The Joup Friday Album: U2 “Pop”

U2___Pop___FrontLadies and Gentlemen, although tagged by Tommy last week I, Shawn C. Baker will not be presenting this week’s Joup Friday album to you. Instead, I am using my turn to introduce the newest member of our rotation, the lovely, the talented Sara Farr!!!

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My relationship with U2 began about the time that “The Joshua Tree” came out. It was the first time that an album seemed to resonate with my life, and I even remember calling the radio station in Fort Wayne, Ind., to request “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” when the boy I had a crush on moved away to a different town without saying goodbye. (In my defense; I was a very emotional 12-year-old living in a very rural Ohio town.)

Ten years later, I was living in a relatively progressive, mid-size city a few hours from my childhood home. This is when “Pop” first entered into my world. It was 1997, and I had just graduated from college. I remember it mostly for the accompanying controversy surrounding the album: People did NOT like it. The band themselves didn’t have much good to say about it, only saying that it wasn’t exactly what they wanted from the sessions.

And that bugs me.

When I listen to “Pop” now, 17 years after its release, I think it reveals a band willing to take risks and put it all on the line in the name of growth. It is U2 at the top of their creative game, collaborating with a lot of different people and being unafraid of trying new directions without losing their own sound in the process. People call this their “techno” album, but unlike, say, Madonna’s efforts (who I genuinely like as well), U2 muted the modern enough so that it doesn’t sound dated almost two decades later.

The album opens with “Discotheque,” arguably the song that everyone associates with this era of U2. The song reached #10 on the Billboard charts — the highest-charting single for the band at that point since 1981. It went to #1 in several European countries, which have always been more open to dance music on the pop charts than the U.S. I fail to see how this direction surprised anyone; U2 laid it down pretty obviously with their single “Hold Me, Thrill Me, Kiss Me, Kill Me” from two years previous.

The band was experimenting with loops, different vocal styles and various recording techniques — but the same themes that have always run through U2’s work are there. It’s about God, it’s about sex, it’s about love, it’s about the human condition and the troubles we inflict on ourselves and each other. “Please” is both personal and political, referencing Northern Ireland, while the closing track, “Wake Up Dead Man,” has both Western and psychedelic ’60s guitar sounds. Sonically, this album has a lot going on, but it’s cohesive.

Bono’s voice is much more intimate and raw on “Pop,” shifting from a sexy lover’s coo on “Do You Feel Loved” to the whispered, shrieking pants of “Mofo,” the harshest-sounding song on the album and something that could easily have come straight out of an underground German club. “If God Will Send His Angels” directly recalls “Angel of Harlem” from 1988’s “Rattle and Hum” album, while “Staring at the Sun” is classic U2 — another reason criticism of this album doesn’t hold any water; if you don’t like U2, I get not liking this album, but if you are a U2 fan, I fail to see how you don’t hear their sound in all of these tracks, even if the presentation is slightly different. “Staring at the Sun,” in particular, is one of the songs that defines this band.

The only misstep, at least for me, is “The Playboy Mansion.” U2 has always had a propensity to stick references to contemporary culture and celebrities in their songs (most annoyingly in the name of the new single “The Miracle (of Joey Ramone)”), and this particular one, with its nods to OJ Simpson, Michael Jackson, plastic surgery and talk shows, comes off trite and on the nose. Musically, it’s solid; lyrically, not Bono’s best.

Six songs from “Pop” were released as singles, which is an astonishing ratio, one virtually unheard of these days. For such a “failure,” this platinum-certified album produced a lot of recognizable music that has withstood the test of time. U2 has gone back and redone some of these songs, claiming that with more time and further work, they’re closer to the way they envisioned them. While that’s certainly their right, I think something is lost by doing that. I’m not a fan of revisionist history, and I wish they’d own these songs for what they are, which is a glimpse into a band that was once willing to experiment and take risks that weren’t calculated.

Tag Shawn!

Sara Farr

Sara Farr

Sara Farr is currently an adjunct marketing instructor at the School of Advertising Art. Previously, she worked as a graphic designer at Variety for six years, and spent 10 years before that as a music writer for various Midwestern and Los Angeles-based newspapers and magazines. Her work appears in “The Little Black Book, Music: Over a Century of the Greatest Artists, Albums, Songs, Performances and Events That Rocked the Music World.”

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