Ultimate Classic Rock OCTOBER 1, 2014 - by Nick DeRiso


U2's fourth album arrived just a little more than a year and a half after its punky predecessor War had become a surprise platinum-selling hit, reaching Number 12 in the U.S. and topping the U.K. chart. Simple but effective production from Steve Lillywhite buoyed future stadium rockers like Sunday Bloody Sunday and New Year's Day.

But The Unforgettable Fire didn't build on that stripped-back, almost primitive sound. Instead, the band challenged itself to find something beyond the prickly rawness that was already making U2 international phenomenons. So they turned to ambient music pioneer Brian Eno and his budding protege Daniel Lanois, sparking an unlikely collaboration that would ultimately stretch over six albums.

It could be argued that The Unforgettable Fire - released on October 1, 1984 - is U2's big bang, the moment when the group's dizzying ambitions finally crashed into a real opportunity to make something that sounded uniquely their own. A band that always seemed to record as if playing live onstage, with few embellishments, was suddenly traversing a much more expansive soundscape.

They clearly enjoyed the new vista. Bono's always impressionistic lyrics were sharper and more resonant, highlighted by lines like "faces ploughed like fields that once gave no resistance" and, in his closing requiem for Martin Luther King Jr., "sleep, sleep tonight - and may your dreams be realised." The Edge's playing was also more memorably atmospheric, and the rhythm section's nimble symmetry more engaging.

Put simply, they'd never sounded like this before, and they'd never sound the same again. They'd also never again release another album that failed to go at least platinum.

The opening A Sort Of Homecoming is the only song that most directly recalls the feel of U2's first three albums, providing a bridge to where they were quickly heading. Pride (In The Name Of Love) illustrated their ability to transform that flinty attitude into something that would connect across generations, even as The Edge unleashed a delay-pedal sound that would quickly become his trademark. (Of course, the problem with history - versus the abstractions with which Bono typically worked - is its fact-based certainties. He famously got the time of King's assassination wrong.)

If Indian Summer Sky and Wire leaped forward with breakneck speed, the title track and the closing M.L.K. showcased a stirring new sense of space and proportion. Then there was Bad, which, in the Live Aid era, was every bit the anthem that Two Hearts Beat As One had been - but with a much grander sweep. Not every moment worked. Elvis Presley And America hints at the sometimes over-the-top myth-making to come, while the throwaway instrument 4th Of July seemed to owe far more to Eno's imagination than to anyone in U2.

Along the way, The Unforgettable Fire's many successes overpower the occasional failures. With a few small tweaks, they'd go on to produce the best album of their career with the subsequent The Joshua Tree. In the meantime, this is the sound of U2 finding themselves, during a moment of bravado and emotion that - though repeated perhaps to the point of numbing sameness in the years to come - changed everything.