New York Times FEBRUARY 9, 1997 - by Jon Pareles


It was crunch time for U2. The Irish band's next single had to be finished within three days, and the deadline for the complete album, which had not yet been entitled Pop, was less than a month away. U2, with its producers and engineers, was recording and mixing in two studios simultaneously. Workdays stretched to fourteen and sixteen hours. But even at that stage, everything was subject to change - including, as it turned out, the final deadline. "We have trouble finishing things," said The Edge, U2's guitarist. The album, originally due last September as a pre-Christmas release, was finished in late December, with all-night recording sessions up to the last minute. It is to be released March 4.

During the nine months it took to make Pop, U2 invited a few journalists in to watch the band record. This observer joined the group just as it was finishing the single, which was released last week. It was a rare chance for an outsider to see a process that usually takes place in private. For a band like U2, making an album is essentially a slow-motion improvisation in which ideas are seized and refined while the tapes roll. What state was the album in? "Chaos," said Bono, U2's lead singer. "Promise," said The Edge.

U2 was intent on renewing itself, determined to sound like neither its 1980s incarnation - as the most achingly sincere, and sometimes self-important, band of the decade - or the raucous, buzz-and-crunch rock band that has survived the short attention spans of the early 1990s. Like R.E.M. in The United States, U2 has been able to maintain the respect of alternative rockers while reaching a broader audience; unlike R.E.M., whose latest album was a commercial disappointment, U2 will wholeheartedly promote Pop with a world tour that begins in the spring. U2's label, Island, and much of the recording business hope that U2 is one group from the 1980s that can still sell like superstars.

U2 made Boy, its 1980 debut album, when its four members, friends from high school, were still teenagers. The combination of The Edge's echoing guitar, Bono's impassioned voice and the martial rhythms of Adam Clayton on bass and Larry Mullen on drums was an arena-size peal, as instantly recognisable as the sound of The Who. The music itself evoked idealism with the resonance of a cathedral while carrying lyrics about adolescent turmoil and mystical Christianity. U2 made honesty sound like a holy quest, and millions of listeners responded, hearing their own yearnings in choruses like "I still haven't found what I'm looking for."

The band's old approach continues to reverberate in best-selling bands like Live. But in 1988, U2 reached a dead end with Rattle And Hum. As it strained to create the sound of integrity, it ended up with awkward emulations of American blues and soul. So, a decade into its career, U2 transformed itself for its 1991 album, Achtung Baby. It exchanged transparency for distortion and earnestness for a nervy ambiguity. "We were absolutely adamant that we didn't want to sound like U2," The Edge said. "We're so much better if we don't know what we're doing, because if it's too easy, then that's what it sounds like - too easy."

For its Zoo TV world tour in 1992, U2 filled stadiums as it performed amid a barrage of television imagery, mocking and savouring both the global marketplace and U2's own celebrity. Zooropa, released in 1993, certified that U2 wasn't looking back. "We're probably the only European band of our generation still releasing relevant records and still playing in large spaces," said Adam Clayton, U2's bass player. "We've grown up along with a section of our audience. But we've always been relevant to a younger audience, and we enjoy that position too much to give it up unwittingly. I think that in rock-and-roll, for a credible artist, the age limit may be about thirty-five. But if you stay honest, you can push the age restriction a bit." Clayton and Bono are thirty-six years old; The Edge and Mullen are thirty-five.

"Rock-and-roll is obsessed with juvenilia," said Bono. "But the sense of threat that rock-and-roll has is actually not about boys. There's nothing scary about a man trying to be a boy. Men are scarier than boys."

Before starting Pop, U2 took a year off, then made Passengers: Original Soundtracks 1, which was billed as a collaboration by Brian Eno and the four band members. It's an album of songs for real and imaginary films, full of eerie textures and juxtapositions; it eased the band back into the studio. By the time U2 started working on Pop, the band's ninth full-length album, its members had grown fascinated by current dance music.

To make Pop, U2 chose two producers. Flood, a soft-spoken Englishman, worked on Zooropa and has also produced albums for Depeche Mode and Smashing Pumpkins. Howie B., a disk jockey and remixer with his own independent label, Pussyfoot, is fluent in subgenres from acid jazz to trip-hop to techno to drum-and-bass to lounge. Potentially, Flood could shape the monumental tones and dynamics of arena rock; Howie B. could manipulate off-the-wall samples and sustain the abstract rhythms heard at after-hours dance clubs. Like David Bowie, whose new album, Earthling, embraces the chattering electronic rhythms of drum-and-bass dance music, U2 hears its future in up-to-date grooves. But it but doesn't intend to abandon melody.

"Musicians, painters, whatever, they have no choice but to describe where they live," said Bono, whose ordinary conversation is often true to a tradition of Irish bards. "Sometimes it may seem hard to keep your ear on the street because there's a lot of stuff you don't want to pick up. But as Bob Dylan said, 'He not busy being born is busy dying,' and I think the death starts in your record collection. I like to feel alive. I think I'm awake, and this is the noise that keeps me awake."

After Pop was finished, Bono described it as "a mixed-up kid of a record." Behind its surface exuberance, Discotheque broods over the elusiveness of love; from there, much of the album is moody and introspective. Discotheque is to get people dizzy so we can take advantage of them for the rest of the album," Bono said. The songs, consistent with U2's past, are often about searching: for love, for faith, for purpose. Amid the hipster drumbeats and rough-cut guitars, the songs are willing to confide their uncertainty. "That seems to be what U2 has to do now, to keep the context opposite the content," Bono said. "People think we're fun, but it's very personal music."

The title Pop was deliberately chosen. "Even though this record sounds like a sprawl, and the sounds are quite radical, there's a songwriting discipline at work here which is kind of pop," Bono said. "We were also annoyed at the word rock."

"It's a record about looking for some kind of transcendence as well as trash," he added. "And looking under the trash is where you seem to find that transcendence. In among the noise, that's where I hear that whisper."

But the concept was a matter of hindsight. In an era of forty-eight-track recording, studio albums are less the execution of a conceptual blueprint than they are accretions of details: planned and improvised, inspired and accidental. A finished song is the residue of innumerable decisions, painstakingly assembled in the hope of sounding spontaneous and ineluctably right. "Sometimes a song is like a crystal," The Edge said. "Everything just develops in a clear and obvious way. But not very often."

The process can be wearying. "Options are the enemy," Bono said. "A door opens and you walk through it, and you're down a lane way, and there's a light on in somebody's bedroom, and you knock on a door, you're upstairs, you have a glass of wine, and the next thing you know you're in Italy. There are all these diversions, and they're so tantalising."

In the studio, U2 keeps its options open. As its deadline loomed, the band had nearly two albums' worth of material in various stages of completion. Almost invariably, the words would come last, as Bono and The Edge responded to the mood of the music they had assembled. "Sometimes it takes a few months for a record to focus," The Edge said. "You've got a lot of nearly finished ideas that could go lots of different ways, and then suddenly you see how things interact." On a board charting the progress of songs were notations like "Try new melody on chorus" and, for Do You Feel Loved, the injunction: "Pop vs. rock... discuss."

U2's policy is to discuss everything. The band makes its decisions by consensus, over lunches and dinners or in the studio. "Everybody gets involved in everything," Mullen explained. "Sometimes that can be a real pain, because everybody's got opinions. But we've fine-tuned it over the years, and we're all fighting for the same thing in the end, to make great songs."

Flood, who has seen all sorts of approaches to recording, was impressed by U2's insistence on unanimity. "They're very egoless," he said. "The ego has to do with the four of them, not each of them separately."

For today's session, the first task was to wrap up the single. Discotheque would be the song to announce that U2 was back in action, with a jabbing, insistent guitar hook and echoes of dance hits from Dance To The Music to Love To Love You, Baby. The song begins with the line, "You can reach but you can't grab it." Bono described it as "an earnest little riddle about love, though it comes off as bubble gum."

For the past few days, Flood and U2 had been re-editing Discotheque, shuffling its sections - which had been assigned names like "Drugs" and "Religious" - with a computer. Over lunch, listening to various versions, the whole band had approved a structure. But Bono wasn't happy with the way he had sung the word "tonight" three times in the song's last verse. "All right, Conal, full disco!" Bono instructed the assistant engineer, who flicked some switches. In the control room, above the console, a spotlight illuminated a mirror ball; a machine projected a city skyline on the wall.

Bono clutched a microphone and started tapping his foot to the music. To record three words, he would sing the song all the way through; perhaps he would improve on the existing takes. He sang while half-climbing out of his chair, then stepped up onto a table and worked his arms and chest as if he were on stage. He tried singing in a big, melodramatic voice, and then in a gentle falsetto; he tried a slight hesitation before the third "tonight." Flood stayed poker-faced and silent until Bono asked what he thought. "The first line sounded good, the second..." He shrugged.

Bono danced and shouted through the song again, working up a sweat by the time he was satisfied. The single wasn't done yet, however. Flood and The Edge would still be supervising alternate versions: one without vocals for television studio appearances, another without samples in case permissions weren't granted, and a third, four-minute version for radio stations. Mullen, who had avoided reading the lyric sheet, would listen to make sure he could understand the words. "I'm the lyric police," he said. The next night, the band would approve final mixes.

After his session, Bono decided to unwind with a Guinness at the local pub. A warning glance from U2's office manager turned out to be about his waistline. "Look," he said to her, pulling up his shirt. "Fat Elvis is gone." As he stood at the bar, a local man struck up a conversation about a house Bono used to live in. "You remember when you were robbed of a VCR and a couple of TVs?" the man asked. "That was me." Bono shrugged his forgiveness and asked the man what he had been doing since; he was regaled with a catalogue of petty crimes.

With Discotheque more or less complete, the single needed a B side: a finished second-echelon song not destined for the album. In U2's own studio, with a view of Dublin's Grand Canal basin, Howie B., Clayton and an assistant were working on If You Wear That Velvet Dress, a smoky ballad filled with troubled longing. What it lacked was momentum, and Howie B. was trying to find it. Then, in the many arrangements the band had recorded, he did: a nudge from the bass at the end of one verse, a glimmering sample from a contemporary classical album in another, floating bell tones and the piece de resistance: a hovering Hammond organ chord drifting in and out of the mix. Well after midnight, Clayton told Howie B. that the song didn't sound like a B-side anymore; it could be an album track. Howie B. and his bleary-eyed assistant shared a gleeful high-five.

Over lunch the next day, the band and both producers considered whether to make If You Wear That Velvet Dress an album track. Was it too similar in mood to other songs in the works? "It's really intense," Flood said, "and then you can't put anything else in that style on your album, which I think is really positive. It pushes you."

Two songs were complete. "Now we know how to finish the others," The Edge said. "Let's think of them all as B-sides."

Since If You Wear That Velvet Dress was now headed for the album, the single still needed a B-side, with the deadline two days away. "This is kind of a pressure situation," The Edge said. A new candidate for the B-side was Holy Joe, which in its current state was a three-chord rocker with no words beyond a few opening lines - "I'm a humble guy / No, really, I try" - and a chorus, "Come on, be good to me." Bono and The Edge were sequestered, trying to come up with the rest of the words. Flood, Howie B. and Mullen were going over the rhythm track, pulling out the punchiest sections, turning them into loops to use as the beat for the song.

Bono emerged with another B-side possibility: North And South Of The River, a song he wrote with Christy Moore, whom he calls "Ireland's Woody Guthrie." Written after warring factions in Northern Ireland announced a cease-fire agreement in 1994, it's a hopeful song about two lovers; the music merges the forthright marches of the old U2 with a hint of Motown backbeat. The song was complete, lyrics and all, although Bono would want to alter a few lines since the cease-fire hadn't put an end to the violence. The band gathered in the control room to listen to the song anew, and Bono asked for reactions. The song would be a serious flip side to the uptempo Discotheque. Would the contrast be a good idea? The consensus was no; the song was too somber and political, too much like the old U2, for the band's re-emergence. Bono, biting his nails, went back to writing.

The Edge ambled into the control room with a guitar technician who hooked up an antique Gretsch guitar. He started to play along with the rhythm section: ferocious strummed chords, then choppier ones, then choked semi-funk, track upon track. Holy Joe was starting to sound like The Rolling Stones' Street Fighting Man.

Soon, Bono walked by with an open laptop; a few minutes later, he returned with a printout of the new lyrics. Edge scrutinised them with an editor's concentration. "It's just a sketch," Bono said, but Flood wanted him to record a vocal so that the band could build more music around it. Bono was looking for a rhyme for "precocious." When Clayton asked if "unctuous" has ever been used in a song, Bono misheard. "Anxious?" he said. "I'll take anxious."

He sang the new words, in high and low octaves, with other band members offering suggestions about tone and phrasing. But the song still wasn't crisp enough. As Bono and The Edge went off to refine the lyrics, Mullen decided to add percussion. An assistant brought in a djembe, an African hand drum. When Mullen hit it, the control-room speaker made a squawk of distortion.

Flood didn't hear a problem; he heard a noise to be exploited. Quickly, he and an assistant pointed a microphone at the tortured speaker, which emitted a raunchy, rhythmic hoot. Mullen added more layers of percussion: hand drums, egg-shaped rattles, maracas. Howie B., who had two turntables hooked up to the console, rooted through his record collection to find a useful sample - horns from a Dean Martin album, perhaps? The Edge returned to try wah-wah guitar chords, then conferred with Clayton about what key the song was now in; each had his own theory. Bono sang up high, and then in a cackling whisper. The song had suddenly veered in a new direction, raw and rhythmic, and U2, with grins all around, was ready to chase it.