This review first ran in the April 1997 issue of Spin. To mark the 20th anniversary of U2’s Pop—originally released March 3, 1997—we’re republishing it here.
With British soul sage Howie B. dispensing ’90s groove advice and a thousand rhythm tracks bulldogging throughout this exhilaratingly complex album, Pop could get slotted as U2’s dance fling. When it grasps for so much more. “Take this tangle of a conversation,” Bono intones on “Do You Feel Loved,” the second track, “turn it into your own prayer.” And for nearly an hour, swinging free of genre sentimentality, philosophical posturing, and any known brand of studio sugar, U2 deliver precisely that transformation.
The record has the damndest title of the decade. Pop here doesn’t refer to anyone’s sunny, big-beat myth. It doesn’t cultivate fast, silvery melodicism, like “Hold Me, Thrill Me, Kiss Me, Kill Me” (from the Batman Forever soundtrack), and with Flood producing, there’s little, if any, of the sonic certainty that most people warm to as “pop.” As on Smashing Pumpkins’ Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness, Flood doesn’t ground or contour songs in the usual way—bass lines, for example, just don’t sit where you’d expect. Whether dance, folk, rock, or balladry, this is some kind of newly unbelted music. No, U2 haven’t crafted a garden of hooks. Nor have they abandoned their famously hated ambition. Rather, they’ve turned a slightly cold eye to an uncertain, end-of-the-century moment, a time when dueling genres often can’t pronounce each other’s names, everyone dances to techno-inspired stuff by night, and no one remembers what constitutes a pop hit.
Out of this uncertainty, out of this very tangle, U2 have reformed their music again. On 1991’s Achtung Baby, they immersed themselves in noise; on 1993’s Zooropa, no bets hedged, they upended the record-making process. Now, on Pop, they just let various unpolished, inconsistent elements zoom, traipse, and scatter through space. And, because they are U2, they hope. At album’s end, on “Wake Up Dead Man,” as a Bulgarian village soprano valiantly tries to cut through the muddy air, Bono guesses that there must be order somewhere amid all this disorder. And he asks if he can rewind everything, “just once more,” and listens for clues.
That’s getting ahead of the story, though. Pop realizes a symphonic transcendence for which the band’s earlier stabs like The Unforgettable Fire could only wish. Having mastered conventional songs and sources on The Joshua Tree, U2 this decade have grown supremely at home with trash. They are now experts at wringing genuine emotion, and even a few smirks, out of random sounds, letting their roots filter up from below. It’s a fusion, both magisterial and rotted.
Pop opens with a long, three-song overture played out on the dance floors of Europe. With “Discothèque,” the current single, U2’s music springs to life as this very sexy fucking thing. The track sounds like it could have been done by some immediate peer of Tricky or Underworld, someone who craved just a touch more vocal slide, a bit more melody, maybe a few more piles of guitar in the right corners. U2’s reading of the emotional plight of everyEuroyouth is so credible, so on. And their embrace of the spiritual side of dance music—long-present, as far back as the repeating ricochet of “I Will Follow”—seems quite natural. “Do You Feel Loved” and “MoFo” delve further into the hips-head continuum. The first is more circumspect about tempo, and keeps reinstating an instrumental verse that’s pure harmonic bliss, even if the mix wraps it in fuzz. “MoFo” ups the ante insanely—beats go metallic, the central instrumental hooks lunge like missiles, and Bono sings over everything desperately, drawing out a hard, ineluctable tone. Against technobeats draped in velour, he questions concepts of family and future, problems he knows he’ll never solves in such ill-considered, obscenely fast times
After establishing this ugly contest of a world, impossible to navigate except in new ways, the band pulls back. They go folky about separation and self-will (“If God Will Send His Angels”); spectacularly, touchingly, they out-Oasis Oasis (“Staring at the Sun”). They take on the thoughts of a girl who swears by her tabloids, mocks saviors and lives like it’s the “Last Night on Earth.” They remember U2’s glory-rock past on “Gone,” a jaw-dropping skylift to Venus. Then the action shifts to America—a jittery “Miami” running on surgery and fashion shoots; Los Angeles and “The Playboy Mansion” (casinos, more surgery, sex), scored to slinky, skronked-up Don Henley rock.
Nothing gets easier. They key ballad, “If You Wear That Velvet Dress,” with bass notes soaring above the vocals, appears like a sensuous mirage. But then dance pressure comes down hard on rock foundations throughout the climactic “Please,” rejecting old tangles of European ancestry and custom as surely as new tangles of American commerce and size. There’s nothing reassuring, except the 4 A.M. rush of all those drum tracks, and how you can sometimes hear old soul voices deep inside them. Then U2 pray to rewind the tape.