INTERVIEWS, REVIEWS & RELATED ARTICLES
Pitchfork NOVEMBER 2, 2009 - by Ryan Dombal
U2: THE UNFORGETTABLE FIRE [DELUXE EDITION]
The first song on 1984's The Unforgettable Fire is called A Sort Of Homecoming - not just "A Homecoming". And that shade of uncertainty - that "sort of" - is key. Compared to U2's first three albums - and almost everything that has come afterward - The Unforgettable Fire is marked by a sketchy in-between-ness that works as a gracious foil to the band's natural audacity. It's sort of stadium rock, sort of experimental, sort of spiritual, sort of subdued, sort of uncharacteristic, sort of brilliant, sort of a classic.
After their first major breakthrough with 1983's War and its anthems Sunday Bloody Sunday and New Year's Day, U2 could have easily continued to perfect the fist-pumping, flag-waving arena battle cry. Instead, they sought out producer Brian Eno, a bold choice for a band looking to parlay semi-success into something Springsteen-ian. While Eno is now seen as a go-to stadium saviour (see: Coldplay's Viva La Vida), back then he was still the guy who coaxed magnificent weirdness out of David Bowie and Talking Heads, to say nothing of his own work, which ranged from prog-rock insanity to elegant wallpaper. The U2/Eno braintrust has since become one of the most out-and-out successful in rock history, but The Unforgettable Fire finds the pair - along with frequent conspirator Daniel Lanois - feeling each other out and testing limits. The album ebbs and flows along the spectrum between the spiky, post-punk U2 of old and the impressionistic, Eno-assisted U2 they were yearning to become.
Not only were U2 and Eno an odd match musically, but their personalities clashed in a remarkable way as well. The album's interpersonal drama plays out on a half-hour making-of documentary originally released in 1984 and included in this reissue along with the remastered album and a disc of requisite B-sides and live cuts. While U2 were caricatured as honest and hardworking Irish boys who never met a stone-faced portrait they didn't admire, and Eno was the aloof London aesthete who openly mocked rock convention, you can watch the two subtly influencing each other throughout the intimate documentary. For example, after Bono is seen roiling himself into a frenzy while improvising over Pride (In The Name Of Love) - screaming, sweating, and flailing like a wounded lunatic in the recording booth - Eno is nearly left speechless before he utters a totally sincere understatement for the ages: "I must say, this track is really bringing something out in your singing." The producer's unflappable cool often leads to a fatherly kindness that goes lengths to explain his lasting appeal.
The documentary, much like the album itself, humanises U2 while fuelling the idea that this band's head was completely up its own ass in the '80s. "I believe the songs are already written, and I think the less you get in the way of them the better," says Bono at one point in the film, explaining his muse, "The minute you take up that pen... you start interfering with the song - I don't know if that sounds too spiritual." And while I'm not sure if the idea that God is writing your songs is truly "spiritual," it does sound quite presumptuous. But that's also the beauty of this band; whether in ironic or world-saving mode, their ambition is boundless. This can lead to garish stadium extravaganzas, but it can also birth something like Bad, The Unforgettable Fire's centrepiece and one of the grandest arena-rock songs ever written.
There's no half-assing Bad. After years of radio repeats, the track seems commonplace, which is a testament to just how much U2 have burrowed their way into the world's collective musical memory. Because this six-minute monoculture moment chronicling the torment of heroin addiction has no discernible chorus. Its hook is a burning build passed down from The Velvet Underground's Heroin. But whereas that song ends with Lou Reed smacked up and despondent - "And I guess I just don't know," he mutters - Bad is the sound of revelation, recovery. "I'm wide awake!" belts Bono, triumphant in the face of isolation, desolation, and pretty much every other -ation there is. Once again, U2 put a patently cool underground icon - this time it's Reed - through their mega-band filter and end up with a song that sounds just as strong in record-collector headphones as it does to a hundred thousand fans physically forced to clap along by some primordial urge.
The Reed tribute is cemented on the live version of Bad, filmed at Live Aid and included in this package, where Bono introduces the song with a little Satellite Of Love and ends it riffing on Walk On The Wild Side. In between, the possessed singer jumps down from his high perch onstage to slow dance with a fan, effectively bringing some punk-inspired spontaneity and compassion to an event that typified notions of classic rock heroism. The performance single-handily upped U2's stock in the global rock realm, and it's easy to see why.
So The The Unforgettable Fire isn't U2's biggest commercial success (that would be The Joshua Tree) or its most rewarding artistic coup (Achtung Baby), but without it those records would not exist. It's a transitional album of the highest magnitude. The hits - Pride, Bad - still hit, and even its sometimes-derided abstractions like Promenade and Elvis Presley And America contain enough mystery to keep unraveling twenty-five years later. The opener tells of an ambiguous return. And A Sort Of Homecoming would come to define this band's fascinating internal struggle between sticking to what they know and venturing toward something undiscovered.