Wondering Sound NOVEMBER 16, 2010 - by J. Edward Keyes


U2 at their bravest and strangest

The first words Bono sings on this record are as follows: "Zooropa. Vorsprung durch tecnik."

Just let that soak in for a second.

The weirdest and most haunting record in U2's career finds the band getting sucked Tron-like deep inside the machine and into a world where the sky is pitch-black and everything is lit with three-hundred-foot LCD screens playing idiotic advertisements on loop. Achtung Baby was noisier about its sonic reinvention, but Zooropa goes further: The churning quasi-industrial Daddy's Gonna Pay For Your Crashed Car samples MC 900 Foot Jesus; Numb, the ridiculous spoken-word first single (sung by The Edge, no less), is essentially comprised of a bevy of samples and one ground-up sliver of guitar. No other U2 record - not even the techno misfire Pop - sounds anything like it.

The band pounded the record out in six months during a break between two legs of the epic Zoo TV tour, and the confusion as to what, exactly, they were doing is doubtlessly one of the things that informs the record's riskiness. "I don't know if what we're doing here is the next U2 record or a bunch of sketches that will turn into demos for the next U2 record," Adam Clayton said at the time. The band would record fragments of songs and let Brian Eno and Flood assemble them in the studio. Cramped for time near the end of the process, they would actually take turns flying back to Dublin after the first few stops on the U.K. leg of the Zoo TV tour in order to complete it. Still, the record never feels half-baked - its songs are constructed from millions of tiny pixels, but they manage to embrace technology without skimping on melody. Most people who were around at the time can sing the ridiculous falsetto hook to Lemon, but fewer remember that it actually opens up into a truly lovely denouement. Stay (Faraway, So Close!) is devastating - Bono deftly weaving a narrative in which a pileup of mundane images - "Green light / 7-11 / You stop in / for a pack of cigarettes / ...Hey now, check your change" - leads into a dark, potent chorus ("You say when he hits you, you don't mind"). They save their boldest move for the end: turning the lead vocal of atmospheric all-synth number The Wanderer over to Johnny Cash. In that song, Cash plays the preacher in the Book of Ecclesiastes, surveying a world ruined by a glut of useless information and rampant industrialisation trying, as he puts it, "to taste and to touch and to feel as much/ as a man can before he repents." The song is left open-ended, Cash still wandering in the LED-lit night as Bono materialises briefly to sing a single falsetto note over his head. It's both the bravest and the strangest the band would ever be.