The U2 Canon - Pop
Pop is kind of the litmus test for U2 fans. While there certainly are fans, and a healthy number of them, who thought Achtung Baby was a bizarre step in a wrong direction, and who more or less discount anything by the band post-1990, for most fans the new musical directions Achtung Baby took the band in are appreciated.
And then there's Pop. A huge number of U2 fans consider Pop to be U2's big mistake, an ego-fueled, too-hip-for-the-room, mess of an album that saw the band far, far afield of what they do best. These fans see 2001's All that You Can't Leave Behind as a triumphant return to form, and in part as a kind of apology for the techno-driven garbage that was Pop.
I am not one of those fans. to me, Pop is a brilliant example of a band trying new and exciting sounds while at the same time remaining exactly who they are. It took a few listens, but when Pop first came out I was able to hear the "U2" within the experiments, within the new beats, and electronic noise, and feedback. To me, Pop is like Achtung Baby only more so. An attempt to grow as a band, and to embrace new ideas, while never losing the identifiable sound and musical drive that identifies virtually all U2 songs as U2 songs. To me, Pop is a great album--and quite possibly their most significant release after the monuments of The Joshua Tree and Achtung Baby.
1. "Discotheque" - Much like Achtung Baby led off with a song that made no bones about the new musical worlds the album would be exploring, so does Pop. "Discotheque" begins with a slow, fade-up, buzzsaw intro grounded by a low, almost sinister bass line. But when the drums kick in, the dance origins of the song's sound become clearly apparent. And yet, after a few listens, the essential "U2-ness" of the song becomes readily apparent. Just listen to the bridge, with its echoing guitar lines and Bono beseeching in falsetto - this is U2, make no mistake.
2. "Do You Feel Loved" - A great forgotten U2 track, with a killer, syncopated riff from the Edge providing a skeleton for Adam to hang a fairly muscular bass line on. Pop sees Bono in probably the worst vocal shape of his mature career (presumably left over damage from the lengthy Achtung Baby-Zooropa tours and a lack of respect for the damage cigarettes can do to vocal cords), and this track suffers some for it--one can imagine what a more full-throated Bono could do with the classic-U2 worthy high refrain of "Do you feel loved?" Still, the raw quality his voice features throughout the album brings its own benefits, even if they don't outweigh the strengths a healthy Bono could have brought to the song.
3. "Mofo" - Of all the album's tracks, this is probably the most defiantly "non-U2ish." A double-tracked Larry lays down a frenzied, paranoid beat that leads into an absolutely killer of an electronic bass line (whether or not Adam actually plays this line I don't know--live he certainly didn't), which in turn leads into a guitar riff from the Edge that is, in his words, like an "airplane taking off from the runway." The body of the song features a talk-singing Bono, some strange, voice box-muddled periodic interjections from the Edge ("Bring around front, bring around back") and some absolutely passionate mothers. The tense bridge, in which Bono pleads with his dead mother, is some of the band's most astonishing work, ever.
4. "If God Will Send His Angels" - A quiet, weary ballad that makes its forbearer "One" sound positively cheery. Bono infuses the opening lines with a wonderful sense of fatigue and defeat--and, in a neat trick, the Edge does the same thing with some of the guitar riffs. In the end, the music behind this song is slightly less than inspired, but it's a fine track nonetheless, and lyrically wonderful. Overall, Pop features some of Bono's most inspired lyrics. He resorts to cliche less than he sometimes can, and nails some wonderfully specific and evocative lines'' here, for example, "Jesus never let me down/You know, Jesus used to show me the score/Then they put Jesus in show business/Now it's hard to get in the door." And the religious imagery and themes are less inspiring than they usually are with U2, more towards the side of doubt than faith (although it bears repeating that U2 has always treated religion with a healthy mix of faith and questioning).
5. "Staring at the Sun" - A very solid, Beatles-esque song, with some great lyrics, done in by an arrangement that buries the song's simple strengths--as the live acoustic version revealed.
6. "Last Night on Earth" - The lesser of two more overt rockers that follow after the more experimental opening tracks. Not a bad song, but it does give off a whiff of "boilerplate U2."
7. "Gone" - This is the second, much stronger rocker, with some great, if rough around the edges, singing by Bono. Subtle piano work adds some nice variety and texture to the song, but it's in the wailing, by Bono and the Edge, in the choruses that really make this one. Great on disc, but a real classic live.
8. "Miami" - A kind of experimental rap/travelogue of a band visit to the titular city. A song I never really come back to.
9. "The Playboy Mansion" - A fun, loping, almost country-esque bit of what I think might be an attempt at trip-hop" Kind of a throwaway, but a wonderfully relaxed, smooth one.
10. "If You Wear that Velvet Dress" - A slow burn of a ballad, with Bono singing lower than he ever has in a completely successful attempt to inject a bit of danger and sex into his voice. Quiet and kind of off-handedly erotic.
11. "Please" - In my opinion, humble or otherwise, U2's second-most impressive song. The drum work by Larry is inspired, jazzy and tight, and Adam's bass line does a great job of twisting along with that beat. And Bono puts forth an all-time great vocal performance, singing the "Please" refrain with the perfect mixture of anger, hurt, and defeatism. This song inspired Elvis Costello to reassess his opinion of U2, and he's sung it live on at least one occasion. Just a wonderful song, from the performances, to the lyrics, to the structure, to that sad and angry melody.
12. "Wake Up Dead Man" - A bleak ending for an album infused with tired anger and resignation. The theme of religious doubt comes to a head here--U2 may have never sounded so unlike a purportedly "Christian" band than they do here. Over a simple guitar figure and some ominous background noise that sounds like static on a radio, Bono sings:
Jesus, Jesus help me
I'm, alone in this world
And a fucked up world it is too.
Tell me, tell me the story
The one about eternity
And the way it's all gonna be.
Wake up, dead man.
Wake up, dead man.
Chilling, and perfectly executed.
If, by chance, you are one of those U2 fans who gave the album a few listens and never returned to it, I can't recommend going back enough. There are real riches here.