U2
Zooropa
Island

This is not usually a popular choice for a classic album from U2.  In fact, most U2 fans I know would rank this album, if not at the bottom of the band’s discography, pretty close to it.  I disagree.  First, damn near everything U2 has done in the 21st century, minus No Line on the Horizon, belongs at the bottom of the pile.  Two, Zooropa is a wonderfully ambitious album.  It shows U2 at their most playful, and attempting to do something new.  Remember when U2 were adventurous and curious?  Well, here you go.

Zooropa was intended to be an ep in the wake of Achtung Baby, as the band wrote the songs in the break between the two massive legs of Zoo TV tour of 1991-93.  You can see this in the album’s very title, as it grows out of Achtung Baby‘s first track, ‘Zoo Station,’ which itself takes its name from the short version of the name of Zoologischer Garten railway station in Berlin.  So it was meant as a derivative of the 1991 smash hit album. Some of the songs on this album also grew out of scraps leftover from Achtung. But then the ep quickly grew into a full-lengther, which they began recording in February 1993.  They finished it by May and it was dropped onto an unsuspecting world in July, with the lead single, ‘Numb,’ predating it.

‘Numb’ was the cue that this was a brand new back from Dublin’s finest.  The track had The Edge speak-singing the lead vocals, with Bono’s falsetto the chorus.  The video was The Edge, unshaven with his toque, a hand pulling at his face as he recites the lines.  Why was this the cue to something new from U2? Well, because The Edge was on lead vocals.  This had happened twice (I think) times in the previous 13 years of the band.  The first was on ‘Seconds’ on War, then ‘Van Diemen’s Land’ on Rattle & Hum.

But this WAS a brand new bag.  Achtung Baby had seen U2 rediscover their creative muse after the mis-step of Rattle & Hum (which, to be fair, does have its moments), and the creative depression that followed.  In Berlin, where much of the album was recorded as the Cold War ended, the band found a new font, incorporating industrial and electronic music into their sound.  Zooropa sees them going deeper into the well, especially on the electronic/techno front.  No doubt this was helped by the mood surrounding the band once they got back to Dublin between the two legs of the tour.  Put simply, Bono and The Edge weren’t into resuming domestic life, they were wired from touring, they were wired to that mindset, so, the hectic nature of touring on the level of Zoo TV carried through in the manic energy of Zooropa.

I remember the first time I saw the video for ‘Numb.’  Me and my Main Man Mike were kicked back, probably drinking shitty beer, at his mom’s place.  It was a good spring, 1993.  I left Ottawa, which I just couldn’t abide, and headed back to the Left Coast and Vancouver.  And then the Montréal Canadiens went on this amazing run in the Stanley Cup playoffs.  Me and Mike watched every game that spring we could, though to be fair, I made him, I’m a Habs fan.  Mike is a Canucks’ fan. But I have forgiven him.  I was working downtown Vancouver at a skeezy restaurant, on the line, as well as as a sous chef at a suburban Italian restaurant, though that didn’t last so long.  Anyway.  Me and Mike were also massive U2 fans, and we were deeply intrigued by ‘Numb.’

When the album came out, we scooped it up very fast.  We both got it.  There were multiple copies of the album when we eventually got a flat together in the spring of 1994.  Zooropa was one of the albums in heavy rotation in the MikeMobile (see my take on Mark Lanegan’s Whiskey for the Holy Ghost for details on the MikeMobile).  Along with Zooropa, the Smashing Pumpkins’ Gish and Siamese Dream, L7’s Hungry for Stink and Public Enemy were on constant play.  I think I’m forgetting something.   Whatevs.

That summer, 1993, Mike and I drove all over the Lower Mainland.  We drove up the Fraser Valley.  We drove up to Whistler, Squamish.  We drove down to the US border, we drove down the Washington coast.  And we drove everywhere in between.  We saw a lot of live music.  We drank a lot of beer.  We drank a lot of coffee.  We ate a lot of gross-ass food.  It was one of the best summers of my life.

Mike and I argued about U2’s discography, amongst other things, as we drove all over God’s Green Earth, we debated each and every album, as we listened to them.  We generally agreed, though we didn’t agree on which our favourite albums were.  I don’t remember what each of us argued, though I think I was arguing for War.  Who knows?  We debated whether or not Achtung Baby was really that good (hint, it wasn’t).  But we loved, just loved Zooropa.  I think, in part, it is the memory of that summer that makes it my favourite U2 album.

The start of Zooropa, the eponymous first track, is one of my favourite songs of all-time, Bono’s lyrics and voice is optimistic, it’s looking for something brighter, and the way he sings:

Don’t worry baby, it’ll be alright
You got the right shoes
To get you through the night
It’s cold outside, but brightly lit
Skip the subway
Let’s go to the overground
Get your head out of the mud baby
Put flowers in the mud baby
Overground

I dunno, this is kinda it for me.  I love it.  This bit, these lyrics, actually don’t take me back to Vancouver in 1993, but to Montréal in the 00s, a decade later, as the lyrics ‘Skip the subway/Let’s go to the overground’ was kind of my motto in the city, I preferred to walk the city than take the métro.  And, well, if you’ve ever seen a winter in Montréal, well, it is both cold outside and brightly lit.

But it was the b-side that always got me.  The a-side had the hits, ‘Numb’ and ‘Lemon,’ which is an insane song in many ways, with nonsense lyrics Bono sings in a falsetto, The Edge playing a gated guitar, and a fat Eurodisco beat underneath.  But the b-side.

The entire album was produced by Brian Eno, but Flood was the mixer of all but two tracks.  Robbie Adams, who had handled the sound on Zoo TV, mixed a couple of tracks, and one he and Flood did together.  The inclusion of Flood and Adams on this album made the difference, this is what gave it the swagger and the underground sound.

The b-side starts off with ‘Daddy’s Going to Pay for Your Crashed Car,’ which shows U2 filtering a more industrial sound through a Beach Boys track.  And then that segues into ‘Some Days are Better than Others,’ which in some ways is a throwaway, ridiculous song (at least lyrically), but is also insanely catchy and enjoyable, as Bono sings about, well, shitty days.  This includes my favourite: ‘Some days have bouncers that won’t let you in.’

I was listening to Zooropa earlier this week, and I texted that line to Mike.  His response was:

I have a feeling that I should know this lyric….  my first inclination is to say U2 – Some Days Are Better Than Others?

Bang right the fuck on, Michael.  After the throwaway track, ‘The First Time,’ we get to the best track on the album, in fact, I would posit the best track U2 cut after c. 1988 (Rattle & Hum is saved in this respect by the last track of the album, ‘All I Want is You,’ which is just a brilliant, amazing track, if only for The Edge’s guitar). ‘Dirty Day’ is one of the songs that grew out of leftovers from Achtung. Itbegins with a simple piano, and then it gets kind of paranoid, the lyrics written by Bono & The Edge together, are about a guy who walks out on his family and then returns years later to meet his son, create this intense, paranoid feeling:

I don’t know you
And you don’t know the half of it
I had a starring role
I was the bad guy who walked out
They said be careful where you aim
‘Cause where you aim you just might hit
You can hold onto something so tight
You’ve already lost it.
Dragging me down
That’s not the way it used to be
You can’t even remember
What I’m trying to forget.
It was a dirty day
Dirty day.
I never really think about the character in the song, I have to admit, I think about what gets us to the point where someone feels the way he feels here, I have been pondering this for, what, 27 years now.  And then there’s the fade out of the track, with Bono and The Edge harmonizing
These days, days, days run away like horses over the hill
These days, days, days run away like horses over the hill
These days, days, days run away like horses over the hill
These days, days, days run away like horses over the hill
These days, days, days run away like horses over the hill
These days, days, days run away like horses over the hill.
I don’t know, the metaphor, which I have always visualized, these wild horses disappearing over the grassy hills, is intriguing.  It is evocative.  And it’s glorious.

And then the album closes with Johnny Cash stopping by. The amusing part of the story of this song is that Bono had recorded his own version of his lyrics, but then Cash was in Dublin and stopped off at Windmill Lane and dropped his version.  And then Bono, The Edge, Larry Mullen, jr., and Adam Clayton, and Brian Eno, and everyone else, including the janitor, debated which version to use.  Johnny Cash was the right decision.  The track itself is all electronic, cold, impersonal, and Cash’s baritone is at odds with it.  Of course, the other version of the story is that Bono wrote the song for Cash to sing.  I like the original version more.

This was Cash before his late career comeback, when he hooked up with Rick Rubin and recorded American Recordings, in 1994, which led to American II to American VI, which was released posthumously in 2010.  This was Johnny Cash as basically a washed up country singer, and so he was completely at odds with the megawatt star power of U2, though he was still pumping out albums at an almost annual pace.
And then the album ends with dissonance, around 30 seconds after ‘The Wanderer’ ends, an alarm with other discordant noises. And the album is over.
The first time Mike and I listened to the whole album, we got to the end, we were drinking Coca-Cola in the Mike Mobile, it was a hot summer day in Vancouver.  The pollution cloud was hanging over the city, the windows were down (no air conditioning) and we were taking the back road route (known as the Mega Secret Alternative Route) back to the suburbs.  We looked at each other and wondered what it was we had just listened to.  But then we realized we loved it.