In Not Fade Away, we take a look at the legacy of some of the greatest albums of the past few decades – some iconic, some lesser known – as they celebrate significant anniversaries. Here, we take a look at U2‘s “Zooropa,” which turns 20 on July 5.
If Achtung Baby was, as it has often been described, “the sound of four men chopping down The Joshua Tree,” then Zooropa was those same four guys getting drunk and swinging axes at the stump. Achtung saw the post-punk group morphing into a funky industrial combo. With Zooropa, they were baptized in a digital soup. When they emerged, they were barely recognizable as the same guys who released Boy, War and The Joshua Tree.
The album was introduced via the lead single “Numb,” which featured guitarist The Edge on lead vocals. The last time we heard him sing lead was on the incredibly earnest (and frankly, a little boring) “Van Dieman’s Land” from Rattle And Hum, which marked the apex of U2’s overly sincere Americana-obsessed era. On “Numb,” which featured Bono on falsetto backing vocals, Edge seemed like a different guy. He sounded, well, numb. His guitar buzzed and competed for space with noise samples, synth squiggles and drum loops. If a fan fell into a coma during the late ’80s and woke up to this song, he or she might not know that she was listening to the guys who sang “Sunday Bloody Sunday” or “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For.”
The title track opened the album, starting things off with over a minute and a half of ambient noise. It was nearly two minutes before anything identifiably Bono or Edge-sounding emerged — but it was actually kind of fitting. Bono and The Edge were the main creative forces behind the album (Edge even got a co-producing credit with Brian Eno and Flood), further deconstructing U2’s sound. At points in on Zooropa, it was difficult to tell if the drums were played by Larry Mullen or programmed, a la many of the dance music artists the band were becoming more obsessed with. Ditto for Adam Clayton’s bass lines.
Zooropa wasn’t just an unusual-sounding U2 record; it was created in an unusual manner, for U2 at least. Never before had the band started recording an album while on the road for the last one; the album seemed an extension of Achtung in both sound and concept. In a further tearing down of the band’s prior identity, there were no widescreen anthems a la “Pride (In The Name Of Love),” “Where The Streets Have No Name” or even “One.” Fans hoping that Achtung Baby‘s electronic experimentalism was a passing fad were disappointed. But an open-minded listen to the album reveals some unsung classics, including “Daddy’s Gonna Pay For Your Crashed Car,” “Dirty Day” and the album’s one singalong moment “Stay (Faraway, So Close.)”
Adam Clayton compared it to a game-changing Beatles album in an interview: “It occurred to me… look at the history of the band and then the Zooropa album… and looking at the history of the Beatles, and everything they’d done and learned, and then suddenly…Sgt. Pepper, which redefined the whole ballgame, and produced a different language, a different sound.”
Like the Fab Four with Sgt. Pepper, U2 blew off any of their prior restraints on Zooropa. But like Sgt. Pepper, it wasn’t just experimentation. There were incredible nuggets of songwriting between the samples and loops, something made clear on later tours when Bono and Edge would strap on acoustic guitars for a duo rendition of “Stay.” As Euro-centric as the album was, they still had touches of Americana. The last song, “The Wanderer,” featured Johnny Cash on lead vocals, introducing him to a new audience a full year before Rick Rubin signed the country icon to American Recordings for a career reboot.
Still, things got weirder from there. Following Zooropa‘s release, Bono retired his Achtung Baby Tour’s black-leather clad on-stage character “The Fly” and replaced him with the even more arch “Macphisto.” When we next heard Bono, The Edge, Adam Clayton and Larry Mullen, in 1995, it wasn’t as U2, but as “The Passengers,” a group that also featured their producer Brian Eno and saw them collaborating with opera singer Luciano Pavarotti. 1997’s Pop took them further into digital turf. It wouldn’t be until 2000’s All That You Can’t Leave Behind that the band would swing for their familiar fences again, writing stadium-ready anthems like “Beautiful Day,” “Elevation” and “Walk On.”
Sometimes a band has to go away for a while so fans can love them again. The Rolling Stones stayed off of the road from 1982 through 1989, releasing two albums without touring. Bruce Springsteen dismissed the E Street Band in the late ’80s, reactivating them in 1999. But U2 never stopped touring and never split up. Zooropa was an important part of their ’90s reboot, which saw the earnest quartet go away, to be replaced by a very different U2. In 2000, Bono famously said that U2 was “reapplying for the job of best band in the world.” Without making Zooropa, they may not have wanted it back.