Review Summary: A truly excellent transition record that shows the band in-between two major phases in their career, but is still a damn good listen.
You can’t deny U2’s worthiness of ‘rock god’ status no matter how much you hate them. Out of all the major-label rock bands of the past few decades stuck with the tag ‘superstar band’, U2 has been the one true rock god band. They’ve barely ever rose their music above -20 decibels, but hell, Bono speaks emotion in his lyrics, The Edge’s guitar sound can
only be ripped off so many times, and only so many bands can want Brian Eno to produce their new album. Beginning as just a bunch of Scottish punks with the early success Boy, the fake, ugly religious squander October, and the final album of U2’s crunchy, indie-rock albums, War, U2 set out to change themselves, and that they did well. In an essence, The Unforgettable Fire is U2’s maturity level rising, their passion to become more than a cheap indie rock band, and their passion for success all coming to fruition at once. That’s why, despite The Unforgettable Fire’s irking unpolished sound, it is truly one of U2’s finest.
Instead of squalling guitars like the first three albums, The Unforgettable Fire opens up with some rhythmic, nearly African drum rhythms on A Sort of Homecoming. This is where the album’s newfound sound comes into fruition: dense atmospherics, The Edge’s guitar work creating a fading backdrop, with Brian Eno footprints all over it. But Bono’s vocals have also taken a step towards the booming, anthems which took control of The Joshua Tree, first noticeable in the chorus to A Sort of Homecoming as well. The soundscapes are tightly wound together, but glare with imperfection, yet still showing the more atmospheric, rhythmic U2 we would all know and love in the future.
But with Pride (In the Name of Love), U2 return to older styles, yet still seem to show a revolution in their songwriting. Instead of bare-bone rockers like their previous albums, Pride (In the Name of Love) commandeers a powerful, uplifting chorus as Bono roars his best lyrics to date over The Edge roaring away on his guitar, traditional ‘The Edge’ guitar all in tow. During it’s play, it’s not too revolutionary, but after it’s over, all the seeping electronics in the back and atmospheric twinges Eno added to the mix suddenly stick out and you really get the idea of a U2 pop song, redefined. Wire marks a return to the unconventional U2 style of the album, filled to the brim with overbearing guitar riffs, choppy riffage, near-Korn level bass, and soundscapes gushing at the brim. A bit of funky bass lines re-route the track into a fast, driven chorus, before it returns to the seizure-paced speed of the song. And yet, despite it being the farthest off from a typical U2 song on the record, it’s absolutely nothing ‘to write home about’.
The title track is a keyboard-driven track that seems to have all the answers-echoing vocals, gritty basslines, emotional lyrics, moving atmospherics. But simply, the title track sounds quite dated, overbearing, and extremely uninteresting (even for the time it was made). Promenade, really just is a bit of a filler track with The Edge and Bono, rambling on about something un-important and illegitimate. But the album really peaks at it’s climax with 4th of July/Bad which are about as close to The Joshua Tree as the album comes. 4th of July solemnly leads up to Bad, the fan favorite, and it truly deserves it’s position as a fan favorite. Potentially the best post-One U2 ballad, it rumbles on with the slow, choppy riffage, Bono’s overpowering vocals until it’s absolute peak nearly five minutes in, where Bono starts screaming behind Mullen’s drumming and The Edge’s frentic riffage, before ending the way it began. Now there’s the U2 we all know and love in the future, those powerful power ballads with emotion seeping out of them…
Indian Summer Sky brings back Wire’s experimental, unconventional sound, but to less than positive success. It’s so like Wire that it’s outrageous. Choppy, atmospheric riffs, nearly African drum beats, soaring, fast paced chorus, and a funky bassline. Elvis Presley and America is even more of a bigger “WTF"!” until you realize who produced this album-Brian Eno. In a sense, Brian Eno’s production and influence is written all over the track; a la talking vocals, odd rhythms…stuff that the Talking Heads did with Remain in Light. Really, it sounds unlike anything U2 would ever do in the future; unfinished in a way, and ultimately too boring, especially for six minutes. And, in an epic ending MLK closes out the album on an emotional high, with beating atmospherics in the back and Bono spewing out his softer, melodic vocals to close the album out with an extremely great track.
The Unforgettable Fire definitely is U2’s toughest and most challenging listen-some of the songs are awkward, different, and some sound unfinished. Bono gets a bit underwhelming, The Edge’s riffs get a bit recycled, the basslines too funky for U2 standards, or Mullen’s drumming a bit overdone. However, it still sounds fresh, interesting, and emotional, nearly 25 years later. It's truly one of U2's finest. It provides a nice bridge from the good ol’fashioned rock’n’roll album that was War and the emotion filled, memorable classic The Joshua Tree. You see the potential seeping out of the album, the urge for the future, and all that U2 left behind, allowing them to attain that ‘rock god’ status. So, absolutely, The Unforgettable Fire is a great listen for any one wanting some experimental U2, and was the perfect transition album the band could have made.