Blurt OCTOBER 30, 2009 - by Fred Mills


So this is where it really began.

Not U2's initial lift-off; that was a year earlier, with 1983's War, and an ensuing world tour that cemented indelible images of a white flag-brandishing Bono atop scaffoldings and speaker stacks. With Universal's ongoing overhaul of the U2 back catalog (which began, somewhat curiously, with 2007's twentieth anniversary edition of The Joshua Tree before backtracking to the earliest releases) it's been possible to have, retroactively, what amounts to a front-row seat for the musical evolution of the Irish foursome - the youthful fierceness of 1980's Boy, the moody soul-seeking of 1981's October, and of course War and its mini-album sibling Under A Blood Red Sky, all reissued last year, fleshed out with bonus tracks and subjected to some frankly remarkable remastering jobs overseen by The Edge. Longtime fans may have expressed surprise at the sonic detail, but in a sense that surprise was compounded by the feeling we were receiving a history lesson on material we long supposed we'd memorised.

Those deluxe reissues thus far, then, set the stage for this, arguably U2's greatest album. For while some tend to cling to The Joshua Tree on commercial grounds (it spawned at least four hit singles) and others prefer to cite 1991's Achtung Baby (for its artistic reinvention; I'll confess at times I fall into this camp), The Unforgettable Fire remains a groundbreaking record that quite literally took the band overground while retaining their core aesthetic and philosophical principles. Much would change for the band between its arrival in stores in October '84 and the March '87 release of The Joshua Tree, but upon close scrutiny of The Unforgettable Fire: Super Deluxe Edition, it's clear that an elemental purity has survived the test of time and commerce, one in which any U2 fan - old, new, jaded, energised by the current 360 Tour, or otherwise merely curious - can take heart.

From billowing opening track A Sort Of Homecoming, with its myriad deep-mix effects signalling from the outset that the U2/Brian Eno/Daniel Lanois alliance is a - no pun intended - sound one, to the insistent elegance of Pride (In The Name of Love), a textbook U2 rocker that nevertheless foreshadows the brand of subtle restraint that would serve the group well in the future whenever they sensed they'd fallen prey to excess; from the harrowing yet luminous Bad, possibly the best anti-heroin anthem ever because it eschews dissertation and condemnation in favor of the Christian principle of loving the sinner, to closing number MLK, an atmospheric drone cocooning an otherwise a capella Bono vocal to create a mood distinctively gospel in tone; The Unforgettable Fire arrives and departs in just under forty-three minutes, yet during that three-fourths of an hour, a journey has been undertaken that travels much farther than its actual duration would suggest.

That's something you'll hear time and time again from U2 devotees who experienced The Unforgettable Fire first time around, during '84 and '85. How U2, on this album, helped open up young minds that had never pondered the nature of, say, addiction or racism or spirituality or human rights issues or even the crushing impact of American culture upon the world; or how The Unforgettable Fire offered a credible escape from what was rapidly becoming an MTV-spawned dead-end milieu of aerodynamically-coiffed synth/dance groups (the irony being, of course, that MTV had a huge hand in U2's success); or simply how, with an engaging mixture of poetry and tough love, framed against a backdrop of cinematic, widescreen rock 'n' roll, U2 stumbled upon the zeitgeist and took everyone along with them.

That much I know; for when I interviewed Bono in the spring of 1985 during the second US leg of The Unforgettable Fire tour, he dwelled upon all the above, and more. Sprawled across the couch of a dressing room deep in the bowels of the Hampton (Virginia) Coliseum and taking some liberal post-concert swigs from a bottle of red wine, Bono talked about the band's desire to show fans, not necessarily the way, but at least a way to conduct their lives with grace and mutual respect - to attend the lessons of Gandhi, and Doctor King, and maybe even a little George Clinton free-your-mind/ass too. He seemed leery of the band's looming fame (as we sat, we could hear the sound of kids gathering outside the loading dock doors in the hopes of scoring autographs), but he willing accepted the challenge because, well, because at this point in the mid '80s, who else in popular music had the cojones, coupled with an Irishman's bloody-minded gift of gab, to be a tutor and a role model? Michael Jackson? Madonna?

• • •

As with the previous deluxe editions, the remastering job here is outstanding. What was always a widescreen production is even more so now - you can chuck your old CD of The Unforgettable Fire out the window, for by comparison the music on it sounds like it's coming in over a tin can and a string - with nuances peering out from virtually every corner and fold. Larry Mullen's drums in particular have an uncommon crispness: the snare crackles like it's popcorn being zapped in a microwave, cymbal decay lingers tantalisingly in the air, the kick drum truly kicks. Those famed Edge arpeggios are guaranteed to set the listener's teeth rattling (listen to the shiver-shudder funk of Wire for proof), while Adam Clayton's bass, seemingly an afterthought at times on the original LP, is now restored to its intended resonance. Bono's vocals remain at the forefront, which means all those trademark huffs and puffs he makes are more prominent than ever, but some of the attendant shrillness has been dialed back so the voice's presence is felt in degrees of warmth, not bluster; on this album he sounds like a friend, not a preacher. (By the time of The Joshua Tree he'd be fully ordained, of course, but that's another story, for another time and another place.)

Bonus material? Lots. Collectively, the sixteen cuts on Disc Two are far more interesting than the bonus tracks on any of the five other reissues. There's the entire Wide Awake In America EP, also from '84, comprising a pair of live recordings (Bad, A Sort Of Homecoming) and two worthy studio outtakes from the original The Unforgettable Fire sessions, Love Comes Tumbling and The Three Sunrises; the latter's subtle, jangly island lilt made it a non-contender for the album, but the former's contemplative, romantic tenor would have fit perfectly. Also present are all the proximate B-sides and club remixes from this period. The Celtic Dub Mix of Wire is somewhat superfluous, while the instrumental Bass Trap resembles a generic New Age tune; but Boomerang II, a kind of dubby excursion into Krautrock overlaid with chanting, extemporaneous vocals, is downright mesmerising, one of the more essential U2 B-sides.

For collectors, the selling point here is the inclusion of two previously unreleased tunes from the original LP sessions: instrumental Yoshino Blossom features a piano line similar to the one in New Year's Day plus some eerie psychedelic guitar; Disappearing Act, which we're told was "recently completed" by U2 specifically for this package, has a nominal vocal from Bono (I'm guessing it was done during the latterday sessions, but the rhythm section's insistent throb and Edge's arpeggio-and-Frippertronic flourishes combine to give the track a substantial, satisfying heft.

Disc 3 of the Super Deluxe Edition is a DVD (there's also a non-super Deluxe Edition comprising just the two CDs) that rounds up most of the officially-released footage of the band from around the time of The Unforgettable Fire. Chief among it: the long-coveted The Making Of The Unforgettable Fire documentary, directed by Barry Devlin (it was originally aired a couple of times on MTV and eventually saw commercial release on VHS tape), which though containing far more down time than a good rock doc should, still manages to let the principals' (including Eno and Daniel Lanois') unfiltered personalities come through. The original and alternate versions of the Pride video are included, as are the clips for The Unforgettable Fire, Bad and A Sort Of Homecoming Factor in a pair of legendary live appearances, the July 13, 1985 Live Aid concert from Wembley Stadium and the June 15, 1986 A Conspiracy Of Hope Amnesty International concert from Giants Stadium, and you've got a pretty good idea of what the band looked and sounded like back in the day.

Nowadays, Bono's mullet appears more than just faintly ridiculous; it's like a raccoon crawled up on his head, went to sleep, and stayed there. But you have to view this in context, and as suggested above, listening to and understanding The Unforgettable Fire in its context is important. At Live Aid, during Bad, Bono starts prowling the boards restlessly, finally jumping down into the pit where the video crew is located. He scans the crowd, then points, and suddenly roadies are hauling a young girl over the barrier and taking her over to the singer.

And then - the embrace.

Theatrical, sure, but not like Bruce Springsteen-Courtney Cox/Dancing In The Dark theatrical. Recall how, at the time, this sort of thing really wasn't done by a rock band, particularly not in huge stadium setting. As naïve or silly a gesture as such a gesture, on paper, may seem from a vantage point of nearly a quarter-century, viewing it now it somehow still rings true. Recall how just a few months before Live Aid Bono had acknowledged, in our interview, that the times when he could go around and shake every hand, sign every autograph, even give out a few hugs, would soon be few and far between. I reckon he found a way around the dilemma. The embrace. That girl, she was a signifier; she was us.

I didn't buy the latest U2 album No Line On The Horizon. I listened to it several times while it was streaming online prior to release and it left me feeling... nothing. Not "nothing" in the sense of it being a bad or substandard album; it was more like the tunes just breezed past me without so much as disturbing a hair or lodging a scent in my nostril. My ass wasn't moved to follow either. As a music critic, that happens to me practically on a daily basis, but it's rarely, if ever, happened before with U2.

Luckily, the staying power of The Unforgettable Fire, a combination of the lingering emotional resonance of the original LP and the renewed freshness wrought by the reissue, is partly why I'll keep coming back to U2. All musical artists have at least one key, hopefully classic, album in them; U2's lucky enough to have several, and that's why it's not hard to keep the faith when the inevitable career misfires happen.

I don't pretend it's 1984 all over again when I listen to The Unforgettable Fire. But I feel good about knowing that I was there when it was happening in real time.