When listening to the Deluxe Edition of U2’s The Unforgettable Fire, the lyrics
“Something in your heart beats like something new” seem even more reflectively poignant. Those are the same lyrics that Bono improvised on the penultimate track “Elvis Presley and America.” Bono sung the words over the slowed down backing track of the opener “A Sort of Homecoming,” which was actually producer Brian Eno’s idea. Thus, Eno’s inventive suggestion gave the album a full circle of Fire.
I have to thank a childhood family friend for introducing Fire to me when I was a naïve teenager living in Texas. Our familia had just moved away from Detroit to the small, isolated border town of Laredo, and he came to visit us over the summer and brought some very bizarre music with him. Two albums that I remember were Brian Eno-influenced artists, the first being Talking Heads’ Little Creatures and the second The Unforgettable Fire. Both albums were a bit of a shock to my brothers and me. We were still in our vintage rock mode, listening to The Who and The Beatles, so when he brought U2 and Talking Heads into our lives it opened the doors to new worlds of music that we had yet to discover.
Ever since that moment, it seems every time I listen to The Unforgettable Fire I discover something new that I didn’t hear the time before. I liken Fire to a painting that evolves with every viewing. Every stroke of meaning within the beats, basslines, riffs and lyrics comes to life at different spaces from the time before. Fire is far from my favorite U2 album but I can say with every year I grow older, the more I appreciate the infinite complexities of this challenging yet beautiful album. For instance, I never knew that “Elvis Presley and America” was “Homecoming” slowed down with Bono singing ode-like lyrics challenging the anti-Elvis biography by Albert Goldman. This was before Bono did the same thing against Goldman with Lennon on Rattle and Hum‘s “God Part II.”
I also recently learned that before recording Fire, Bono absorbed volumes of poetry, fiction and philosophy. Even though Bono tried to lift his lyrics with touches of poetic splendor, to this day, he claims that words of “Bad” and “Pride” were only “incomplete sketches” left to be filled in by the listener. Did you know that “Bad” was Bono’s attempt to share the experience of floating within the bewildering ecstasy that is heroin? I hear “Bad” as a personal journey of hell and redemption. And raise your hand if you knew that Chrissie Hynde of The Pretenders sings backing vocals on “Pride”
The problem I have with Fire is that there’s an inconsistent sense of sequencing. It doesn’t flow very well but it is this gives Fire a dream-like aesthetic that definitely has the influence of Brian Eno. It’s like a book in which every song is chapter with a different feel. According to Bono, the emotional spark of the fire, the exhibition of paintings by the survivors of Hiroshima of which the album was named, can be found within the “image of `the unforgettable fire’ applied not only to the nuclear winterscape of `A Sort of Homecoming,’ but also the unforgettable fire of a man like Martin Luther King, or the consuming fire which is heroin.” Listen for this as you spin this Deluxe Edition with headphones on.
The remastering job is magnificent and even more unforgettable. The themes, colors, and sounds of peace inside the flames of hope come alive even more in this deluxe edition directed by The Edge. Going back to Fire is only part of the reason to revisit this album. The highlight for me is the bonus disc that includes the newly resurrected outtake “Disappearing Act.” Twenty-five years after creating the backing track called “White City” Bono came up with a magnificent vocal melody in France and the result is the best U2 song never to be released as a single. It’s a shame that this unheard classic is relegated to a bonus disc. To me “Disappearing Act” should’ve been included on No Line on the Horizon. It’s the hit song that was missing from that stellar album. And word has it that Bono was disappointed with the success of No Line on the Horizon: “I suppose we’ve made a work that is a bit too challenging for people who have grown up with a diet of pop-stars,” he said. Ironically enough that quote best describes the emotions some had about Fire.
The Bonus disc also adds my favorite tracks from Wide Awake in America. The versions of “Bad” and “A Sort of Homecoming” are livelier in their evolved incarnations. Looking back it shows the power of those songs from The Unforgettable Fire that can grow from a very polished form to an even more memorably freer sound on stage. To me, the live version of “Bad” still trumps the original from the album. Although I still don’t get the Heroin storyline that Bono was aiming for, I still love this song.
Another one of my favorites from Wide Awake is the very beautiful “Three Sunrises.” This is another song that Edge claims almost made the final track listing. He says it that “Three Sunrises” had a different feel but to me it’s not that different than the vibe of a song like “Pride.” It could have been the ultimate denouement after “MLK.” Imagine the imagery of a fiery sunrise. Sounds perfect to my ears. There are a few very killer instrumentals; remixes and even a very curious world beat remix of “A Sort of Homecoming” by Daniel Lanois that features the backing vocals of Peter Gabriel. I’m still on the fence over this one, though die-hard U2 fans will want it for their collection.
There are so many reasons to go back to the Fire but the best is hidden within the words of “A Sort of Homecoming.” “And as you hunger for the time, time to hear desire time, and your earth moves beneath your own dream landscape“—that lyric best describes the beauty of coming home to the magnificence of this timeless album. Close your eyes strike the magic and let this strange and beautiful music take you over.