Review Summary: Dreaming out loud.
Upon first impressions, ‘Zooropa’ is barely recognisable as the work of U2. The bands comfort zone of a traditional three-piece rock setup has been forsaken in favour of learning a new language in sound machines and synths. The change is perhaps not so striking in its momentous difference of sound than that it is hugely unorthodox for such a conventional group. The most obvious conclusion for the initially bewildered listener to arrive at would be that this move was taken in the name of progression, be that for the band to develop and prove themselves in new musical arenas, or that they were reacting to a world on a collision course with the 21st century. Both theories hold water. Now that they have learned to stay relevant to the wider world, they are keen to be at the cutting edge of it. Meeting the tech age head-on was a decision of instinct. Even if they wanted to avoid experimentation, they had to consider that ‘The Joshua Tree’ had only just happened, a statement of such absolution and singularity that it was to be the
masterpiece – there couldn’t be a Part 2. Diversification, then, seemed the only logical option. If all this is ringing a bell – band makes legendary rock record, then makes for the keyboards – then yes, it is rather reminiscent of the Radiohead story: and all while ‘Kid A’ was only a twinkling in Thom Yorke’s eye. Perhaps that event is more widely acknowledged because it was a remarkably abrupt revolution, whilst in U2’s case ‘Achtung Baby’ made the transition more progressive, less noticeable; but once the initial surprise of what ‘Zooropa’ actually is has dissipated, we are left to appreciate a record that is every bit as memorable.
Even in spite of their limited experience in the electronic field, the band show their class of musicianship through adeptness in versatility. Not only are they clearly masters of the new style, but they expertly blend it with their proven forte of traditional instruments. The result is wonderfully balanced; always immersive, soaking us in neon-lit metropolis feel of the album, but never to the extent of being overbearing or gimmicky. Whether the atmosphere shimmers like the top-down convertible cruise along the sunset boulevard of ‘Lemon’, or berates like the automated anti-interrogation binary of ‘Numb’s delectably paradoxical funk, or infects like a spree of grins in ‘Some Days are Better Than Others’s workaday commute, the ambience is always, in its plethora of pressures and depths, an engulfment of the listener by its fullness of existence.
The effortless, captivating totality of aura is testament to their comfort in the new fluorescent suit; but I suspect that this has much to do with that the same people are wearing the suit as ever, and flaunting it in the same way. Beneath the bright lights and flashing bulbs, the band is still doing what it does best; celebrating the good they see in the world around them, but at the same time attacking its injustices. That they’ve given their old wooden soapbox a new stainless-steel finish has made little difference to what they’re shouting from the top of it. But not since the wide-eyed days before ‘The Unforgettable Fire’ has their grandstanding been lacking in the conceptual, or been in plain English, and ‘Zooropa’ (much in keeping of the atypical nature of the albums sound) is no exception to the rule. Whether it’s the juxtaposition of the usually straight talkin’ Johnny Cash crooning the album to a close with riddles and warnings of a post-apocalyptic world, or the shy, delicate, tentative discovery of love in ‘The First Time’, or the lambasting satire of ‘Daddy’s Gonna Pay For Your Crashed Car’, the songwriting is supremely elegant, neither bewilderingly conceptual nor ungracefully simplistic. Perhaps most importantly, it all stems back to the band’s Christian perspective. Their experience and relationship with society is the same as ever, and the response is still one begot of their faith. U2 have simply found a different means by which to channel it.
This common originin present even in the song structure is what distinguishes ‘Zooropa’, and yet is what ties it together. The album utilises, explores and expands the boundaries of electronica, whilst at the same time retaining the core dynamics of band’s formula for success. That they never lose it in among the dizzy heights and pressures of global stardom is the key to the albums success; that it all stems from the same rebellious Christian perspective is what is responsible for the presence of a constant in an album bursting with new ideas and fizzing over with experimentation. There is always a unifying motif potent in every track, shining through in spite of their diversity. There is a wonderful wholeness to the album, even though the individual tracks have brilliant variety. We can appreciate their individual worth (and many, if I might magnify, are utterly superb numbers) all under the same context. ‘Zooropa’ is an out-of-this-world trip to wildly varying planets, yet they all revolve around the same sun. Sit back, and enjoy the intergalactic ride.