The Unforgettable Fire (1984)

The Unforgettable Fire (1984)

The Unforgettable Fire occupies a weird space in U2’s history. Beloved by fans, it ranks amongst the quintessential U2 albums, but it’s also profoundly weird in a way you might not remember or expect. Feeling that they’d gone as far as they could for the time being with Steve Lillywhite, they sought out a new producer, and wound up working with Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois, the duo that would become the guiding forces behind U2 becoming a major commercial and artistic force in subsequent years. Wanting to try something different than the rock sounds of War, U2 hoped that Eno would be able to help them incorporate more ambient textures into their music. Released in October 1984, a year and a half after War, The Unforgettable Fire became the first major stylistic shift in U2’s career.

OK, so The Unforgettable Fire has “Pride (In the Name of Love),” which somehow might still be the most recognizable U2 song out there, and as of right now seems as if it’ll never not be played at a U2 show. Because of this song’s ubiquity, it’s somewhat impossible to hear it in the context of the album anymore, but I have a feeling that it must’ve been just as misleading a representation in 1984 as it is now. Where “Pride (In the Name of Love)” is essentially the genesis point for every stereotypical idea people have in their heads about what a U2 song is, most of the rest of The Unforgettable Fire is a much more experimental record. As much as Bono likes to cheekily write-off the ’90s as their art rock phase, The Unforgettable Fire has plenty of art rock moves in its own right.

Partially because deadline pressures, The Unforgettable Fire is maybe the most impressionistic U2 album. Certain songs feel impeccably crafted, others are half-finished, and others are mood-setting segues. After the still-amazing title track, the album dips into a weird detour of a mid-section, first with the pensive “Promenade,” then the instrumental “4th of July,” and finally into “Bad.” There’s no arguing that “Bad” is an absolute warhorse live, deservedly one of the band’s most popular songs amongst their fans. The version here is a mere sketch of what it would become onstage, never quite approaching the perfect push and pull, hills and valleys, of its live counterpart. The album never regains the sharpness of its first four tracks, instead presenting you with the six minute meditation “Elvis Presley and America” and the almost acapella coda of a closer “MLK.” The Unforgettable Fire is a bit more experimental than you might remember, but the other weird aspect about it is how it’s become one of the designated classic albums in the band’s catalog while also being very, very loosely structured.

U2 isn’t really a band that does casual or small-scale, which is maybe why the impressionistic character of The Unforgettable Fire remains so appealing. Eno’s atmospherics were starting to give the band the expansive sound it needed to tackle subjects as varied as drug addiction (“Bad,” “Wire”), the Hiroshima bombing (the album was named for a traveling art exhibit of the same name), and dual tributes to Martin Luther King, Jr. (“MLK,” “Pride (In the Name of Love)”). Themes aside, The Unforgettable Fire also remains one of U2’s more ethereal albums, possessing an almost exotic beauty. Whether completed song or segue, the whole thing has the gorgeous blur of watercolor paints running into each other before being able to settle.

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