March 3 marks the 20th anniversary of U2’s ninth album Pop. Sadly, there is little celebrating of this milestone.
Over the years, this mark in the band’s catalogue is one of their most complex works to date. Due to delays in production, U2 had to rush to complete Pop at the last minute. This cut into their rehearsal time for the PopMart Tour, which they chose to book in advance of the album release.
Pop is thought to be a disco record, but this is not the case. Rather, U2 tries to satirize mass media, consumerism and religion. Instead of going full dance, the group retains their old sound and includes electronic influences and samples. In the 1990s, bands like the Chemical Brothers did a lot of experimenting with sounds.
“Discotheque” is a good start to the album. The Edge’s guitar work is prominent here, and he is fine form. If anything, this is one of U2’s gems that doesn’t get much notice. It remains the band’s last Top 10 single in the US.
Looking back, it is the video that hurt the song’s longevity on the charts. While self-depreciation is okay, U2 as the Village People comes off as surreal and not funny. For this reason, many fans still regard the approach as a misstep.
Both “Do You Feel Loved” and “Mofo” have elements of club music. Yet they feel all over the place in their eclectic style. The songs’ mixing sounds fuzzy as if they are rough drafts. This is true with “Mofo”, because it’s full of screeching sounds.
Adam Clayton’s bass work is stellar. He gets the chance to really shine, and his playing is prominent on Mofo. Larry Mullen’s drumming is solid. Sadly, his playing gets lost in many samples added to the songs.
“Staring At The Sun” is a lo-fi song, but it’s one of Bono’s best vocals to date. The song depicts the clash between faith and blind worship. Edge gives an alternative sound to the track, and it feels welcome here. If they put this song out first, it could have been a big hit. But I digress.
“Wake Up Dead Man” offers a grim view of a world gone wrong. Bono sings, “I’m alone in this world, and a fucked world it is too.” The mood is somber and somewhat melancholic, but it stays with you. Not the way one would expect to end an album.
Pop is an interesting piece of U2 canon, because of its diverse mix. While not an Achtung Baby, the record shows hints of a great album. They were still in their mid-30s and eager to try new things. Since 2000, they have gone back to basics, because they play with a more conventional sound. If the band did more mixing, it could have been among their best work.
In recent years, Pop has all but vanished from U2 concerts. After PopMart, the band would play bare bones versions of Pop songs. Since 2007, none of the album tracks have made a full return to the live shows. The lone exception is a brief “Discotheque” sample at a few 2011 shows.
Here’s hoping U2 can pull off another great album. They’ve done it before, so anything is still possible. Maybe they can dream it all up again.