The ’90s only saw U2‘s experimentalist urges reach maximum intensity. The turn that had begun on Achtung Baby and deepened on Zooropa proved to be a successful one, seemingly resurrecting out of the blue the formerly hip and present-grounded U2 of their earliest days. The band threw themselves into the prevailing cynicism and callousness of the ’90s, embracing the spurning of the ’80s and its excesses (a crude parallel to how the late ’70s saw the same movement against the early ’70s) even to the point of openly disavowing their own work. At one point, Bono complained that no one danced to U2’s music, a complaint not lodged at fans but instead at themselves; where before the group had perhaps been guilty of too much self-pleasing sentiment, leading to what was seen especially at the time as bloat within Rattle and Hum, the group by the mid-90s had instead become if anything guilty of the opposite, hating what they had built with such intensity that it seemed they wanted little more than to tear it all down. This sentiment was set within the deconstructionist intention of Achtung Baby but sonically didn’t really come to bear until Zooropa, embolden by the live, commercial and critical success of the former record. With the success of the latter, throwing the throttle forward was all but assured.
What came first, emerging just before their semi-anonymous record Original Soundtracks 1 as Passengers, was a remix record. Melon: Music for Propaganda, titled after an anagram for “Lemon” hinting at the nature of the remixes, was the first remix record put together by the band. This broke the previously held album-oriented sternness of the group, a move in keeping with their rock idols who themselves slavishly worshipped the album format, instead choosing the rapturous modernity of the growing electronic scene of the mid ’90s. The choices for artists to produce remixes was, for 1995, a modern one; Paul Oakenfold opens the disc (appearing two further times), while later on Cypress Hill’s own Soul Assassins as well as Massive Attack show up later on during the course of the record. The intent of Melon built upon the seizing up of industrial and modernist deconstructionist tendencies within Zooropa, no longer seeking to wage war against their legacy but instead to reconfigure it to be fully modern instead. Melon sought less to be a record in and of itself but instead to rewrite history; if U2 had by the dawn of the ’90s and the coming of grunge been considered a dinosaur fit to be swept aside, this new hip U2 was to live in dance clubs with MDMA-rolling neon-clad house dancers.
The cynicism that had stained elements of Achtung Baby and Zooropa, however, disappears in the remixes. This ultimately isn’t a great shock; U2 as a group have never in their history up to the present day been able to strongly sustain contrarian or cynical positions, even when it perhaps might have benefited them most. The remixes approved for appearance on the disc don’t feel coy or cheeky, the way one might play up the cloying cutseiness of a vocal line from a doo-wop song in ironic reversal in otherwise dark and scouring material. The proceedings come across more like a similar turn within the realm of more critically-lauded alternative rock with the group Primal Scream, who themselves had been transfigured from guitar music in their first two releases to dance music with 1991’s groundbreaking Screamadelica. Madchester had been a noted influence on the band since the recording of Achtung Baby, with “Mysterious Ways” famously being their attempt at the genre. The group had also been noted fans of baggy and Balearic beat, a scene which had generated the previously mentioned Paul Oakenfold.
This reconfigures the sense of shock that comes from the remix record to one of the return of foregrounding sincerity to the group. They had spent their earliest days paying tribute to the groups that inspired them most, from Joy Division to Led Zeppelin, from the Rolling Stones to Elvis, on and on. Now, in the ’90s, those inspirations had changed, and they were once again willing to see themselves not as a dinosaur that needed to be scolded and broken down but as a contemporary willing to humble themselves against and learn from their fellow contemporaries. This was a sentiment present in buried manner on Zooropa but complicated by the halted furiosity that came to bear on that record, an intensity waylaid from the Achtung sessions when Bono and the Edge were convinced to abandon their more extreme industrial impulses.
Melon would wind up being a minor footnote to the band in a commercial sense, with most fans and even many critics unaware of its existence. I will admit that, prior to researching this piece, it was a half-remembered shadow of a thought to me, something I vaguely recall my friend’s U2-superfan Irish dad mentioning in the car in my youth. The release would turn out to be a major one to hardcore fans though as it would turn out. The anagram of “lemon” into “melon” created a fruit-theme that would be carried on by various other fan-made bootleg compilations of remixes, be they officially released by the band on B-sides, professionally produced by DJs but not approved by the band or else just fan-made remixes. The initial bootleg was simply titled More Melon, but later compilations would be named after different fruit, such as Cherry, Orange and even Papaya and Sudachi, all of which bore either the subtitle Music for Propaganda like the original Melon or some variant as well as similarly produced covers. After a startlingly high number of these fan remix compilations were produced, they shifted to spices, introducing a wing known as spicelegs, such as Coffee and Cinnamon. This produced a further hybrid, known occasionally as spiced-fruitlegs such as Miracleberry. In total, the number of such bootlegs numbers approximately 50.
Charting the structuralism of this era of the band turns out to be much more complicated and rife with combinatorics than one might expect, a structural complexity never before or sense mirrored by the band’s works. Melon as it would turn out would be a direct sonic prelude to the direction taken on Pop, their next record released under the name U2. It was almost as if, in retrospect, the timelines got mixed up. It would have been cleaner, more orderly, had Passengers been released before Melon rather than the other way around; the links in the chain would have made more sense. As a result of this more convoluted progression, Pop seems to function structurally as the end of three separate trilogies: one spanning through Achtung and Zooropa, one from Zooropa and Original Soundtracks 1, and the third being Zooropa and Melon, with the arc from Achtung through Zooropa and Original Passengers 1 as a stray potential trinity. There is an argument to be made that Zooropa functions more as a second disc to Achtung Baby, a sentiment echoed by the band when in the rerelease campaign for Achtung it came bundled in every package with Zooropa, which was itself unavailable as a standalone record. In this sentiment, Melon likewise becomes more like a supplementary disc to Pop, creating two double records with the single-disc side release Passengers between. What facts remain: There are three studio records bearing the artist name U2 from the dawn of the ’90s to their close and two side releases, each of obvious historical and evolutionary value in understanding the group. Ultimately, it is best to view this period as a trilogy comprised of Achtung Baby, Zooropa and Pop. In a way it’s fitting their most self-aware and deconstructionist, modernist, and cybernetic period would be marked by this much seemingly-deliberate structural complexity.
These parallel lines are not incidental to the story of Pop. It carried three producers: Flood, who had most recently previously worked with the band as co-producer on Zooropa but had acted as an engineer on The Joshua Tree; Howie B, who had worked with the band as a producer on Original Soundtracks 1; and Steve Osbourne, who had co-produced three of the remixes that had appeared on Melon. Pop seems to have always been designed as the dialectical synthesis of each of these related diverging evolutionary strands off of the initial experimental push of Achtung. As a result, the record carried clear elements of all three potential interim records, with the danceable grooves of Melon, the cinematic and textural elements of Original Soundtracks 1 and the flared-out industrialisms and rock edge of Zooropa colliding but refusing to mix fully together. The tension and sonic battling of these elements produces the interior engine of Pop, a record which seems at war with itself in a productive and thrilling sense. Through each song there is a remnant trace of the lingering U2ism brought out by the playing of these four men on the same track and Flood’s old Joshua Tree hand knowing where the knobs should go, but how that is mutated and developed wavers and spins wildly between these three poles. There are moments, such as the album opener “Discotheque” and mid-album track “Last Night on Earth” that the four elements reach a perfect synthetic fusion, a gleaming alloy cold static high heaven U2 glowing and pulsing on the dance floor. Elsewhere, the record is a glorious exhilarating mess, able to turn back on itself an upend its own sonic palette in the turn of a verse or arrival of a chorus.
The most exciting element of Pop is its boldness. The ’90s was an era during which a great number of rock bands from the ’80s seemed to lose themselves. Some groups would attempt to sail into the high-gloss soft rock of the aging yuppies that had calmed themselves from radical youth into the pastoral and ineffectiveness of the Clintonite left in America and the shockingly suddenly anti-communist Labour Party of the UK. Others would dress themselves in flannel and attempt to reconnect with a hard rocking past or miserablist future, often failing both to capture the same verve and sincerity of contemporary grunge bands or the spiritual fire of the earlier rock records they suddenly found themselves crudely aping. Even my beloved Rush seemed to find themselves at a crossroads in the era, being at once widely cited by harder-edged rock groups of the era as a major influence while themselves being inconsistent with zeroing in on what precise aspect of their identity was best to put forward. Yet in this climate that seemed so radically opposed to successful reinvention, U2 did not throw themselves into nostalgic recapturing of the image of ’60s and ’70s rock heroes who by this point had faded into classic rock but instead latched onto what was truly cutting edge and modern. It is not difficult to trace a line from U2’s reinvention and reinvigoration through contemporary dance music to that of Radiohead’s similar arc that would occur only a few years later, with each containing a song with a “theque” suffix, though each band would likely deny an evolutionary linkage.
What matters ultimately, however, are the songs. Pound for pound, the material on Pop holds up stronger than that of Achtung Baby, an album that is slightly more scattershot than its reputation sometimes paints it. Perhaps it is the near-ubiquity of songs like “One,” but the experimentalism of Achtung often feels overstated while, at least in popular estimation, Pop is nearly universally reviled as of 2021 despite having thrilling music that, much to everyone’s surprise, sounds shockingly modern still due to movements such as hyperpop, vaporwave and contemporary alternative music recapturing the same approaches to dance music pursued in the ’90s. Pop feels like being caught in the mainframe, chrome-plated and streaked with beads of color; the euphoria of the record peaks in industrialized distortion before cutting to disfigured croons, an ebullient alien attempting to sing worship songs through a broken disco machine. The record becomes somewhat threadbare near its end, but this feels more a result of pushing the disc to 60 minutes of music rather than a lack of ideas; trimming the album by a handful of songs would result in a taut and wall-to-wall satisfying 45 minute span that would paint the group as exciting visionaries rather than corny faux-worship music has-beens as they are sometimes viewed. The entire band’s body of work up to this point is high-caliber stuff and worthy of the time to listen and understand it, but Pop concludes the phase begun properly with Zooropa that flies openly in the face of the perception of the band especially as it developed from the early 2000s onward.
Somehow, despite the image of the record as radical departure, it strikes the ear most immediately as pleasant and tuneful. There are moments both in common discussion of Pop as well as lines here that might lead you to believe that A-B-ing the record against their earlier canonical works would produce a jarring discoherence, that putting on the record would sound more like a their own version of Metal Machine Music than a proper record. But these songs are, at their root, songs, built around compelling grooves and hooky melodies. The only difference now is in the aim of those hooks, hitting here as heady sub-psychedelic dance grooves rather than insistent militaristic beats or ambient washes of political spiritualism. The sense of atmospherics is maintained on this record, here approaching the cyberpunk haze endemic of the ’90s but of the more colorful and joyful variety; the future was not a bleak and terrifying police state in the electronic eyes of U2 but a near-utopian molly-soaked colorbrite heaven, the neo-60s retro-future space lounge aesthetic rendered by a rock band. If Zooropa is underrated because everyone who’s heard it loves it but not enough have, and if the Passengers record is underrated because so few even that are fans of U2 imagine them capable of such music, Pop is underrated because despite being spurned by fans of the band for being a departure and haters of the band for bearing their name, it is an unabashed great record of the alternative rock/dance years of the ’90s. This was the U2 that Eno saw potential in, grabbing the modern world by the throat just like Bowie. Sadly, it was the last of that side of the band that would show itself for over a decade.
The decay began before the record was even released. By the band’s estimation, Pop never sounded the way it was supposed to. They’d entered the studio without their drummer, who at the time was recovering from a surgery, and exited at the 11th hour only because they had pre-existing tour obligations to fulfill. The record was assembled from the sessions completed up to that point to fulfill obligations to the studio to have a new release ready to justify the tours already booked. While to outsider’s ears, this perhaps accounts for the semi-ragged closing quarter of the record, it is not especially apparent to anyone save the band themselves. But the frustrations that developed during the album’s production manifested on the stage when the protracted album recording cycle left little time to prepare for the tour, resulting in poor performances on early dates.
The complexity of the live show to match the arch humor and cynical anti-consumerism (itself often a ploy to offload the nightmarishness of capitalism onto lay citizens for their purchases rather than corporations or governments that enable them) led to malfunctions and delays, including on one occasion the band famously being stuck inside of the giant lemon disco ball contraption they would emerge from for the encore. By this point, the grandeur of the live performances began to reach a pitch that many critics found farcical, itself proving again the frustrating opacity of capitalism and its fundamental resistance to satire, tending to consume and corrupt that which attempts to match its Econian hyperreal fantastical pitch. The group felt soured musically and conceptually. And so began their long retreat, both from the cutting edge and from the good graces of the critical eye. It is here at this moment, one whose seeds were laid in the initial ironic turn of Achtung Baby against pure and overbearing sincerity, that the pendulum began to swing violently in the other direction. This was the birth of the U2 that, when you speak of them now, everyone knows and so many loathe.
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Langdon Hickman is listening to progressive rock and death metal. He currently resides in Virginia with his partner and their two pets.