Spectrum Culture MAY 24, 2010 - by Barbara Mitchell


There are albums, and then there are those albums - the ones that become your personal soundtrack, that define a particular time in your existence. They're not so much albums as they are a best friend, a comforting presence. An oasis.

U2's The Unforgettable Fire came out my senior year of high school. It was a particularly stressful time in my life - in addition to being a teenager in Fresno, I was a particularly overachieving teenager, feeling like a total outsider.

I felt alone and vulnerable and terrified. The Unforgettable Fire became my refuge. I would lock myself in my room and listen to it on headphones, finding salvation in the righteous exultation of Pride (In The Name Of Love), the soul-stirring salve of Bad and the gospel-drenched prayer that is MLK. "Sleep, sleep tonight / And may your dreams be realised / If the thundercloud passes rain / So let it rain, rain down on me / So let it be."

I couldn't listen to the album for another fifteen years, and when I finally did all the confusion and emotion of that time came flooding back. But listening to it today, it seems more like a clear-eyed assessment of all that is right and wrong in this country (and the world) and less like a personal lifeline. First off, the mark of a classic album is that it shouldn't sound dated, and for all the heavyweight production power that went into this, The Unforgettable Fire sounds remarkably outside of time. It sounds pure, naïve, passionate, confident and... different.

Grant-Lee Phillips once remarked that the prevailing production of this era took things "to a mystical place - to Avalon." Here, it took them to a place that's truly timeless. Here, Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois allowed the band to stretch their wings and push their boundaries, adding an extra dimension (let's call it righteous, wounded soul) to U2's urgent politics and previously stripped down, post-punk aesthetic. On The Unforgettable Fire, gorgeous sonic landscapes serve as the backdrop for the band's impassioned lyrics and epic choruses. The title track speaks for itself. Ditto the chiming, intimate tones of Promenade and Bad, as well as the foreboding instrumental 4th Of July.

The band's previous album, War may rightfully be described as mostly screeds. The songs here are predominately pleas. It's a more intimate affair, less about ideals and more about how they manifest in the real world, for better or for worse. "Is this the time / The time to win or lose? / Is this the time? / The time to choose?" asks Bono in Wire. It's a question that's as valid today as it was in 1984.

In a time where racism in America has made a resurgence, the lines "They took your life / They could not take your pride" - about the remarkable courage of Martin Luther King, Jr. - is a rallying cry for truth and resilience. In fact, when Bono intones, "And you hunger for the time / The time to heal, desire time / And your earth moves beneath / Your own dream landscapes," in A Sort Of Homecoming it's hard not to connect the dots between MLK, Obama and the deep-seated desire to bring together a divided country, a situation this Irish band was all too familiar with. It sounds like they saw a lot more about our deeply divided country than we did, caught up in Reaganomics, false pride and a false sense of nationalism.

U2 are one of the biggest bands in the world now, but they weren't when this record was recorded - so all you haters, back off. The Joshua Tree catapulted U2 to mainstream success partially through their fascination with America and mostly through some great songwriting. The Unforgettable Fire is a love letter to Martin Luther King, Jr., to idealism, to the impossibility of purity but the desire to strive for it anyway. Sound familiar?

It's a document of big ideas and bleeding hearts, constructed and delivered at a time when Cyndi Lauper and Boy George (not to mention Flock Of Seagulls, Depeche Mode, Def Leppard, Journey and Quiet Riot) reigned supreme. In a climate of hedonism, U2 chose to explore humanism, and to back up their politics and spirituality with a sonic aesthetic that was equally out of step at the time.

War documented the tensions in their native Ireland; The Unforgettable Fire took things to a bigger level, socially and sonically. After eight exhausting years of W and the heady optimism of the Obama campaign (and decades' worth of benefit concerts highlighting the need for change/various injustices/global needs) the marriage of politics and music feels natural. A no-brainer. Hell, it's practically a requirement. But in 1984, smack in the middle of the me-first, Reagan era, U2's passionate, intelligent, socially-conscious music was a revelation and an aberration. To put it into context, We Are The World wasn't recorded until the next year, cocaine use was rampant and Twisted Sister's defiant party-rock was all the rage. MLK, Jr. was unfashionable - a relic, not an icon.

And that brings us to today. I can revisit any number of albums that I loved and which served as soundtracks for a particular era and have a good chuckle at my headspace, the horrible fashions/hair-dos of the time, and ridiculous production. But The Unforgettable Fire slays me now more than ever, and for different reasons. The vision, intelligence, foresight and musical innovation contained here resonate even more so now than they did twenty-six years ago. It probably speaks even more deeply to a nation more deeply divided that it has been since MLK was alive.