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The Mirrorball Versions of Pop

@U2, April 03, 2017
By: Ian Ryan


I listen to U2 albums in their original track list order, always. I know fans have made track list rearrangements for some releases that make the album reinvigorated, more interesting, or even straight up better than the official version. I always want to absorb the album in the order it was released, for good or for ill. I’m also dogged about keeping the original versions of songs in the playlists, saving the alternate versions for after the main album in the playlist. The two exceptions are for No Line On The Horizon (the single version of “I’ll Go Crazy If I Don’t Go Crazy Tonight” is noticeably better) and Pop.

In my Pop playlist I’ve switched out the album version of “If God Will Send His Angels” for the single version, the album version of “Last Night On Earth” for the single version, the album version of “Gone” for the Best Of 1990-2000 version, and the album version of “Please” for the single version. These aren’t the only options by a long shot: I could switch out the album version of “Discothèque” for either the single version or Best Of 1990-2000 version, the album version of “Staring At The Sun” for the Best Of 1990-2000 version, and a ton of remixes that remain true to much of the spirit of the original versions of their respective songs. Even past that, “Discothèque,” “Staring At The Sun,” “Please” and “Wake Up Dead Man” have seen distinct departures from their studio versions when played live. 

U2 have been known to tinker and fiddle with songs on re-releases or for single versions or in concert, but not a single album has seen as much restlessness or reinvention as Pop. The band have made it clear that they’re not happy with the final result. They have said so many times; they’ve released so many versions of the songs; and the album has been almost forgotten over the past three tours. The fans have also made it clear that they don’t exactly know what to do with Pop. Some treat it as the near-perfect culmination of U2’s 1990s exploratory phase, while others would be happy to semi-forget it. Anecdotally, I’ve spoken with casual fans who detested it when it came out in 1997 but now think it’s an excellent piece of work.

Pop has often been described as an album that was too far ahead of its time. Perhaps this is why the band have been continuously rejiggering it? Trying to work with the album until it finally got to the time it was supposed to show up?

A useful way of framing all the songs that have had revamps is to look at the songs that have NOT been reworked much, if at all: “Do You Feel Loved,” “Mofo,” “Miami,” “The Playboy Mansion” and “If You Wear That Velvet Dress.” Do these songs not get much attention because they were finished to the band’s satisfaction, or because they were deemed to be lost causes? I think “Do You Feel Loved” is a stellar album track, but it had a short-lived PopMart stint and vanished afterward. “Mofo” was a mainstay on the PopMart tour and has reappeared numerous times over the years as a snippet in live shows. Outside of a few mentions during shows in Miami, “Miami” hasn’t been heard since early in PopMart. “The Playboy Mansion” has never escaped the album (with the possible exception of Bono muttering during “Where The Streets Have No Name”).

“If You Wear That Velvet Dress” was a mainstay of PopMart and got a sultry revamp from Bono on Jules Holland’s “More Friends.” It feels like “Mofo” and “If You Wear That Velvet Dress” were pretty close to where the band wanted them to be. “Do You Feel Loved,” “Miami” and “The Playboy Mansion” weren’t sustainable live and weren’t worth the effort to revitalize. It could be argued that they didn’t get much focus because they weren’t singles, but it seems as though the band would have plugged away at them if they felt they could become viable live songs. They didn’t. 

“Discothèque” - “Discothèque” is the album standard-bearer, and they’ve put a commensurate amount of effort into it. Between the single that was released prior to Pop and the album version itself they reworked the intro guitars to create more of a swirling effect and added a Bono “uhhh.” The PopMart version felt similar to the album version, but they perplexingly took out Edge’s signature guitar riff that made the first part of the chorus slide into the second part like butter. Perhaps it wasn’t feasible live, or they liked the simplified and more “rock” sound of the live chorus … who knows? It hasn't come back in any version of the song, live or studio, and the song suffers for it.

The version that showed up for the Elevation tour was similar to the PopMart version, with an ethereal and starry intro that transitioned to the full guitar-driven version of the song. This live version seems to have inspired the Best Of 1990-2000 version. Like the live versions before it, it starts off with phantasmal, swirling synths and the sound of Bono moaning over the music as the “You want heaven in your heart” line gets moved to the start of the song. It also got some new lyrics for the bridge, lyrics I personally really enjoy, which make the new mix worth listening to along with the original mixes. “But you take what you can get, ‘cause it’s all that you can find, and you know there’s something more, but tonight you don’t mind.” Alas, they did remove the “boom-cha”s from the end.

The last version that is worth a mention was played twice live in Chicago on the Vertigo tour. This version truly embraced the rock heart at the center of the song, even as it played up the disco aspect with Larry’s cymbal-heavy beat. Edge crushed the chorus with his guitars and Bono adds more new lyrics: “It’s love, falling from above.” The song finishes with Bono scream-singing “This is a love song! This is a love song!” as Edge completely cuts loose on his guitar. They finally found the disco-rock hybrid soul of the song in 2005, only to abandon it after two plays. 

“If God Will Send His Angels” - The change from the album to the single version of “If God Will Send His Angels” is a stark lesson in how much the build of a song can matter. The album version has a longer first verse and places the bridge in the middle of the song. The single version shortens the first verse and places the bridge right before the final chorus. The sense of buildup and ending with a roar rather than a whisper in the single version over the album version is one of the most stark contrasts in U2’s catalog. The album version feels like an outtake compared with the single version, which is one of their most beautiful and delicate songs ever. The disparity between the two versions is the clearest evidence that, as the band have said many times, if they just had another month or two, the album could have been so much tighter and better-focused.

The first PopMart show in Las Vegas is well known as one of the biggest disasters in U2’s concert history. They played a live version of “If God Will Send His Angels” that is quite rough and under-rehearsed, but also has a spartan clarity that is worth noting. Edge’s guitars are gorgeous and he uses a perfect synth effect to accent them. Adam’s bass provides the same melancholic and meandering vibe as it does in the studio version, and Bono goes up an octave for part of the second verse in a way that feels really pained and lost. It still feels to me like this live version had promise, but it didn’t last much longer. 

“Staring At The Sun” - “Staring At The Sun” was supposed to be the big hit off Pop. It was supposed to catch the summer by storm and be the song that everyone was humming. It’s certainly hummable, but the only part of the album version that felt fully formed was the chorus. The song found a certain niche success during the PopMart tour when it became a stripped-down acoustic version that featured wonderful harmonies from Bono and The Edge. I’m not normally a fan of the acoustic interludes at U2 shows, but this specific song was a bit of magic. The band clearly saw this and tried to bring some of it back to the studio for a new mix of the song on the Best Of 1990-2000 hits album.

On the Pop version the acoustic and electric guitars are combined into one mono track, but on the Best Of… version they get split up with acoustic on the left and electric on the right. The vocals work with the acoustic guitar sound a bit more, the vocals are brought to the front more obviously, and the drums start a little earlier, but all in all it doesn’t change much from the Pop version. 

“Gone” & “Last Night On Earth” - “Gone” and “Last Night On Earth” saw mainly cosmetic changes in their revamps. “Gone” got some piano and Bono recorded new vocals for the Best Of 1990-2000 mix to make it match its live version a bit more. It really is a superb live song, so this makes sense. “Last Night On Earth” is the most sci-fi/post-apocalyptic song the band have done, but they cleaned it up a bit for the single version. Bono’s little spoken narrative is gone from the start. Bono’s voice was notoriously failing during the recording of the album version and you can hear it during the chorus. The single version has new vocals and his voice is noticeably stronger during the chorus. The sound of the single version is a touch more expansive, perhaps to match how it sounds live. This is probably the least notable of the song revisions that Pop has seen.

“Please” - “Please” benefited substantially from its single version. The Pop version feels trapped, bound, like the little air in the room isn’t circulating. The single version has some moody strings to usher it in, and the song itself doesn’t feel as held down. If the album version is someone trapped in a tight coffin, the single version is condemnation coming down from on high. As with “Last Night On Earth,” Bono re-recorded the vocals and they sound healthier and more purposeful. Adam’s bass sounds bigger; Larry’s drums sound tighter; and Edge’s guitar feels more communicative. This is closer to the version that showed up live — the massive, expansive epic that transitioned into “Where The Streets Have No Name.”

“Please” came around again as an acoustic response to the 9/11 attacks in the United States. Part of what gives “Please” its strength is the musical complexity in the song. It is massive, layered and has so many components that come together like cold stone slabs. However, stripped down it becomes a dose of honesty about how religion can be used as a weapon rather than a comfort. The Pop version of the song is utter uncertainty and toxic frustration; the Elevation tour version of the song is quiet, direct and pointed. So versatile. 

Pop is the most contentious album in U2’s catalog. It is the biggest departure from what the public in general seems to think U2 should be, and it is a bit of a niche release even to U2 fans. The fans it does have are fiercely passionate about it, and that mix of apathy and passion seems to also be how the band feel about it. They still haven’t forgotten about it; Bono sings snippets from it in concert more than any other album. But they also are very hesitant to play full tracks from it.

Pop was the album and PopMart the tour that prompted the safety-blanket return to the warm, sunny atmosphere of All That You Can’t Leave Behind. To me they are sibling albums, chaotic midnight and the clear rays of light from the day beginning. Maybe Pop does function best as something never quite fully formed that the band will always secretly be chasing after. Gotta have something itching and burning and stinging in their ears. 

(c) @U2/Ryan, 2017


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