That thing about first impressions, it’s funny how it turns out to always be not true. My first impressions of U2 were the singles from The Joshua Tree, as that was the album that got played the most on Mexican commercial radio. So I thought for a long time that it was their first album (eh). Then they sorta disappeared from my radar.
I need to specify that this is a period with no Internet, MTV Latino was only on cable and I was way down on the pecking order for choosing radio stations.
So once my parents yielded and got cable TV (my dad wanted to see all NFL games available), I started engorging on music. MTV Latino had a good variety of acts back then (heck, it had videos) and once I caught this really odd song with an even weirder video. Black and white, strange white squares on the back, a singer using falsetto, actions being described on screen… It all seemed so weird but I couldn’t put it away.
The song? ‘Lemon’. I was discombobulated, as I only knew them from The Joshua Tree singles and this was a whole different band. A couple of weeks later, I twisted my dad’s arm for a U2 album and the only one available was Zooropa.
It’s hard to describe how this sounded on a first spin in 1993. It was really weird. I was listening mostly to classical music, soundtracks, Elvis Presley, Crí Crí (it’s a classic!) and Sting (Ten Summoners’ Tales is great). So, an album starting with a long drone and a barrage of advertising voices overlapping in a cacophony that yields a strange atmosphere was as weird as a sentence with long words trying to be impressive, especially when it’s aware that it turns a whole piece into purple prose.
And that was the thing about Zooropa. It feed on the strange, bloated personas that U2 created in Achtung Baby and went one step further, deconstructing who they were as a band while still keeping their tongue very pointed towards their cheeks. A strange plan, like a machination from The Joker (whom Bono resembles in his MacPhisto persona.)
‘Zooropa’ is a 6 minute monster but it never plods; the disorienting drone eventually leads to an explosive finale that seems to be carrying the rest of the album, gliding through hazy, smokey skies.
My oldest brother, who would later lend me his favourite U2 album on vinyl (The Unforgettable Fire), thought it was weird, but then he heard ‘Babyface’ and said “ah, that’s the usual U2 bassline. All is well.” It’s a sweet song but I never thought much about it, not that I would call it filler. Mind you, it signaled that a hardcore, old school fan of the band still recognised the band. ‘Numb’, oh, that’s a good one. I don’t think I’d ever imagined The Edge droning in a blank voice as entertaining but we are talking about a guy who’s made a name for himself by being extremely creative with his pedals (something Tom Morello has also excelled at.) ‘Numb’ pretty much tackles that whole “sensory overload” theme that Zooropa addresses, which is further tackled on the distorted images on the booklet and the impressive stage show.
‘Lemon’, well, already mentioned it. The hook, line and sinker for me to love this band. A song to ponder about and wonder, but not for too long, let some of the magic stay there, undiscovered. Now, ‘Stay (Faraway, So Close!’ is a song I’m thankful and spiteful for. Spiteful because, fuck it, we all have a break up song and this one was one of my firsts (ah, Gisela…). Thankful because it got me into Wim Wenders. The song is probably the closest to a “normal U2 ballad” (whatever that means) in this album.
And then the second half of this album happens.
This is where it gets really weird and where a lot of people tuned off. I really don’t know why this half is less talked about and why isn’t a single found in this part. I quite like it! I reckon it was the fact that I came to this album without any memories of the band nor attachments to previous albums what made me embrace what was happening. ‘Daddy’s gonna pay for your crashed car’ goes wild on the samples, borrowing both from classical music to modern stuff (in the 90s) like MC-900 ft. Jesus. A song about excesses and debauchery, perfectly juxtaposed by a song as liberating and tender as ‘The first time’. ‘Some days are better than other’ has one of my fave bass lines in U2 history, even if the song never soars into great heights. No, that’s saved for ‘Dirty Day’, with that smouldering fade-in drone, the rope-a-dope from bass and drum and the explosive guitar-led chorus. It’s a liberating song and that Bukowski quote probably will come in handy when U2 needs to get bailed from Music Jail.
‘The Wanderer’ did the same that ‘Stay’ did: introduced me to a legend. I’ve never heard from Johnny Cash before this song marked the end of the album and when it was over, I wanted to know more about the man with that haunting voice, that man with platitudes full of religious symbolism. The car alarm bit is a bit bizarre, though. It matters not, a healthy collection of Johnny Cash has been formed as time inevitably goes by.
The ensuing Zoo TV tour was bloated but enjoyable, both indulging into rockstar bravado and slightly transgressive stuff (the prank calls). Somewhere along the line people stopped getting the joke and believed that U2 had really become the strange figures on stage, lead by a Fly and a demon called MacPhisto. Maybe it was part of their plan along, maybe it was the meal ticket they so desired.
Well, I think it’s telling that after the success of this album, they kept doing their experimental stuff for a while. The Batman Forever track, the gorgeous ambient works of Passengers (another gem that deserves a bit of love) and the flawed but enjoyable Pop, the album that really was a bump for their career. I mean, I like Pop, but I do understand why so many people disliked it.
But was Pop really that bad? I’ll tackle that one another day, but I truly believe Zooropa was the time that U2 said: fuck it, let’s have fun and push ourselves. The band might not be too fond of the album know, but to many a listener, including myself, it feels like it was their finest moment. It also made me actually go and check their entire back catalogue, of which I came out loving Achtung Baby, War and The Unforgettable Fire. It think I’ve stopped listening to U2 as much as I did back in the day because there’s loads of new bands every year, each one with their own gorgeous music available. I listen to a lot of genres and I quite enjoy music with experimental bits and I reckon I have to thank Zooropa, David Bowie‘s 1.Outside and Nine Inch Nails‘ The Fragile for this.
So, happy belated 20th, Zooropa. It never got too strange for me.
Words: Sam J. Valdés López