- 05 Jul 21
28 years ago today, U2 released their eighth studio album, Zooropa, produced by Flood, Brian Eno, and the Edge. To mark the occasion, we're revisiting Bill Graham's review of the album – originally published in Hot Press in 1993.
Usually, the road makes you (and U2) more manic. Since Rattle and Hum was their most frantic, scattershot album, you might expect Zooropa also to be tinged by all the volatile experiences of touring. If so, it’s expertly hidden. Without its own 'Helterskelter', U2’s latest is no roller-coaster. The major surprise is that it’s a far more measured, coherent record than Achtung Baby.
Zoo T.V. may have been dramatised as a circus of media overload and misinformation, but Zooropa dives beneath all that surface chaos and static. Instead it distils the music and makes the decisions that were delayed at the several crossroads of Achtung Baby.
That album occasionally suffered from an air of contrivance, as if they felt under pressure to prove themselves. But once your ears have unlocked the codes of Zooropa, you’ll find it wins by its consistency of tone and scale. Nothing here screams ‘hit’ like 'One', but neither are their tracks when you wonder if U2 are second-guessing either their audience or radio programmers.
The key shift occurs in The Edge’s role. Credited as co-producer, he’s less a guitar hitman than their sound effects handyman. If not totally dismissed, the glam/noise/R’n’B tumult of Achtung Baby has been sent to the back of the class. And if you want a convenient access route to Zooropa, it can sometimes sound like the progeny of the lush, undulating atmospherics of The Unforgettable Fire, crossed with Bowie’s Low albeit – and very much albeit – proceedings from the sadly undervalued contribution of the Alomar/Davis/Murray rhythm team to that project.
Zooropa also flags U2 at their most purely musical. Really Bono’s lyrics can’t be pinned down. European foreign and agricultural ministers can sleep easy; if Bono’s got any views on the CAP and on the Bosnian crisis, he’s keeping them for his table talk. Instead he’s transformed himself into a set of ciphers, a strangely hazy and often mystified quest, a road movie at 30,000 feet above the arteries of Europe, a series of dreams in a twilight zone where you’re never entirely certain if U2 are playing at sunset or just before the dawn.
Long ago U2 used to somewhat shamefacedly accept they were the gang who couldn’t dance straight. And yet far more than Achtung Baby, this record opens up new vistas for white European dance rock. Again U2 are masters of disguise since there’s no riff that sends me dashing to the Seventies section of my record collection, inwardly muttering my suspicions of crass larceny.
As with Achtung Baby, Adam Clayton and Larry Mullen step forward as the indispensable facilitators of the other two’s imaginations. Check out how they pare 'Babyface' down to the bare essentials. Or how Adam lubricates 'Some Days Are Better Than Others'. Now U2 put up their own funk; they don’t need to pilfer any mouldy leavings from the vaults.
Gaining their own good groove, U2 have also ceased to heckle. The first single, 'Numb', casting Edge as a Kraftwerk replicant, is poker-faced cheek, a track that proves the fundamental but usually forgotten fact that Rap is anything you can get away with, so long as you get the rhythms tied to the floor.
It also shows how U2 now cast themselves as the Rorshach not the Dalton Brothers. Sometime in the future, 'Numb' may evolve into Edge’s comic 'Louie Louie' turn but here it’s his counter part to Bono’s own role-playing. 'Stay (Faraway, So close)' places itself at a crux of paralysis and disorientation – “up with the static and the radio” – where “with satellite television, you can go anywhere/Miami, New Orleans, London, Belfast and Berlin”. Even in heaven, you can hear the holograms howl and Bono, as either (or both) star or lover, can only describe the distance where “if you listen, I can’t call…if you shout, I’ll only hear you”.
Too evasive? Does this self-proclaimed action painter want to have it every way? Possibly on the most literal levels of meaning but after Zoo T.V. you also have to envisage Bono’s lyrics as skeleton scripts to be fleshed out later on stage, themes for future theatric(k)s. These songs are so depictive. On a superficial reading, 'Babyface' could be the record’s warmest, most affectionate track, a song to suit any love match between any couple of kooks- unless you’ve been previously alerted by Bono’s interview with Joe Jackson, where he’s instead insisting the song’s about the seamier juvenilia of satellite porn.
But move over Silvio Beriesconi and tell Rupert Murdoch the news! At its best, Zooropa is Sky-funk, music from a band who, permanently or temporarily, have renounced the old folkways for the new airways to declare that white men, they speak with digital tongue. So 'Lemon', the most graceful cut, stretches casually off into the firmament, due witness that U2’s music is most intoxicating when its rhymes soar with awe.
Then there’s the patchwork quilt of the opening title track. Almost a trilogy, it uncoils from a lengthy Gothic intro of Edge and Eno treatments into a blurred ascent through the clouds before the guitars shudder in for the finale. Again mystification is its mode, Bono volunteering “I have no compass and I have no map”. The music alone supplies the fuel for the flight before the freefall to a deserted aerodrome where the imagination is chalked as contraband.
Europe remains clouded in mist, a continent too disparate for any recent myths, a store house for artistic plunder where they can mock-classical intro from a Soviet collection of Lenin’s Favourite Songs to open 'Daddy’s Gonna Pay For Your Crashed Car'. Then, for once, they don’t speak in microchip undertones as the rhythm loop hammers brutally on the anvil. 'The First Time', on Bono’s testimony originally written Al Green, gets transformed with a Velvets touch while 'Dirty Day' is Bono with a touch of bitters: “If you need someone to blame/throw a rock in the air/you’re bound to hit someone guilty”.
Finally 'The Wanderer' with Johnny Cash: after all the deceptive impressionism of the preceding nine tracks, Cash’s imperturbable but awkward granite integrity bounces the mood. The theme of questioning is confirmed but the record has somehow moved uncomfortably from the stratosphere to streets where an angry man might force a showdown. Till now, U2 have been avoiding, dancing round the point and dodging the bullets but even if they swathe Johnny Cash in synthesisers and Edge throws in some spaghetti Western guitar lines, Cash is more Frankenstein than Clint Eastwood and I think I still need to digest this one.
Another movie in a new cinema? Perhaps, but then the other nine tracks of Zooropa succeed because of, not despite, their illusions. Far more musically focused than its two studio predecessors, Zooropa may be the album where U2 discovered a mature style; where their lyricism found its feet on the dancefloor and they finally located a suitable basecamp to explore new horizons.
Achung Baby had its moments of cross-purposes but Zooropa blends as U2’s music becomes seamless once again. But as it shimmers, a nice bunch of guys gets confused, amused, refused, defused, bemused, used, abused and subdued by a nice bunch of girls – all dreams, I take it, for the next im(media)te point of departure.