Zooropa by U2
By Eamon O'Neill
Taking their bows at the end of their mammoth ‘Lovetown’ tour - an extension of the original ‘Joshua Tree’ touring cycle - in Dublin on 30th December 1989, an exhausted Bono famously confessed that; “this is the end of something for U2”. “It’s no big deal”, he shrugged; “it’s just we have to go away and… dream it all up again”.
While it was not quite clear exactly what he meant at the time, this line in the sand signalled the end of a significant chapter in the Irish band’s history. What lay around the corner however, was anyone’s guess.
Though they had risen from post-punk upstarts to a global phenomenon during the previous ten years, U2 were, by the turn of the decade, in danger of losing their relevance. Something had to change, and the four-piece completed by The Edge, Larry Mullen Junior and Adam Clayton, knew it.
With 1988's 'Rattle and Hum' - an album, a film, a book, and god knows what else - seeing them accused of taking themselves far too seriously, and the movie in particular unintentionally portraying them as self-important and over-earnest, a reset for the 1990s was required. When U2 would return, they’d be barely recognisable.
Emerging two years later in 1991, shorn of all pretence, the postmodernist irony-embracing 'Achtung Baby' was the antithesis of what had come before. Self-described as; “the sound of four men chopping down the Joshua Tree”, it was a revelation, a breath of fresh air, and it set the band up perfectly for their brilliant second act.
Reshaping their sound, ‘Achtung Baby’ was a huge gamble, but it paid off. An artistic and commercial smash, it was followed by the ambitious and just as successful ‘Zoo TV’ tour. Bigger, brasher, bolder and brighter, the trek was an aural and visual spectacle, and buoyed by the most creative period of their career, when a six-month gap in their touring schedule opened up in late 1992, they decided to capitalise on their inspiration, and return to the studio.
What was planned as an EP soon blossomed into a full-blown long player, and released in 1993, the resulting ‘Zooropa’ was an abrasive alt-pop album that pushed ‘Achtung Baby’s boundaries even further. Taking in dance, industrial, and electronic influences, it was, in places, barely recognisable from the band that went in search of America just a few years earlier. That’s not to say that ‘Zooropa’ was without melody or U2’s genius sense of song; on the contrary, eight albums into their career they had created another classic.
Opening in a dreamstate of the title track, ‘Zooropa’ took the preceding tour’s TV theme and went wild with advertising sloganeering. Asking “what do you want?” was a good question in the consumer-driven ‘90s, but it was clear that musically at least, U2 were not going to listen.
Following with the lovelorn ‘Babyface’, it was track three that spelled out clearly the album’s radical departure. Featuring a literally monotone lead vocal from The Edge, the atmospheric ‘Numb’ played out over an industrial soundscape, with the guitarist listed a series of ‘don’t’s. The most surprising standalone track of the band’s career, it was released as a ‘video single’ on VHS-only that summer, with U2 continuing to innovate even in formatting.
Featuring an unusual use of falsetto, the uplifting and beautiful ‘Lemon’ formed the album’s centrepiece, and saw Bono remember his late mother on the song that would become one of the standout moments of the show when the ‘Zoo TV’ tour resumed.
Most like the U2 of old, ‘Stay’ (Faraway, So Close!)’ would land the band back in the singles chart by the autumn, reaching No.1 in their homeland of Ireland, and No. 4 in the U.K. One of the album’s more accessible tracks, the single release was backed by a duet with the one and only Frank Sinatra on a cover of his classic ‘I’ve Got You Under My Skin’, which, although currently unavailable on a physical format, is well worth hunting down online.
Towards the end of the album, the disorienting drum loops of ‘Daddy’s Gonna Pay For Your Crashed Car’, the grooving dub of ‘Some Days Are Better Than Others’, the stripped-back tenderness of ‘The First Time’, and the hypnotic ‘Dirty Day’ proved that the band were bursting with ideas.
Closing out with the trance-like synths of ‘The Wanderer’, they pulled a masterstroke in getting the Man in Black himself to add his world-weary tones to what is, the most Johnny Cash of Johnny Cash lyrics. “I went out there in search of experience”, he drawls; “to taste and to touch, and to feel as much as a man can before he repents”. When B.B. King said to Bono in ‘Rattle and Hum’; “you mighty young to write such heavy lyrics”, he wasn’t wrong.
Celebrating thirty years since its release in 2023, ‘Zooropa’ has just been reissued as a special 2LP set on transparent lemon vinyl. It also comes in a snazzy reflective foil gatefold sleeve. Aping the 2018 vinyl release, it adds ‘Lemon" (The Perfecto Mix)’, and ‘Numb" (Gimme Some More Dignity Mix)’ as bonus tracks.
Arguably U2’s last truly inventive album, ‘Zooropa’ closed the chapter on what had begun with ‘Achtung Baby’, bookending their most inspired period. But don’t be fooled by the track listing; there are no lemons on here.
1. Zooropa - U2
2. Babyface - U2
3. Numb - U2
4. Lemon - U2
5. Stay (Faraway, So Close!) - U2
6. Daddy's Gonna Pay for Your Crashed Car - U2
1. Some Days Are Better Than Others - U2
2. The First Time - U2
3. Dirty Day - U2
4. The Wanderer - U2
5. Lemon (The Perfecto Mix) (Bonus Track) - U2
6. Numb (Gimme Some More Diginity Mix) (Bonus Track) - U2