Originally intended as an EP to be recorded and released before embarking on the European leg of the Zoo TV Tour, when U2 went into the studio during a well deserved tour break to begin recording Zooropa it quickly became obvious to one and all a bit more might be possible. With producer Brian Eno and U2 sound engineer Flood on hand for production duties, and engineer / producer Daniel Lanois also present to make a contribution, the band and crew were most likely going to come away with a bit more then they went in expecting. Having already played 102 shows in America and ready to take it back home and to the rest of the world, the band was in top shape creatively and on the stage. Entering the studio with a handful of completed songs and a couple of buckets worth of ideas, the EP that was to be quickly became the album that was meant to be. And just over a month later the 19 month old Achtung Baby had a little sister.
The album picks up where it�s predecessor left off with the cool and futuristic title track. Sounding like it�s coming in from a distant horizon, the song gradually builds with soft piano and atmospheric synths before giving way to a bit of electronic noodling and finally the heavily sequenced and echoed guitar sounds of Dave �Edge� Evans. �Zooropa, vorsprung durch technik� Bono starts with a slow and dreamy vocal. And it�s clear from the start the Berlin/New York/European electronica and techno influences the band used to great effect on it�s previous effort were going to be employed once again. A rock song to be sure, Zooropa nonetheless over flows with electronic sounds and soundscapes that would be impossible to imagine this group engaging in just a few years earlier. Intent on continuing to reinvent themselves and at the midway point of a massive world tour that showcased the latest technology and innovations in sights and sounds, it is apparent the band were not going to go back in time. Instead they would continue with this album to cut the ties that bound them to the suffocating image of U2 gone past, and in the process make one of the more entertaining and interesting records of their career.
Soft chimes and heavy bass get the next track started, and �Babyface� is not only a musical leap forward for the band, but a lyrical one, as well. A song about sexual obsession via the remote control, this electronic lullaby of a song which gives the pause button on your remote control a whole new function, gently moves along with a subtlety that belies it�s somewhat disturbing subject matter. �Watching your bright blue eyes in the freeze frame/I�ve seen �em so many times I feel like I must be your best friend� Bono breathes suggestively into the mic, while later on letting us know that he�s �checking out every frame/ I�ve got slow motion on my side�. Surely not the stuff that would bring back memories of the bands �80�s glory years, and apparently that is the whole point. And as if to drive that point home like a sledgehammer driving a stake through the heart of that old band, the beat box led electronica/ambient noise of �Numb� follows with nearly five minutes of guitarist Edge mumbling almost incoherently into a microphone as the band plays muddy, dirge-like broken rhythms behind him. Yet for all this albums experimental elements and electronic noises the character of the band is never compromised or broken, as the next track, the German disco inspired �Lemon� clearly shows. With Bono putting on his now well known falsetto for the entire song rather then just a piece as in the past, and Edge relying heavily on his delay pedal while Adam, Larry, and Eno and company supply a slick groove to hold it all down, this is as perfect a marriage of rock and electronic/ambient music as one can imagine. And it�s the successful marriage of these diverse elements which allow the band to move ever forward in musical creativity yet maintain their core identity. The drums, bass work, vocals, piano, everything
suggests this is a U2 song. And just as equally suggests it is not.
However, as if to not let you forget exactly who and what this band is, closing the first half of the record we get the very traditional U2 style ballad �Stay (Faraway So Close)�. Still a departure from the sound of the old �80�s U2, it nonetheless possesses the themes lyrically (love, longing, sexual desire) and musically (straight forward vocals, stripped down guitar work, muted bass and drums, mid-tempo rhythm ) of U2 songs gone past and would have been right at home on say, Achtung Baby, if not something earlier. So perhaps the band has returned to their senses and will be retreating to the comfy ballad styles found on the Rattle And Hum album of some years before or maybe if we�re lucky even some Joshua Tree style tunes? Perhaps the first half of this record was just a grand illusion or somebody�s idea of a joke? Well, no. And the electronic bombast of �Daddy�s Gonna Pay For Your Crashed Car� that comes wailing along next puts any notion of a band in retreat to safer musical environs clearly to rest. Perhaps the most radical (for U2) track on the album, this song cuts like a razor with it�s tale of angsty dependence and once more finds the band completely immersed in electronic dance rhythms and a metallic snare drum drone as Bono talk/sings over the entire din while adding cool �sha-la�s wherever possible. This song is a treat for the ears as well as the senses as it twists and turns and rambles along like some rock song that has stumbled into a New York dance club, and it�s a shame that it�s followed by the mediocre and b-side like �Some Days Are Better Than Others� rather than another blast of hot electronic heat. This track, which sounds like what you would expect
U2 to sound like playing this sort of music rather than what they indeed sound like playing it on most of this album is the least successful cut on the record, as it is not only a weak song, but also a compromise of the genres being explored here. It just doesn�t mix well, it�s pieces never falling into place or melding as the other tracks on the album. It simply stays in one place and goes nowhere fast, and exposes the roots of this band just a hair too much to be effective.
Closing things out quietly as this band often has, the final three tracks of the record once again turn the musical tables to a more meditative mode and caps this album with the kind of grace and empathy often associated with this band. With Bono�s poetic lyrics leading the way �Dirty Day� is nothing but low ambience until the very end as the singer makes the connection between being a man to a woman and the man whom he comes from in his father. It�s a quiet, thoughtful song that finds it�s heart in it�s spare and simple lyrics and Bono�s heartfelt vocals, and it leads to perhaps one of the best album closers found on any album from the �90�s as none other then Johnny Cash himself makes an appearance for the spiritual and searching for salvation tune "The Wanderer". Littered with Christian imagery of darkness and light this is just about as perfect a recording as U2 has ever made, with Cash lending the song a feeling of finality that only someone with the life experience of a Johnny Cash could easily pull off. But as good as these last two tracks are at finishing things up, you must go back to the first of these trio of closing songs for the elegant and gracious �The First Time� to find the true beating heart of this record. Among all the cold electronic sounds and angsty lyrics that had come before Bono takes hold of this soft spiritual ballad of gentle piano and electronic orchestral pieces and proceeds to rip the listeners heart out with this tale of romantic love, spiritual thirst, devotion, redemption, and forgiveness. The lyrics, music, mood, and tone are simply pitch perfect and to this day the song stands as one of this bands greatest gifts to their fans or anyone else who would care to listen. Beautiful, simple, and generous songwriting at it�s best.
Continuing to throw the collective weight off their shoulders which had come to burden them at the end of a very successful decade gone past, and with the stubbornly born Acthung Baby proving to be a success that U2 fans old and new would embrace, Zooropa finds U2 in a relaxed, tense, and upbeat mood all at once. Working with the same team of producers and recording engineers whom they had worked with for almost a decade but who understand this kind of music perfectly (with Brian Eno being a true ground breaker in electronic music, and his prot�g�s following in his footsteps) U2 simply took this opportunity and completed the reinvention of themselves they had started on Achtung Baby and banged the final nail in the coffin of their past. Amongst a new day rising in rock n roll with the emergence of grunge and the breakthrough into the American mainstream of alternative and punk rock, the band could of simply grabbed it�s guitars and taken a giant post punk step back from where they came. Instead, emboldened by the dawning of the digital age and excited by all it�s possibilities, musical and otherwise, they bought a ticket for a train headed for a bright new future that few rock bands like U2 would ever dare to board. And Zooropa is the sound of that train arriving, former little Irish rock band from Dublin in tow, beaming from ear to ear, and making some of the best music of their career.