Thursday, 9 October 2014

U2 - Zooropa (1993)

Where did the time go? With each passing year, Bongo of U2 becomes ever further removed from that soulful wide-eyed Muppet Baby version of Joy Division which sounded so fresh and so utterly devoid of artifice in 1980, and ever closer to that which John Doran of The Quietus amusingly described as Smaug the Dragon with a mullet and two grand wrap around shades sitting on a giant mountain of gold, dressed like Che Guevara, talking about us and making peace signs any time someone gets out a camera.

More surprising for me has been realisation of the fact that they were never really so amazing as everyone thought they were. A Day Without Me and I Will Follow sounded like the greatest songs ever recorded that time I first heard them on the radio, but for some reason I never bothered to buy the album. The somewhat overwrought but still reasonably convincing Pride (in the Name of Love) was an - ahem - our tune in the Simon Bates tradition for myself and my first ever girlfriend, but then we were both pretty young and our other our tune was Smalltown Boy by Bronski Beat, so Lord knows what was going on there.

More recently I found that the song which Bongo's humble Oirish farmhands recorded for some Batman film had become lodged in my head, whatever the hell it was called; so screw it, I thought, and promptly Amazoned me a greatest hits disc. Unfortunately it turned out that U2 have had so many greatest hits as to require two volumes of the same, and I was sent the wrong one. No problem I decided, recalling the passion with which I once loved the three listed above, but listening to the fucker was another story. A Day Without Me, I Will Follow and Pride still sounded okay, but I'd forgotten about the rest, all those exhausting anthems, lonesome prairie-scale epics dedicated to being just a straightforward kind of fellah who, much like the Murphy's, isn't bitter, striving for the grandeur of a Thomas Cole landscape but coming closer in spirit to one of those hokey old west paintings full of noble savages and homespun horseback heroes. Never has anything with such celestial aspirations sounded quite so lard-arsed and stodgy, so lacking in basic nutrients as the never ending and pretty much interchangeable wailing ballads which comprise most of U2's back catalogue. By the time they recorded Rattle and Hum, it had begun to seem like even U2 were sick of it, at least revealing themselves to be a competent rock band once someone had taken away their fucking chorus pedal and told them to stop being such wankers.

I have most of Zooropa nailed into the back of my skull because my girlfriend of the time - not to be confused with the earlier one with whom I shared Pride as an our tune - had the album and played it to death. I didn't mind as it sounded good to me, and in fact it sounded so good that we went to see them live at some massive park in Leeds, a concert which I recall as immensely enjoyable despite costing over a hundred pounds a ticket once we accounted for missed coaches and resulting taxi fares. Weirdly, listening to it now, Zooropa still sounds good. The U2 of Zooropa and Achtung Baby - its predecessor - had apparently tired of being the aural equivalent of a plate of school mashed-potato ten miles in circumference and had asked Brian Eno to help them to be less crap - and I believe those were their actual words. I can't be bothered to verify whether or not this is true, but I seem to recall that as the recording for Achtung Baby began, Eno pointed out that the songs were rubbish and made the boys go away and then come back again after they had written some better ones.

Whether or not they did, Zooropa - and this works just as well for Achtung Baby - is a great album because it's a great Brian Eno album. Listen close and it's not hard to imagine Low-era Bowie singing over some of those tracks, or even Johnny Cash - welcome guest vocalist on the closing number, and known in this house simply as Uncle Johnny on account of Mrs. Wax Cylinders being related to him by marriage.

At the time we all thought U2 had reinvented themselves as Nine Inch Nialls, but the truth emerged as they gradually slid back into flag-waving anthemic landfill mode once Brian Eno took his knob twiddling abilities elsewhere. The clues were there all along, of course, particularly in the somewhat soporific Stay (Faraway, So Close) which no doubt tries to contrast its gentle Thomas Kincadisms with wife-beating lyrics so as to make a barbed point, but just ends up sounding like a paean to the admirable docility of women who stay with abusive partners; which is creepy. Then of course there's the politics trumpeted with all the passion of ten adult male Nelson Mandelas but which, on close inspection, mostly amounts to arguments ending well you can believe what you like but personally I'm against the killing of children. I can understand the logic of Bongo believing himself in a position to effect real change for the best, but standing next to Adolf Hitler with a big grin will only ever serve to make Hitler appear a little more humane, and so his band became the Judas goat by which those they purportedly oppose get to feel just a little better about themselves.

Well, that's how it looks from down here.

Even with this in mind, Zooropa remains a great album, albeit a great Brian Eno album.

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