Vorsprung durch technik – revisiting U2’s last truly great album 25 years on

Remember when U2 were not just good, but occasionally glorious? Malcolm Jack rewinds a quarter-century to Zooropa, and a simpler time...

Some 25 years young this summer and just reissued on vinyl for the first time since its original pressing, Zooropa is the audience-polarising freak in U2’s discography, and a tantalising glimpse of the contrastingly un-shit band they could have gone on to become in the post-commercial-zenith period of their recording career if they’d chosen to.

For the benefit of anyone not paying attention to the Irish juggernauts of overwrought rock’s story this last quarter-century, here’s a quick catch-up. Feeling sheepish after being panned for their harshly judged pretend techno album, 1997’s Pop, not to mention wasting a ton of cash on a giant motorised mirrorball lemon, Bono, Edge, Adam Clayton and the drummer panicked and regressed to making a long string of records starting with 2000’s All That You Can’t Leave Behind which were essentially supermarket own-brand versions of their 25 million-selling 1987 classic The Joshua Tree. An album which of course was written by Bono in his Jacobean stately home in Norfolk between bowls of Alpen and readings of the Sunday Express – according to a memorable episode of I’m Alan Partridge anyway.

Low points of U2’s still ongoing full-cringe phase include that song where The Edge randomly shouts in Spanish a lot, and whichever conversation it was when four fully grown men all agreed, “Yes, it is a good idea to release a single with a chorus that goes ‘Hey! Sexy boots!’” To say nothing of when U2 did a devil’s handshake with Apple to spam 60 bazillion people’s iTunes accounts with a free album so insultingly bad the tech giant subsequently had to issue emergency instructions to users explaining how to get rid of it, lest everyone throw their phones in the sea.

In polar opposite to the U2 of today, it was like U2 doing their damndest not to sound like U2

But it could all have been so different, had U2 continued to tug on the fine precious thread they unpicked with the Brian Eno co-produced Zooropa back in 1993. Reinvented with added sense of humour by 1991’s 18 million-selling Achtung Baby and its accompanying irony-rich sensory overload of a blockbusting live show, the Dubliners flew shuttle runs back and forth to studios around Europe between dates on the Zoo TV Tour, to complete a tricksy, off-the-cuff electro-industrial art-rock album reportedly inspired by Nine Inch Nails and My Bloody Valentine.

Out went jangly anthemry, in came synths and drum loops and noise collages built out of samples from radio signals, tape hiss and Nazi propaganda films. For a brief, fleeting moment, whether by accident or design, Bono discovered the value of understatement in his singing. In polar opposite to the U2 of today, it was like U2 doing their damndest not to sound like U2. Which is to say: wholly unlike a man in cataract glasses repeatedly yelling “issues!” over what sounds like the same guitar note played incessantly in a particularly echoey cave, backed by a rhythm section which has only very rarely since about the mid-Eighties not come across as catatonically bored.

Sure, some of Zooropa stinks, but then so does at least a little and often a lot of any U2 album. When Zooropa’s good, it’s a glorious, strange and bittersweet dispatch from the cusp of a new head-spinning information-saturated technological age.

Numb is a hypnotically monotonous mantra of commands starting “don’t” half-sung, half-spoken in an amusingly detached way by The Edge – in only his second full lead vocal on a U2 song, and in fair recognition of his overall stewardship of Zooropa, which was very much his baby. Stay (Faraway, So Close!) does just about everything With Or Without You does without all the windy woooah-oh-oh-ing. Guest sung by Johnny Cash, closer The Wanderer is for my money one of U2’s best songs. Not because it scarcely features any Bono whatsoever, bonus as that may be, but because it’s a ridiculously cool, Nick Cave-esque gothic electro-country number about a mean-sounding Old Testament preacher man wandering a scorched post-apocalyptic earth “in search of experience”.

Despite containing no obvious singles, let alone any hits, Zooropa still went on to shift seven million copies. Yet for U2 at their commercial peak that was peanuts, and they subsequently only doubled down on their new-found experimental direction with enough earnestness to come up with the awkward and ultimately disastrous dance-rock contrivances of Pop. Before long Bono and co were back to bellowing basics, and back to coining it in. But isn’t it intriguing to imagine an alternative timeline in which not all of U2’s new music is comprehensively awful, and in fact sometimes quite interesting? And isn’t it even more intriguing to imagine that it might still be in them yet?

The 25th anniversary vinyl reissue of Zooropa is out now; u2.com.

Image: Frans Schellekens/Contributor