The Importance of Being Earnest

U2 goes forward and backward with Pop.

In the opening lines of Invisible Republic, his soon-to-be-published book on the making of Bob Dylan's "basement tapes" recordings, Greil Marcus writes of an artist standing "at a world crossroads," holding a stage "that may no longer exist." The book goes on to examine (among other things) the profound feeling of betrayal which met Dylan's shift from neo-traditional acoustic music to a less ascetic folk form, namely rock & roll. Now, I was still mastering my work with crayons at the time. But I can see the parallel between Dylan's move--which came at least in part from his discomfort with the folk-revival audience that set him up as a kind of savior--and that of U2 circa Achtung Baby, when Bono stopped waving flags and began wearing makeup, gave up Christ-posing for crotch-grabbing.

Still, the parallel isn't exact. When U2 put some of their "sincerity" on the shelf, they did not face hordes of hurt and angry acolytes; they were not openly cursed and jeered during concert performances. In the well-stocked '90s pop marketplace, so many artists reinvent themselves so often that even a band like U2, who once filled stadiums with anti-war anthems and Martin Luther King Jr. tributes, are just another content provider. Bono dressed up like Satan? Kinda stupid--but the record is cool. Not as good as the new Jane's Addiction, but...

Marcus is right that the cultural center-stage Dylan held in that particular time and place probably no longer exists, replaced by cable TV and hundred-disc CD changers. But that hasn't stopped U2 from assuming the mantle as the biggest, honkin'-est rock band in the world and running with it. And run they do, with the occasional stumble, on Pop, an album that makes something of a trilogy with Achtung Baby and Zooropa by continuing a thematic search for grace in the fallen world.

Hyped as the group's great leap into dance music on the heels of what will surely go down in rock history as the Great Techno Scare of '97, one of the most striking things about Pop is how familiar-sounding it all is. Bono's impassioned croon, his yelping falsetto, The Edge's cascading guitar rushes, Adam Clayton's lyrical bass ascents and Larry Mullen's compact martial drumming are all present and accounted for--a far cry from the self-effacing, almost self-erasing experiments on 1995's adventurous Passengers project. These guys are far too involved with presenting themselves and their messages to take the sort of back seat to groove and beat progression that dance music demands (proof is on the half-baked Achtung Baby and Zooropa remixes collected on the fan club-only compilation Melon).

That's not to say they haven't made a rock album that's learned a lot from post-rave culture. As their first project in 14 years without Brian Eno (who for all his smarts still seems baffled by modern dance music), Pop features twice as many producers, recorders, mixers, loopers, programmers, and keyboardists as there are bandmembers. Every song is thick with textures and little sonic motifs. "Mofo," for instance, is credited to four separate mixers, including Howie B. (the avant beatmeister signed to U.K.'s Mo' Wax label), Alan Moulder (partly responsible for the guitar vortexes of My Bloody Valentine), and Steve Osborne (half of post-house DJ Paul Oakenfeld's Perfecto team), who dress it in layers of hard techno and industrial noise so that even Larry Mullen's live drum performance sounds almost machine-like. Of course, that the band has been bragging to the press about how the drum track is "real" and not programmed only shows how rockist they still are.

In the end, that's the only way to judge them--as a rock band, making music in a particular tradition that might not signify the way it once did, but that hasn't lost its ability to move hearts and souls. The songs on Pop aren't news: a handful of them bumming over God's extended vacation from the world; a couple of related portraits of reckless young things living fast in a God-less world; the (misguided but forgivable) search for the sacred in the profane. They still speak in arena-sized gestures--the shout-along "you got to give it away" chorus on "Last Night On Earth," the lighter-flicking reprise of "If God Will Send His Angels," and especially the poly-national chant of the single "Discothéque", a sort of populist reading of the Smiths' clubland bellyache "How Soon Is Now?". But U2 knows their tradition well, and it's to their credit that they can blatantly cop from T-Rex ("Staring at the Sun") and the Velvet Underground ("Wake Up Dead Man") at the same time expanding their palette with flourishes of electronica.

If there's a problem here, it's the slight whiff of old formula drifting through the project. As the band readily admits, their music is still "painfully and insufferably earnest," and they constantly strive to drown that earnestness in a tidal wave of pop semiotics. The conceit feels lazy--the press conference in K-Mart on Ash Wednesday, the album title, the lyrics about O.J. and Michael Jackson and Coke and Big Macs, the Village People dress-up bit in the "Discothéque" video (which ends with said disco spinning into a mirror-ball-cum-planet that shoots off into space and then explodes--how's that for some old-school Wrath of God?). And frankly, notwithstanding all the bleeps and breakbeats, Pop actually sounds more like old U2, both in its War-style noisiness and its Joshua Tree spirituality, than anything they've done in the '90s. It's the sound of earnestness pushing through artifice (not, surprisingly, a bad thing), and it makes the record feel like the end of another era for the band, like maybe there's a different music--perhaps smaller and more intimate--waiting in the wings.

It'll have to wait, though. For the moment the group is planning a stadium tour even larger than its gargantuan Zoo TV tour, one which will take them to 40 countries over 18 months, and will arrive here at the Metrodome on Oct. 29. It's billed as the Pop Mart tour, with an insignia like half of McDonald's golden arches, and is supposed to feature a 12-foot electric olive on a 100-foot toothpick, among other things. For all the kitsch, I bet it'll be full of earnest music. And if there's no true cultural center-stage for a band to hold anymore, I bet that, on any given night on the tour, U2 will feel like there is.

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