“I’m right on the edge. I don’t know what happens next.” Steve Zissou, The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou
“Looking for to save my, save my SOUL.” Bono, U2.
Albums are, at their core, time capsules. They capture a particular moment in time, a particular set of sounds and songs recorded in a particular place. That’s really where the term “record” came from. It was a “record” of a “happening”. A document. A witness.
The best albums are also time machines, which all to easily can sweep the listener back to when they first heard, or more accurately for some, absorbed, the album for the first time. It can be an intensely personal thing. Maybe it brings back the memories of what was going on in that person’s life at that time, how they came to the music, or were introduced to it by someone they cared about. Maybe it brings back the poignancy of friendships since broken, or passions now cooled and shelved. A life that existed once, but is no more. Friends gone, family forgotten.
Or maybe it just brings a smile to your face when you hear a track you haven’t thought of in over 10 years and you know every damn word of every verse like it was hardwired to your DNA, because you know it probably was, just laying there, latent, until the right time for it to come into your life again.
Well, everyone. The time for U2 to come into my life again is now. NOW. This very moment. These past few weeks. It was really ignited the night before U2 opened their most recent tour, Innocence and Experience, in Vancouver. I was lucky enough to be able to fly out and go to the first concert with my brother. The night before, I was asking my brother what he thought of the new album, and he confessed he hadn’t really listened to it.
Me: “Haven’t listened to it? It was downloaded right to your iPhone last fall!”
Bro: “Yeah, I know. I guess I just haven’t got around to it.”
Me: “Well there’s still time. Let’s stick it on right now.”
And so I crash-coursed my brother on the latest album, highlighting (in my opinion) the best songs, the song meanings, the connections to older songs and ideas, so at the very least he wouldn’t embarrass himself at the concert. I’m not sure how much of it stuck, so to make sure I did it all again the next morning all the way on the drive in from his home to UBC. I got the sense he was driving extra fast just to get away from me and the new album, but I could be imagining things.
Well the concert was wonderful, as you can imagine. To see the band launch their entire tour in front of us. To see it at the same time as everyone else, before youtube clips and blog reviews revealed the mysteries, one mirror ball at a time, really was a once-in-a-lifetime experience for me. And I could continue to fulfill the promise I made to myself in 1992 when plans to see ZOO TV in Minneapolis fell through. That promise was that no matter what, I would see U2 AT LEAST ONCE on any of their upcoming tours. And starting with Popmart in 1997, I’ve never missed a tour. I know my brother enjoyed himself too. I warned him ahead of time that I would probably be singing out loud along with the band for pretty much the whole night, and he was fine with that. This was a sea-change from when we were kids and the smallest goofy thing that I would do would embarrass him to the point where I would go out of my way to do goofy things to him just to get a reaction.
Bro: “Of course you should sing. This is your favourite band. Who cares? Nobody will know you there anyway.”
Me: “Yeah, but I don’t want to ruin the concert-going experience for you, either”.
Bro: “It’ll be fine.”
And it was. I’m not going to launch into a song-by-song review of the show here. I should have done that a day or two after the concert. But let’s just say they haven’t sounded any better than they did that night, and from all accounts they are just getting stronger and tighter as the tour moves along. We were sitting in the high seats, which was fine. Contrary to popular belief, I’m not always such a huge fan of the GA experience, and because of the layout of the stage on this tour, I’d say the GA areas are probably not the best place to be to get the full concert experience. Lower bowl on the sides would be the ultimate spot, IMHO. My only point being that since we were up high, we weren’t standing at first, but when the band launched into an unexpected passionate version of “Pride” I turned to my brother and said, “We’ve gotta stand for THIS!” and we did and so did everyone else and for the rest of the concert everyone was on their feet and it was amazing.
But all of this is just a lead into my first comment. Albums are time capsules, or sometimes even time machines. In the three weeks since the concert, I’ve been listening to a ton of U2, recent stuff, older stuff, and the one album that has surprised me the most has been 1997’s Pop.
Pop has never been a favourite of the fans, or the band either. The fact that not a single song from it is being played regularly on this tour or was played on the last one (U2360) supports this.
But for me, no other U2 album reminds me of a particular time and place than this one.
For me, Pop is U2’s “The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou”. Their previous album, 1993’s Zooropa, was to me, just a bunch of sloppy seconds left over from the “Achtung Baby” sessions. Of course, “Achtung Baby” is a perfect masterpiece, and considered by many to be the “Royal Tenenbaums” of U2’s catalog, I consider “Zooropa” to be more like “Tenenbaums”, in that it represents a thing that was popular and critically acclaimed, but one that I secretly hated. I hated “Zooropa” so much I really began to doubt whether I would ever love U2 again.
In the four years between “Zooropa” and “Pop”, I suffered a major Depression, ultimately being hospitalized for 4 months, I broke up with my girlfriend. She dumped me mid-hospital stay. I can’t really blame her, I would have left me too during that time, and tried to leave altogether on more than one occasion. I changed jobs, and school majors. I went from my teens to my early 20s. In a lot of ways, I was a different person.
Then Pop came along, and I thought, “Well, it can’t be any worse than Zooropa”. Although I was broken and partially put back together, like a living Kintsugi bowl, I was still a U2 fan and so I hit the record store on release day to get my copy.
So, if you’ll indulge me, (at the 1000 word mark, no less), I’ll do a quick run through the tracks and what they brought back when I listened to them recently.
So, U2 launched their “kitschy disco phase” with a song called Discotheque and with a video with them dressed up like the Village People. You know? It’s a fun song, and it’s too bad that at this point in their career, every thing they did was so scrutinized and overthought that the fact that they just wrote and released a fun song got lost in the all the commentary.
Do you feel loved?
Another upbeat fun song with a great groove. Not sure why this song never caught on.
Oh MAN. My favourite off this whole damn album, NO CONTEST. I’ve said before that if I were ever a major league baseball player, MOFO would be my “walking to the plate” music. I think you could learn a lot about someone if you asked them what their “walking to the plate” music would be. A little swagger, a little motherfuckery, and a lot of attitude. (and a bit of soul). That’s me, right? I think U2 liked it as well, as they opened every night of Popmart with it. I was delighted to hear Bono sing a snippet from MOFO at the beginning of “Iris” last month in Vancouver.
If God will send his angels
Maybe the most beautiful song on the whole album. This song makes me think of early car rides to my new job across town in ’97. I bought the album on CD but I dubbed it onto a cassette so I could play it in the car. so many great lines in this one, “High street never looked so low. It’s the blind leading the blonde, it’s the stuff, the stuff of country songs…” and that great moment with, “What’s that you say to me? Does Loooovvvee light up your Christmas tree?” It also turns out to be my wife’s favourite song off of this album, perhaps even her favourite U2 song of them all. Imagine that? Off of Pop, no less!
Staring at the Sun
I’m so used to hearing the acoustic version of this song off of all the SUPER RARE BOOTLEGS THAT I OWN, (#humblebrag) that it was refreshing to hear the full band do this on the album. It sounds so heavily influenced by Oasis, don’t you think? The only time I heard the whole band perform it live was THAT TIME I IMPERSONATED A T-SHIRT VENDOR BEFORE THE WINNIPEG POPMART SHOW and I snuck into the stadium to hear the soundcheck. I was in there for a solid 20 minutes before security kicked me out. The risks you take for your favourite band. Sometimes you don’t think, you just do.
Last Night on Earth
I love how Bono will sometimes change lyrics in live shows. Somewhere between the studio and the stage, he changed the line, “She hasn’t been to bed in a week, she’ll be dead soon. Then she’ll sleep.” to “She hasn’t been to bed in a week, she’ll be dead soon, she still won’t sleep.” Just a little subtle hint at the resurrection story. AT A ROCK CONCERT? Pretty great, huh? But his alterations are not always spiritually motivated. Sometimes when he sings “Desire” I’ve heard him change “And the feeling when I’m beside her” to “And the feeling when I’m INSIDE her”. Fresh! You may be interested to know that in the new most recent version of Bullet the Blue Sky, he changes “fighter planes” to “private planes” and all of a sudden the song isn’t about El Salvador anymore. Still, “Last Night on Earth” packed a punch when I heard it live, and it was great to revisit the album version recently.
When I heard this for the first time on the album, I remarked to my friends that this one will sound INCREDIBLE in a stadium setting, and I wasn’t wrong. The Edge’s air raid guitar riff rivals the opening to “Until the End of the World” from Achtung, and to hear Bono sing, “I’m not coming down.” and to hear the Edge sing “DOWWWNNN” as an echo live is so great the album version sounds like it’s missing something without it. Luckily I’m always there to sing Edge’s part so the cosmic balance is restored.
Admittedly, the last half of this album is weaker than the first. But look at those first seven songs! I love all of them in their own way. When was the last time you had an album that everyone seems to want to forget that starts with SEVEN AWESOME SONGS? Come ON people. But okay: Miami. What is it with U2 and songs named after places? They are all terrible. This song is overly produced and mixed and God knows what else they did to it. The only good part is when Bono sings “Let’s cut to the car chase” or whatever he says and the Edge comes in with his loud obnoxious guitar riff. It’s the best part of the song because it is almost over.
The Playboy Mansion
You know what? Screw you. This is a great song. It’s great because Adam Clayton has a crazy fun baseline and I was HOPING that they would play this one coupled with the new “Volcano” off of “Songs of Innocence”. It would mean Adam would need a lay down afterwards with all that fancy fingering. But they’ve never played this one live. The closest was Bono snippeting “Then there will be no time for sorrow. Then there will be no time for shame” at the end of some live versions of “Where the Streets have no Name” but that doesn’t really count. I would like to see them try this one out live BUT WITH BRAND NEW TOPICAL LYRICS. I know it is a pipe dream, but wouldn’t that be fun?
If you wear that velvet dress
My greatest memory of this song was that trip I took to Vancouver in 1997 with my girlfriend’s best friend, DBS, with the express purpose to see U2. Everyone thought “stuff was happening” between the two of us, because how could you go away on a weekend with someone of the opposite sex and not “get it on”, but honestly we were really just friends. SORRY TO DISAPPOINT YOU, PERVS. But DBS actually wore a velvet dress to the concert with the hope that Bono would see that and bring her up on stage during this song. DBS’s step-mom got us great seats on the floor (yes, there was actually assigned seating, if you can believe it. No GA) so we pushed our way forward until we were right next to the rail by the B stage. Security was coming around before the show, checking tickets and making people go back to their seats. They got to the section right next to ours just as the lights went out, and at that point they stopped checking. We were safe! That was the closest I’ve ever been to a U2 concert. The only concert that came close was U2360 in Winnipeg in 2011, which was also great but I think Vancouver Popmart 1997 takes the number one spot in my memory. At one point, I caught Adam’s eye and I shouted, “ADAM, I LOVE YOU!” and he just smirked and nodded his head. We got DBS into position to be lifted up by security, and Bono even stopped on our side of the stage for a bit, but in the end they pulled up some kid! Some 8 year old or some damn thing. DBS was happy that she didn’t lose out to another lady, and we still had an amazing time. When he sings “Tonight, the moon is a mirror ball…” I always think of her and that night and that weekend with DBS.
I want to like this song, and I listened to it enough. In fact, I was just telling the story the other day of when I mistakenly ordered 6 copies of the “Please” single from the U2 website. This was 1997, people! I probably just got a credit card and I didn’t know what I was doing. Well, I gave a couple of copies away as gifts, but I still found a couple last weekend when I was going through my Mom’s basement. It’s not a great song, but it’s a song of its time and it takes me right back to that year quicker than any photograph would. The single (the one of which I had multi-copies) had a beautiful live version of this song as it modulates into “Where the Streets have No Name” that is much better than the album version. I stuck a link to it below. Listen to that modulation! In Vancouver, in 1997, when that transition happened, the chap standing next to me turned and shouted, “FUCK YES!” and I was all “YOU KNOW IT!” and we high-fived. True story. As Larry likes to remind us, “Live is where we live”, and never was that more true than with Please. “Your catholic blues, your convent shoes, your stick-on tattoos, now you’re making the news. Your holy war, your northern star, your sermon on the mount from the boot of your car…”
Wake Up Dead Man
Whew. Talk about a downer. I mean, could they have chosen a more depressing song to cap off a PRETTY STRONG ALBUM? An album that starts with a party and ends with a funeral. Wait a sec. Maybe they were GOING FOR SOMETHING here? I just found out that this started off as an upbeat song in the Achtung sessions, and then it was turned into a dirge for Zooropa, but didn’t make the cut. You know you’re not that great of a song when you can’t even make it on an album that features “Babyface”. So somehow it ended up here. What did T.S. Eliot say about the world ending? Something about it not being a bang but a whimper? Yeah. That.
Well, there you have it. Thanks for joining me on this little trip back to 1997. 8 great songs, 2 terrible ones, and 2 that wouldn’t fit anywhere else. That’s a pretty good average, wouldn’t you say? They would follow this up with “All that you can’t leave behind” 3 years later, but for all intents and purposes, it looks like Pop will remain one of those oddities stuck in time, something that they definitely COULD leave behind.