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Up With the Static and the Radio Waves: A Zooropa Retrospective



I'm a firm believer that, intentional or not, U2 make trilogies of albums. These are the trilogies they've created, and what the parts of the trilogies represent:

The Growth Trilogy

Boy - growth of self
October - growth of faith
War - growth of purpose

The America Trilogy

The Unforgettable Fire - America from a distance
The Joshua Tree - America up close
Rattle And Hum - Inside America

The Loss Trilogy

Achtung Baby - loss of love
Zooropa - loss of purpose
Pop - loss of faith

The Acceptance Trilogy

All That You Can't Leave Behind - acceptance of mortality
How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb - acceptance of adulthood
No Line On The Horizon - acceptance of place

I feel the most affinity for the Acceptance trilogy, but I value the Loss trilogy the most. Within it, Achtung Baby has been viewed as the success, Zooropa as the accident, and Pop the failure. Naturally, the success and the failure are the ones that get the most attention. There have recently been a spate of Zooropa commemorative articles about the album's 25th anniversary, and one of the topics they keep coming back to is that it was a throwaway album. U2 describe it as a fun lark that they don't have much desire to return to. Billboard's retrospective mentions how the band cranked it out in a few months at night after a leg of the ZooTV tour. This implies that it lacks the same level of thought and intent as other U2 albums. Both articles mention how great the album is, but also imply that it is a temporal album, independent of its quality.

They have it backwards. They imply that its temporal quality is a failing rather than a feature, that Zooropa doesn't capture an overwhelming spirit or movement, like War or Achtung Baby. Zooropa doesn't address timeless concepts or universal feelings, like Boy or All That You Can't Leave Behind. Zooropa is an album that specifically addresses the tornado of confusion in Europe in the early 1990s. The USSR was descendant and the EU was ascendent (contrast with the current age). Zooropa balances political death and technological birth. Zooropa acknowledges old empires dying and new modes of connection wiring themselves before our eyes. The band let the fans watch them record Pop online a few years after Zooropa came out, but Zooropa was the album that understood what was coming, what the internet could bring. In a practical sense, it's a much starker divider between early U2 and later U2 than the Joshua Tree/Achtung Baby fracture ever was.

Achtung Baby was built off assurance. The band knew what they did not want to be anymore and struggled to find their new direction, but knew very firmly what they were rejecting. Zooropa sits on the opposite side of that motivation. Zooropa is a morass of uncertainty that came after what could be considered U2's artistic highlight. Zooropa was the intellectually honest response of four intelligent, motivated and passionate people who had played amazing hands twice and been rewarded with massive success both times. No one with a lick of intelligence stays confident when given great reward in this life.

Zooropa shows up in U2 live shows when the band need either utter sincerity or utter chaos. "Stay (Faraway, So Close!)" arrives when the band needs a sincere, heartfelt song in the middle of an acoustic part of a concert. It serves this same function on the Craig Armstrong album As If To Nothing. U2 (well, Bono and The Edge) performed "The Wanderer" only once live, when they wanted to pay deep tribute to Johny Cash in his hometown of Nashville, invoking the calm of his baritone voice after a crazy day of sweltering temperatures. "Zooropa" showed up as a chaotic tornado of light during the 360 tour, and again during the Innocence + Experience tour to communicate the horror and desperation refugees felt as they traveled from North Africa to Europe. Zooropa is an album of emotional extremes. It is not anger and peace, nor love and hate. It is fear and hope, adoration and being lost, the calling cards of U2's best work.

The title track "Zooropa" is ambition against the fear that chaos brings. "Babyface" is acknowledgment of the power and subservience that physical beauty brings when distributed wide. "Can you stand up to beauty, dictator of the heart?" "Numb" is the physiological reaction to a massive amount of new stimuli, something society still hasn't figured out 25 years later. "I Will Follow," "Tomorrow," "Mofo" and "Iris" are songs of sincerity and grasping for what's just out of reach, but "Lemon" is seven minutes of genius kitsch that keeps Iris at an academic distance and uses unemotional, analytical description on her. Beautiful but cold. She hasn't been talked about like this before or since. "Stay" feels completely appropriate after "Lemon," yet it immediately traverses from a distant mother figure to an intimate victim of physical abuse.

"Daddy's Gonna Pay For Your Crashed Car" because Paul McGuinness is gonna clean up your messes, Europe is gonna help you with your broken USSR, and God is gonna forgive you for your sins. "Some Days Are Better Than Others" is the summer song that alleviates some of the tension that has built up from all the emotional weight. Similar to the whiplash from "Lemon" to "Stay," the whiplash from "Some Days Are Better Than Others" to "The First Time" is severe. A bouncy shrug of the shoulders right into spiritual abandonment on both sides. Abandoning God sounds like both the most dire thing ever and the most sensible thing ever. "Dirty Day" brings out the anger and helpless frustration of a person who has been abandoned by their love, their family, their faith, their life.

But the voice of God, with all his confusing wisdom and conflicting instructions, issues forth in the end through Johnny Cash. He sets out beautiful goals that can never be achieved, a sanctified purpose with a bible and a gun, all in one song. He is comfort and fear, direction and aimlessness all together in words. His voice at the end focalizes the figure in the tornado of chaos and lights that is created with "Zooropa" as the opening track. And then you get a warning alarm because the end result is too dangerous to touch, as toxic as the glowing yellow poison rain falling while we watch Johnny Cash age before our eyes. The voice of experience getting so, so frustrated and old because the world isn't still innocent. Loss of purpose is a too-heavy load.

And I have no compass
And I have no map
And I have no reasons, no reasons to get back
And I have no religion
And I don't know what's what
And I don't know the limit, the limit of what we've got
No particular place names
No particular song
I've been hiding, what am I hiding from
Don't worry, baby, it'll be alright
You've 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
Don't worry, baby, it's gonna be alright
Uncertainty can be a guiding light
I hear voices, ridiculous voices
I'm in the slipstream, let's go overground
She's gonna dream up the world she wants to live in
She's gonna dream out loud

Best lyrics Bono has ever written. In the cold, brightly lit, overground slipstream, hope comes from loss.

(c) @U2/Ryan, 2018.