Zooropa 30 years on

Zooropa 30 years on

Next month sees the 30th anniversary of the release of U2’s album Zooropa, conceived during their ‘Zoo TV’ tour, on the back of the album Achtung Baby and in the middle of a creative burst that had reinvented the band.

They had done this sort of thing before on their tour for the Joshua Tree album, where their immersion in the world of early rock’n’roll while touring in the US led to the creation of the Rattle and Hum album. But where that was a love affair with the roots of rock’n’roll, a magical history tour, Zooropa was about the shiny future, full of irony and paradox. Having got over the early 90s hurdle of reinvention, they were having fun, running with ideas. And where Rattle and Hum looked to the US, Zooropa mined the post-Berlin Wall optimistic uncertainty of Europe, hence the name.

Zooropa continued the theme of Achtung Baby’s ‘Even Better than the Real Thing’, itself influenced by the slightly over-hyped theory of Jean Baudrillard, who characterized postmodernity as an elevation of the simulacra above the original. There is perhaps something appropriate about this inspiring the new U2, considering the band’s earlier name was ‘The Hype’. ‘Zoo TV’ was all about playing up the image of the rock star, rather than running away from it as inauthentic, as they had tried to do in the 80s, especially with Bono’s onstage characters, the Fly, based on Elvis’s comeback special outfit, and the Mirrorball Man, a parody of corrupt TV evangelists. They were slipping the panoramic songs through wrapped in humour, rather than in the over-earnestness of their 80s permutation.

If the sound of Achtung Baby rang with the hammers destroying the Berlin Wall, Zooropa danced in the maelstrom of the Brave New World. Just as the clanging industrial rock of ‘Zoo Station’ had faded in, Zooropa’s opening bubbles strangely to the surface, except this time with media chatter (and a rubbery guitar figure like a beacon), introducing us to the lyrics proper of the song ‘Zooropa’ which are, even so, at least in the first half, simply advertising slogans cobbled together. This was the new world – the 90s – where slogans could seem profound, signifiers uncoupled from what they signified, in mock solemnity. It’s as if Bono scribbled down a song just by notating the ads speeding by in the subway.

But Bono suggests later in the song to ‘skip the subway, let’s go to the overground’. There is a sense that the new reality, the new everyday, is weirder than the underground. The band talked at the time – in line with postmodern philosophers – about how ads were more interesting than the news, and how the Gulf War was legitimised by looking like a movie (rather than the other way around). Chuck Klosterman writes about how the 90s now seem almost quaint – pre- (widespread) internet, slower – but at the time there was concern about the speeding up of society, of the proliferation of cable TV, the merging of politics and showbiz, and the appearance of endless choice.

‘Numb’ continues the theme, but with a twist: if ‘Zooropa’ was all (possibly fake) positivity, ‘Numb’ is a litany of rules and restrictions; with guitarist The Edge’s half-spoken vocal it suggests that the effect of information overload is not hyperawareness but apathy. The endless stream of words, like a cyberpunk ‘Subterranean Homesick Blues’, becomes meaningless. The slowly oscillating, phasing guitar adds to the numbing effect, like some factory machine. This is contrasted with cheesy organ and Bono wailing in falsetto distractedly in the background, as if he doesn’t know he’s being recorded, but also as if he’s saying all the rules are just another form of vaudeville.

There was, at the time, a sense that rock’n’roll had said about all it could say; innovation was at rock’s edges. ‘Lemon’ is a heavyweight dance number which lent itself to innumerable remixes. It’s as if a dance beat had been laid over some Brian Eno ambient music. (He, of course, was involved in the album’s production.) The tremolo-heavy guitar is the aural equivalent of strobe lighting. The Edge spoke of being bored by the guitar at the time, and here it’s hard to know at first glimpse if it’s heavily processed guitar or a keyboard effect that sounds like a guitar. Of course, U2 weren’t the most radical act around, but at the time they successfully grafted the sounds of alternative rock and dance onto their penchant for deceptively simple song structures with emotional attraction and sing-along-ability, while alert to the fact that the wall between alternative and mainstream was being torn down anyway. (This fact, acting in the opposite direction, would overwhelm poor Kurt Cobain.)

Onstage, ‘Lemon’ seemed like a song deliberately written for Bono’s MacPhisto character, who he dressed up as during encores and described as Satan in the guise of a fading Las Vegas cabaret showman. This one had morphed from the Mirrorball Man – perhaps a natural, inevitable progression. The meaning of the song seemed somewhat beside the point, though the lyrics further suggest a topsy-turvy world where authenticity is pursued through the artifice. (You can see why they found Frank Sinatra intriguing. It’s hard to know if Bono’s duet with Sinatra, recorded soon after Zooropa, is mocking, loving, or both.)

‘Stay’, which was apparently inspired by Sinatra, is more classic U2 territory, a slower song like ‘One’, with a guitar of similar restraint. But it has smarty-pants vocals about buying cigarettes when one doesn’t smoke and lip-syncing to talk shows (again suggesting that real life mimics advertising, and we know, from watching ads, what people are going to say). ‘Stay’ was another soundtrack offering for Wim Wenders, the film director exploring religion in the postmodern world, sort-of.

The second half of the album is not as strong as the first, but album closer ‘The Wanderer’ makes a further statement about the new U2, suggesting everything is up for grabs, and the band can even operate without frontman Bono – Johnny Cash sings the vocal, in a form of celebrity karaoke. Bono had talked about the recording of Achtung Baby, when the priority was not sounding like (classic) U2. On tour, where the 80s had seen them playing on barren stages in order to focus on the music, ‘Zoo TV’ featured piles of TVs and graffitied East German cars hanging from the ceiling. What was interesting at the time was how much of U2’s music was a 180-degree turn, and how much was a continuation of what made them popular in the 80s.

On the song ‘Zooropa’ Bono sang, ‘Uncertainty can be a guiding light’. This sums up U2’s attitude at the time, as they dragged the experimental into the mainstream, leapt in faith and roleplayed their way to something authentic. The contradictory or paradoxical was a positive. Bono sings on one of Zooropa’s songs, ‘You can hold onto something so tight, you’ve already lost it’. It’s like he learnt the lesson of the 80s – that furrowed brows can be off-putting, but a smirk can be intriguing, and sending yourself up can be endearing.

Of course, irony only takes you so far. Maybe that’s what made them turn back again. But the spirit energising their early 90s work is worlds away from the (much) later music and the current predictable, money-spinning nostalgia tours. It’s not as encompassing as Achtung Baby or as weird as the mid-90s Passengers album, but Zooropa sounded like riding the crest of a wave, and it may be the most interesting thing they made.

Nick Mattiske blogs on books at coburgreviewofbooks.wordpress.com and is the illustrator of Thoughts That Feel So Big.


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