After spending the first half of the '80's releasing three loud, straight forward, guitar driven, and original albums that found U2 on the brink of wide spread success in America and worldwide superstardom through a lot of hard work and a lot of touring, the question for U2 and it's fans was 'what's next'? Having finally busted down the doors of resistance in the States with the explosive War album (which although successful, was at the time a gold record at the most, with 600,000 copies sold) and with the rock world waiting with bated breath to see just what the next release from this new and interesting band would have in store, The Unforgettable Fire, U2's fourth studio release in five years, would not only take it's fans by surprise but also set a trend for the band that exist to this day.
Ditching producer Steve Lillywhite, whom had been credited with much of the bands success and was closely associated with the groups now trademark sound of big drums, thundering bass, and guitarist Edge's harmonic/echo laden guitar style and delivery, the band would do a 180 degree turn and take up with former Roxy Music impresario and legendary record producer Brian Eno and then Eno protge sound engineer Daniel Lanois for this effort. Known for his work with Roxy Music, the Talking Heads, songwriting collaborations with David Bowie on his 'Berlin Trio" of albums Low, Heroes, and Lodger, respectively, Eno was perhaps best known for his avant garde solo work of ambient/electronic music and is considered a groundbreaking and innovative figure in his chosen field of record production. A self declared "non-musician' and with a decidedly unconventional approach to making records that oft times produced unconventional results, this at the time curious choice for production duties on The Unforgettable Fire would gut the sound of the former U2 and replace it with another that would serve the band well throughout their entire career. But this album, U2's first bold step forward in a long line of taking steps forward, would not be born easily. And it's results are a mixed bag of tricks and treats to be sure.
The album kicks off with the spiritual and uplifting track 'A Sort Of Homecoming' and it's fairly obvious from the start this is a departure in sound, if not style, from the bands three previous Steve Lillywhite produced efforts. Gone are the loud, brash guitars and thundering drums that have kicked off U2 albums previous and in their place are what sound like loosely pieced together soundscapes and sonic noodling. With the drums of Larry Mullen Jr. still leading the way and Bono waxing poetic about the great beyond, this is most certainly U2. But with the guitar of Edge being reduced to an atmospheric drone and the bass of Adam Clayton taking on a dense, bottom layer effect, A Sort Of Homecoming signals a breakaway from the past and takes a step toward the future of this band. Retreating a bit from this opener for the next cut, the socially conscious hit single "Pride (In The Name Of Love)" and the band is up to it's old tricks of ringing guitars and bombastic bass and drums once again, with Bono leading the way in this tribute to American civil rights leader the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King. It's a spirited and uplifting track of the sort that would mark the entire career of the band in spirit up until even today. And it's perhaps the last time the "old" U2 would make an appearance on this album that finds the saying 'the more things change, the more they stay the same' true in some cases, and completely irrelevant in others.
After finding there way through the funky and slight 'Wire' that finds Edge's guitar reduced to choppy snippets and atmospheric power chording while the bass of Adam Clayton leads the way for Bono's oblique and vague lyrics, the album reaches it's title track and it is perhaps the last time on this record U2 approach anything that can be remotely considered a full fledged, fully realized song. A lush, soft, and decidedly un-rock like song, 'The Unforgettable Fire' marks a clean break for the band away from there former selves and points them in the direction of their future in no uncertain terms. With the keyboard work of Eno leading the track with the band quietly following, once again atmosphere and restraint takes the place of the hard charging rock band U2 had built a reputation on up to this point. And they would spend the rest of this album dismantling and reconfiguring that reputation with some interesting success and frustrating failures.
Continuing on this path of tearing it all down, the next three "songs' on the album are comprised of curiosities and musical oddities at best, and self indulgent extravagant non-songs at worst. After a strong and confident opening to the album that saw the band stretching it's muscles creatively and musically on a foursome of fresh and consistent tracks, however different for the band, the next part of the album unfortunately finds them buried under a sea of sludge and atmosphere that only the mother of Brian Eno could perhaps love. "Promenade" with it's "improvised at the mic' lyrics and gentle guitar doodling would perhaps be a fairly interesting and docile track to close the first half of the album if it weren't for the fact the completely useless ambient instrumental track '4th Of July" was chosen to open the second half. Nothing more then 2:13 of what sounds to be a band warming up and we are then treated to the six minute epic in the making "Bad". One of U2's better known and most loved songs mostly on the strength of it's live performance, on record Bad simply continues the dreary path this album has suddenly taken and goes nowhere fast. Lyrically interesting and dramatic at it's finish, it nonetheless stumbles and plunders toward it's seemingly never arriving close without ever really going anywhere or reaching the grander of the albums title track. And what was meant to be an already longish six minute centerpiece to this album winds up feeling more like a ten minute snooze fest.
Waking up from this three song slumber for the next track and we once again find the band on energetic ground with the spirited but unremarkable "Indian Summer Sky" and while it doesn't really stand up as anything special and pales in comparison with the opening tracks of the album, it's nonetheless a wake up call for the listener with it's thundering bass lines and soaring vocals provided by bassist Clayton and singer Bono, and gives the hope that after the mundane tracks that came before we are headed for a strong finish. Unfortunately that hope is shot down in flames on the very next cut with the meandering, self indulgent, inexplicable inclusion of "Elvis Presley and America". Almost seven minutes long, this musically inept, lyrically useless, and not even interesting by Eno standards track simply takes matters too far and falls off the end of the record to an early death. Utterly un-listenable and a shambles even in the name of experimentation, this is the sort of musical misstep that should never be put on display for the public to hear and left for the scrap heap. Simply dreadful. Closing the album with the almost acapella prayer "MLK" (once again a tribute to Dr. Martin Luther King) and the band leaves this record of odds and ends and atmospheric noodling to the listener alone to determine what it is and what it isn't. Which to this very day for many U2 fans is still a question that is up in the air.
Ultimately, The Unforgettable Fire would play out as a transitional record for this band, and over time would become regarded as the album that had to come before the success the band would enjoy with their next album, the instant classic "The Joshua Tree". It would also serve as a measuring stick of just how far this band could go and give them something to build back on for the future. How important an album is to a band creatively and for growth however is a far cry from what an album actually is. And for as good as some of these tracks are and as important as others are to the band and Eno so far as finding common ground for their future more successful collaborations, taken on it's own terms The Unforgettable Fire is a wildly uneven and frustrating work that finds a band being born and dying all at the same time. Sometimes the better for it and sometimes the worse, it would mark the beginning of a rich and storied history for U2 of boldly reinventing themselves even while remaining fundamentally the same, and almost completely wipe from memory the little band from Ireland that came before. Worldwide dominance was just around the corner, although from this effort you would never guess it. But with 20/20 hindsight now in our favor, it's clear that for richer or for poorer, concerning The Unforgettable Fire, it couldn't of been any other way.