Simply put, there is no album in U2’s catalog that divides fans quite as much as Pop, the band’s final album of the 20th century, and one of the weariest, most desperate farewells to the past century as was ever recorded. And it’s not really hard to hear why: This is the album where U2 pushes everything to the absolute limit, sprawling and complicated and piled high with excess and noise. If they flirted with electronic music on Achtung Baby and subverted pop formula on Zooropa, this is the album where they dove head-on into everything that’s trashy and vulgar and empty about pop music, and indeed, all of pop culture.
But what’s been forgotten– or perhaps never fully understood by very many– is that, unlike similar projects such as Beck’s Midnight Vultures, this album simply cannot be reduced to one big postmodern experiment or hipster joke, smirking and ironic though it may be at times. Because beneath all the glitz, the garish colors and busy arrangements, beyond the sheer extremity of the whole thing, there lies an album that’s as soulful and intimate as anything the band has ever done. This isn’t trashy and jokey for the sake of being trashy and jokey, and it doesn’t push the limits for no other reason than to push the limits– this is a genuinely searching, purposeful recording, the sound of desperate men clinging to their faith and hoping it holds up even amidst perilous times. Or, as Bono sings on one song, they’re “looking for the baby Jesus under the trash.”
That’s why they push so hard and so far here– they’re pushing toward a breaking point, toward a place where the hollowness and decadence of this world give way to something meaningful and true. Thus, Pop gives us some of the loudest, noisiest, angriest, and strangest songs in the U2 canon, but these tunes eventually move aside for more intimate, confessional, and straightfroward moments of soul-searching honesty. The album’s opening trilogy of songs just might be the three most alienating and beguiling songs U2 ever cut; “Discotheque” sends up trashy, shallow notions of love with tongue firmly in cheek, amid slamming dance rhythms and a heavily-processed guitar riff, while “Do You Feel Love” shows the real depravity of this world’s conception of “love,” rattling off a litany of perverse and violent displays of lust by way of asking us to examine if they could ever really satisfy. And then comes “Mofo,” the most musically cluttered but lyrically direct song U2 ever cut, an unrelenting buzz of beats and electronica rumblings that finds Bono opening up about his late mother, his insecurities as a musician and a father, and desperately “looking for the face [he] had before the world was made.”
But as furious and difficult as these numbers are, Pop also presents the straight-ahead soul-searching of “Staring at the Sun,” the sophisticated and jazzy “Please”– which ranks as one of U2’s best-ever political songs– and the quiet, muted “If You Wear That Velvet Dress,” the softest and simplest (and arguably most un-U2-like) song they’ve ever cut. And as erratic and baffling as the album can be at times, it’s clear that Bono is writing with direction here, as the album reveals itself to be a weary exploration of wounded, frail, misguided, and temporary forms of human love, be it the pure carnality of “If You Wear That Velvet Dress,” the perverse lust of “The Playboy Mansion,” or the corrupted expressions of religious faith in “Please” and “If God Will Send His Angels.”
But for all the album’s bleakness and its unflinching look at greed and decadence, it’s not an album without hope. “Gone,” with its furious, buzzing guitars, is as exhilarating as just about any of the band’s 80s anthems, and it finds Bono wearily, resignedly looking beyond the desperation of this world to the joy that awaits in the next. The album’s final song, “Wake Up Dead Man,” is Bono’s strongly-worded plea to the Divine, a Psalm-like lament of this world’s waywardness and an impassioned prayer for God to make things right. Some Christian listeners have misguidedly written off the song as a declaration of Bono’s lost faith, but in fact it burns with the kind of honesty and compassion that reveal a strong, vibrant, wrestling faith, not at all unlike the writings of David or the prayers of Job.
Of course, their next album would begin with the soaring euphoria of “Beautiful Day,” a resounding answer to the desperation of “Wake Up Dead Man,” a joyful celebration of the reigning Lord of this world and the next. But Pop remains a powerful and affecting testament to the struggle to keep faith in a dark age, a sad but determined album of spiritual inquiry and intimacy. As such, it stands out not just as U2’s boldest experiment, but also one of their most arresting and moving works.
Josh Hurst, The Hurst Review
Part One: U2 – The Lost Classics: October
Part Two: U2 – The Lost Classics: Zooropa