesn’t work in the light of day.

In the end, the paradox of its release sort of makes sense. Circumstantially and thematically, Zooropa is an album somewhat out of joint — so much so, in fact, that different members of U2 have tried to write it off over the years. With none of its three singles (“Numb,” “Lemon,” “Stay (Faraway, So Close!)”) becoming the sort of hits the band had become accustomed to with “With Or Without You” or “Mysterious Ways,” Bono lamented in hindsight that the band had lost touch with its pop sensibilities. (More on this in a bit, but this fixation on hit singles is crucial in understanding the U2 of Zooropa in relation to the U2 of the ’00s.) The Edge writes it off as an interlude; Larry Mullen, Jr. regularly implies that the more loop-fueled experiments the band indulged in during the mid-’90s were not his most beloved outings. Only Adam Clayton seems to own Zooropa as one of his consistent favorites.

Initially, it was exciting that the band had begun to trot out the album’s stellar title track during the U2 360 tour in 2011. That was tempered by Bono introducing it as a relic of their “art rock phase,” a little bit half-apologetic, a little bit “Oh, weren’t we weird for a bit back then, but that’s OK, this is a cool tune and anyway we’re back now, here’s ’Vertigo.’” For an album awarded the Grammy for Best Alternative Music Album in 1994, the band sure has tried to write it out of the narrative of their legacy. Then again, maybe that was precisely the problem — even then, Bono balked at winning an award labeled “Alternative Music.” Back then the problem was that he wanted to be seen as mainstream, but as a saboteur working within the mainstream. Now, the band is hyper-focused on maintaining a pop dominance, and more cerebral detours like Zooropa appear as blights to be air-brushed out.

That wasn’t the case at all at the time of its inception. Coming off the creative highs and wild financial successes of the Zoo TV tour in 1992, the band — particularly Bono and the Edge — wanted to capitalize on their momentum and record new music rather than deflate before the next leg of the tour. This was a remarkable time in the history of U2. In 1991, the band had unveiled Achtung Baby, their best and perhaps darkest record. Achtung Baby arrived after a three year silence in the wake of the disappointing Rattle And Hum, 1988′s partially-live, partially-studio misfire in which U2′s increasing fascination with classic rock and American roots music felt simultaneously overwrought and aimless, lacking the focus of 1987′s The Joshua Tree and bordering on self-parody. The critical backlash was more or less a first for the band, and they took it hard, disappearing to work up an entirely new image and sound. They departed from the Americana influences, from the rafter-seeking platitudes, trading them in for industrial, alternative rock, strains of shoegaze, gestures towards dance music. In some ways, the band became the antithesis of itself, adopting persona and irony and grittiness where before there was earnestness. Achtung Baby was an album with a difficult birth — a dense, complex pop album that nearly tore the band apart. But when it emerged, it emerged with a purpose, and the band embarked on the massive, visually overwhelming Zoo TV tour in support.

Zooropa was born directly out of that tour thematically and structurally, its recording beholden to it. Originally planned as an EP, the band eventually planned to extend Zooropa to full LP length, but was unable to finish the recording process before having to go back on tour. The result was that Zooropa was finished on the run, with U2 flying to shows, then returning to Dublin to record in frenetic bursts. All the personnel involved — including producers Brian Eno and Flood — recall the intense pace of these sessions. Though not an album recorded on the road per se, Zooropa was an album completed in motion, the band constantly bouncing back and forth between far-flung locations. Fittingly, Zooropa has perhaps the widest range of sounds of any U2 album. It feels like an album about faraway places, both geographically and spiritually.

While Zoo TV began in support of Achtung Baby, that album’s complex interplay between religion and sexuality, of the personal and the very public (celebrity) world, were only groundwork for Zoo TV’s major thesis about media over-saturation. Indeed, while Zooropa is so often overlooked as a transitional album or a coda, it’s here that the band digs deeper into their fixations on technology and how it alters us. Discovering this album in 2008 after having grown up with the Internet, perhaps this is why Zooropa resonated with me so much more than some of U2′s earlier, more “major” outings.

Zooropa literally, sonically, emerges out from these ideas. The title track — which, for a long time, was maybe my absolute favorite U2 track — begins with two full minutes of a quiet, distorted backdrop of radio voices the liner notes credit to “the advertising world.” Around 1:45, the Edge’s guitar comes in like a beacon call from the shore, growing more prominent until the voices fade out and it’s just him. The thing is, that’d be the first impression — here’s U2, building the anxiety of our mediated culture in that intro, then disrupting it. Providing the escape and transcendence they’d so often traded in.

That’s not the case anymore. Listen to how the Edge’s guitar sounds here. It’s not the chiming, delay-based arpeggiating of their anthemic ’80s songs. It’s drenched in who-knows-what effects — I’ve always thought there was some phaser involved, but the dude’s pedalboard is insane so who knows what else is going on here. The sound is aqueous, hardly recognizable as a guitar anymore. It isn’t the sound of being called to shore; it’s what you hear when you’re fully immersed. The song begins in static and builds to a climax of Bono proclaiming “Uncertainty can be a guiding light” as he’s under threat of being overcome by the synths and guitars all around him. Static and water—two things you drown in. Like I said, this is an album about diving deeper.

In hearing the band talk about Zooropa, you’d probably dismiss the above argument and assume the album would be technophobic. And there would be a lot of evidence for that — the idea that Zoo TV was designed to overwhelm the audience, the lurid day-glo coloration of the cover and liner notes the perfect physical representation of the pop-art pastiche of “Daddy’s Gonna Pay For Your Crashed Car.”  On lead single and album standout “Numb” the name might say it all, but what really drives it home is the Edge’s muttered spree of mantras. “Don’t move/ Don’t talk out of time/ Don’t think/ Don’t worry everything’s just fine/ Just fine,” the song begins over that indelible beat. It sounds sardonic; paralyzed by the influx of too many images, thoughts, and options, the Edge espouses an active embrace of that inability to act. Don’t this, don’t that.

But there’s a zen to it, as well. (I’m also tempted to cite the Edge’s story of taking shrooms and walking around Tokyo during Zoo TV to be directly related to this and even that Zooropa might be U2′s drug album.) Bono’s early proclamation of “Uncertainty can be a guiding light” feels like a mission statement; just as Edge’s guitar emerges out of the static to take you farther, Bono starts the record with a slew of advertising slogans (“Be all that you can be,” “Vorsprung durch Technik”) only to embrace the miasma. On paper, lines like “And I have no compass/ And I have no map/ And I have no reasons/ No reasons to get back” or “And I have no religion/ And I don’t know what’s what/ And I don’t know the limit/ The limit of what we’ve got” could seem depressing, listless. But they’re delivered triumphantly, once the growing tension of “Zooropa” finally breaks, which also happens to be the moment Bono is “drowning” amongst the collective sounds of the song’s conclusion.

What I mean to suggest here is that even as this album cites modern technological anxiety as its primary concern, it grapples with this idea on its own terms, which is to say that Zooropa uses the language of technology to seek some middle ground, some way to function within this game. The doubling-down on the stylistic shifts of Achtung Baby are, on one hand, continuing artistic development, yes. On the other, the plasticity of European dance music and mechanism of industrial music, the heavy use of electronic instruments—these same to be born of the same capitalist world of advertising and televisual (and later, digital culture) overload.

While some of the lyrics and titles could suggest a cheeky pastiche, U2 actually continues in the vein of Achtung Baby and settles some of their most personal songs amongst material that is theoretically “ironic.” The thing is, even as the ’90s saw a severe about-face for the band, they actually delved into an even deeper earnestness that was just lacerated with irony, and occasionally buried under synthesizers claiming to only represent turn-of-the-millennium detachment. “Lemon,” perhaps remembered for inspiring the lemon mirrorball spaceship the band used to travel in from the mainstage out into the crowd during shows on the 1997-1998 PopMart Tour, is actually deeply personal: it’s inspired by an old video Bono found of his mother dancing in a yellow dress (“She wore lemon”). Bono’s mother died when he was just fourteen, and “Lemon” is actually about the idea of someone using technology to preserve and relive the past (“A man makes a picture/ A moving picture/ Through light projected/ He can see himself up close/ A man captures colour/ A man likes to stare/ He turns the money into light/ To look for her”). What, on a surface level, can appear to be the album’s goofiest song is actually using its glittery disco and synths to convey the way the personal life functions in a heavily mediated existence, not just the idea that technology somehow overruns the personal.

Zooropa thrives on these paradoxes. “The First Time” deals with a perennial topic of Bono’s — that of family ties, particularly the relationship between fathers and sons. It’s a gorgeous song, and the “But I left by the back door/ And I threw away the key” part is particularly crushing. But it sort of sounds like it could be on any other U2 album, and I’ve never connected with it in the same way as, for example, “Dirty Day,” a song that deals with similar issues — a father returns home years later after abandoning his family, to a son who doesn’t know him — but utilizes a perpetual synth drone and wah-assisted, cathartic guitar bursts and somehow just makes the themes hit harder.

Same goes for “The Wanderer,” which gets at Americana better than anything on Rattle and Hum (and maybe even The Joshua Tree) even though it’s based primarily on a wacky synth bassline. It’s part a story of a preacher walking the land post-apocalypse, part a classic tale of the man who goes out for cigarettes, never returns, and spends his time wandering the American landscape of highways and billboards as a ghost, seeking out other ghosts. It’s important to note that this song’s sung by Johnny Cash — before his comeback via his Rick Rubin-produced American Recordings series. He was a living but fallen American legend, an icon cut loose of material moorings — i.e., a physical manifestation of the mediated world Zooropa grappled with. His performance is gravelly and human, but sort of outside of time, telling a story at once personal and archetypal, mythic. It’s sort of haunting, but also a sort of beautiful coda after “Dirty Day,” a moment where the overwhelming nature of “Zooropa” and “Numb” may have found some resolution, some modicum of balance between the technological and the human.

I can’t really make the argument that Zooropa is more important than people give it credit for. It’s hard to trace specific places where its influence can be felt in the same way as War, The Joshua Tree, Achtung Baby, or, more recently, All That You Can’t Leave Behind. Aside from the sudden revival of “Zooropa” during U2 360, the main way in which the album has lived on is through the occasional performance of a neutered acoustic version of “Stay (Faraway, So Close!),” which never quite compares to the immaculate album version (that song also happens to have some of Bono’s best lyrics). Zooropa probably has become a residual casualty of the failure of the generally-maligned Pop, which I’d actually argue in defense of as well, but that’s a topic for a different essay (see you in 2017). After that album, the assumption seems to be that Achtung Baby was some triumph, then the band went too far with the art-pop and lost their way. The traditional narrative has All That You Can’t Leave Behind as the big comeback in 2000, the moment where U2 became quintessentially U2-ish in a way even they had never been before.

This goes back to the idea I mentioned earlier about hit singles. Since U2′s albums have become more infrequent, and as they’ve become a stratospherically big touring entity, each LP has to be an event, a game-changer, one that produces some big pop hits. The result has been far too calculated — the lackluster but successful How to Dismantle An Atomic Bomb in 2004, and No Line On The Horizon in 2009, which the band talked up as another sharp left turn. I love about 60% of that album, but it suffers in the middle, where U2 plops their attempt at the singles and shows their hand — that they’re busy trying to be everything to everybody. U2 shouldn’t be concerned about working with Lady Gaga’s producer (thankfully, they at least traded him for Danger Mouse for their forthcoming album). They’re in their fifties; there’s no economic or physical way they could really get any bigger than the U2 360 tour. When Bono writes off Zooropa as their “art rock phase,” it’s a bummer not just because he’s sidelining one of their most interesting albums, but because it suggests they’d never be open to such unbridled experiments again. That’s a shame, because we deserve one more daring U2 album before they pack it in.

OK, I lied — here’s how Zooropa is important. It may never rise above a general estimation as a minor work in U2′s catalogue, but it’s important because it’s an example of a massively successful pop band taking some big chances, molding their sounds with all sorts of elements of the underground. This might be a bit extreme, but I’m not sure Kid A happens without predecessors like the one-two punch of Achtung Baby and Zooropa. I’m not sure Yeezus happens. For those of us who grew up when How to Dismantle An Atomic Bomb was new, it’s hard to imagine that this version of U2 ever existed, and certainly hard to imagine them ever becoming so bold again. But we can hope. Until then, there are a lot of highways and a lot of nights, and plenty of static and clatter to still dive into with Zooropa.

Comments (31)
  1. Great piece. One of my favorite U2 albums — probably top four or five for me — and this absolutely gets some important things about the band correct, including the fact that this album has now become a residual casualty of Pop. I also agree with the take on U2′s 2000s and the problems associated with their too-calculated recent work.

    I do quibble a bit with this though: “‘The First Time’ deals with a perennial topic of Bono’s — that of family ties, particularly the relationship between fathers and sons.” Err, kind of. Essentially I read it as one of their most overtly Christian songs, of a piece with “Acrobat” and “Wake Up Dead Man” in terms of their ’90s work — less religious joy, more existential and spiritual despair about God’s silence.

  2. I grew up listening to U2. I’ve been a fan of theirs for nearly my entire life, so I may be a little biased in saying that I’m glad articles like this exist to remind people that U2 used to be an innovative and daring band. It’s been disappointing to watch them slowly grow older and abandon their risk taking ways, but for most of their career they were a band that constantly took risks as they rode the line between mainstream and fringe movements. I think Zooropa definitely leans a little more to the fringe side, but there is still an incredible album here. Much like Ryan, I’m still hoping for one more daring album from them before they throw in the towel, but I have a hard time believing the U2 of today is capable of making albums like the U2 pre-2000 once did.

    • To be fair, they are over 50. For 20 years they were immensely popular and critically acclaimed. Not many bands have been able to do that. I wish they had one more great album left, but they are fucking over 50. Nobody makes music at 50 as good as they did at 25 or 30 so I’m not going to take a dump on them. They did well.

  3. The seeds of Zooropa were planted during Achtung Baby, grew with the birth of Pop (and their Popmart tour) and then sunk into what eventually became Zooropa. I’ve always considered those three glitter albums a trilogy of sorts and the real end to the band as creative and innovative force once that tour ended. The sum of parts with this great band is solid, but the real impact they flourished within was during that 3 album stretch. It’s still as influential a run today as it was then.

  4. They even took it a step further with their Passengers album.

  5. Zooropa came out when I was 13 and was a life-changer.

    Nothing from U2 would ever excite me or move me the way Achtung Baby and then, ESPECIALLY, Zooropa did. I’m barely a fan anymore…

  6. Zooropa was the first album I bought with my own money. I was ten years old and hadn’t mastered english yet so the cover was what caught my attention among the other tapes in the Music Plus at the Stonewood mall. I’m glad I’m not the only person whose whole outlook changed because of this album.

  7. Pop is U2′s best album.

    There, I said it.

  8. Great essay, Zooropa is severely underrated

  9. Nuff said…I LOVE U2′s 90′s stuff, Zooropa is amazing, what can a man say about a song like Stay (Faraway, So close!), the movie was kind of shitty but man… DAT song, you can feel Bono and Edge writing it in some European hotel.

    Also, it’s funny how Zooropa, the song, is so dated, but man it’s a joy to listen to.

  10. Zooropa….I listened to that so much I was amazed that it didn’t just disintegrate from use.
    The most underrated album by U2, and mainstream people have no idea how amazing it is.

  11. Yeah another great write up. I’m glad you pointed out how it was originally going to be an EP. The album always sounded like that to me. A few great songs and a couple of worthy B-Sides. As far as this collection goes, “Stay, (Faraway, So Close) seems to be the real gem in the bunch. Even though “The First Time” and “Daddy’s Going To Pay For Your Crashed Car” are damn good.
    You mentioned “Pop”, which to me, was a much more fully realized album. It’s funny the critics were seemingly ready to pounce on them when it came out even though “Zooropa”(which got solid reviews) is much more out there overall.

  12. I love Zooropa so very much – First Time, Stay, Crashed Car, Dirty Day – and I’ve always loved the live versions of Stay as well. One of their best songs, easily. I love the experimentation on it, far more than the experimenting on No Line, an album I’ve struggled to really enjoy.
    I still remember the first time I put it on, and from the first minute – once you could actually hear the title songs – realised it was going to be completely different to Achtung. It was one of those moments in music, when the light at the end of the tunnel smashes you over the head.
    I won it in a charity competition when it first came out, as a teenager… the best $2 I ever invested.

  13. I was a teenager when this album was released and I loved it so much. More than Achtung Baby in fact.
    And I remember that the first time I heard OK Computer I thought : “It’s good, but not as good as Zooropa”. I felt that Radiohead was just trying too hard to sound like the U2 of the beginning of the 90′s. Well, I changed my mind since then. But I agree that Radiohead is, in many ways, the direct descendant of that part of U2′s career.

  14. U2 is a great band. Zooropa is a classic album, and Bono is the best frontman of all time… for me to poop on!

  15. Bono has become so repulsive that I just can’t go back to their music. I mean, we all know they were good at one point, but I just can’t. Yes, THAT disgusting.

    • Yeah, someone that famous who is still willing to stand up and speak about issues that are important on a global scale, even if it annoys and alienates people, that’s totally disgusting.

  16. I can’t stand U2.

  17. Wow 20 years already. Not my favorite album from them but still had a few winners in there.

  18. The Joshua Tree is the first album I recollect hearing (along with Fleetwood Mac’s “Tango in the Night”) and Zooropa might be the first album I remember being obsessed with. “Stay (Faraway so Close)” has to be the most underrated song EVER. It brings tears to my eyes every time I hear it for the sake of pure nostalgia. The song still holds up today in every shape and form.

  19. I like this album, always have, always will. Never understood the disdain for it, particularly the amount of hate it garners in hindsight. Because I remember quite clearly that it was still a massively successful album at the time. I thought this was album was great for one hugely important reason; U2 didn’t seem to be taking themselves so damn seriously.

  20. I look at Zooropa as a near-perfect follow up to Achtung Baby. I mean, there was no way that U2 would outdo that masterpiece…no chance. The band was certainly smart not to do Achtung Part II. They also knew better than to do another Rattle and Hum of sorts self-indulge in something to suit their stylistic fancy.

    Zooropa, essentially, finds U2 gently pushing their new found boundaries of Euro-style dance music and futuristic rock n’ roll. They’re also relatively low key about it…no “look at me” bombast or “aren’t we oh so cooly ironic” affectations. They coulda taken it too far, but they didn’t…to my pleasant surprise.

    There’s only one stone cold classic on here, Stay, but there are several other standout tunes (the title track, Crashed Car, Lemon, First Time, etc). It’s probably U2′s 4th best album at best, but it’s certainly no worse than their 6th, so a respectable upper tier to solid middle of the pack effort. And, again, it wasn’t the almost-career killer than Rattle and Hum was.

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