In the Wilderness: U2, 1993-1998

In the Wilderness

In the Wilderness is a feature in which a group of Strange Currencies contributors examine an overlooked period of an artist’s career. While originally intended as a podcast, “social distancing” has necessitated a different approach. For the time being, In the Wilderness has taken shape in the form of a “Slack chat.”

For this installment of In the Wilderness, I am joined by Glenn Krake and Bert. This week, we’ll be talking about U2 – specifically, the years following the band’s 1991 album Achtung Baby. That album had found the Dublin group reinventing their sound for a new decade, and launching the “Zoo TV” tour – an unprecedented rock and roll spectacle that was both a critical and commercial smash.

In 1993, while still touring in support of Achtung Baby, U2 quickly recorded and released Zooropa – an album that explored new sounds, while expanding upon the conceptual themes of the Zoo TV tour. Their next project found the band working closely with their long-time producer/collaborator, Brian Eno, to create the decidedly abstract Original Soundtracks 1, released in 1995, under the group name Passengers. Their last album of this era – 1997’s Pop – was U2’s deepest dive yet into the electronic and dance influences that they began integrating into their sound with Achtung Baby.

The records that U2 released during this era would have been considered unqualified successes for virtually any rock group, but coming off of the dizzying heights of the band’s earlier triumphs, their critical and commercial receptions were comparatively “mixed.” In this chat, Glenn, Bert, and I shared our thoughts on this “complicated” era of a deeply polarizing band.

MR: As we get started, I think it’s fair to point out that all “wilderness” eras are not created equal. A few weeks back, George, J., and I were talking about Frank Black driving around in a van playing 200+ shows a year in dive bars. This week’s “wilderness” is characterized by U2 not quite selling out every date of a multi-year stadium tour.

GK: Right. Coming off Achtung Baby, that tour was like the zenith.

MR: Yeah, Zoo TV was pretty successful on every conceivable level.

NB: They made their best or second-best record to start the decade and quickly went to….

GK: I just went back on my Rate Your Music page and realized I hadn’t rated any U2 yet. Achtung Baby is a 5-star album for me.

MR: This brings up a good question, for “calibration” purposes: The Joshua Tree or Achtung Baby?

NB: Totally completely absolutely different…

GK: That’s a tough one. They both received 5-star ratings from me. Probably depends on the day or the mood.

MR: I’m in the same boat, Glenn. If I’m being totally honest, both of them are probably in the top five most “important” records of my musical life. This was the first band that I ever loved.

NB: I can hardly go above 4 stars for either… nostalgia is what gets in the way.

GK: Unpack “nostalgia gets in the way.”

NB: U2 was big for me when I was very young. I borrowed my brothers’ records (WarThe Unforgettable Fire,Wide Awake in America). My brothers moved on from them with Rattle and Hum and I never got into that one either, but, Achtung was a rebirth for me. They hated Zooropa, but I didn’t mind it.

GK: I didn’t mind Rattle and Hum. In fact, I rather liked it, but I think my reception of Zooropa was similar to your brothers’.

NB: I drove from Cardiff to London with some British friends and [Zooropa] was the only CD we had. It lasted three or four go-arounds before we couldn’t handle it.

GK: What did nostalgia do to Achtung Baby for you? Knocks it down a peg?

NB: Well, it was 1991. That was a real moment of change for me (Dinosaur Jr., Pixies, Superchunk, FugaziGish, Loveless).

MR: I think what Glenn is getting at is that usually nostalgia causes us to overrate music.

GK: Right. I think Joshua Tree and Achtung Baby get a nostalgic bump up for me.

NB: Well, it has worked backwards here. I set out to listen to all these U2 records this week, and I don’t really like them, I think. The great songs are great, but I can hardly suffer a full album.

MR: I can see that. There are definitely bands that I loved, and then fell out of love with pretty hard once I moved on to other stuff. U2 was one of those bands, but I have been able to find an equilibrium since.

GK: I think it’s interesting to revisit these albums of our youth. When Zooropa came out, that may have been the first album I had a personal negative reaction to. I mean, I was still developing my musical tastes and interests.

MR: It’s pretty universally acknowledged that there’s a lot of “baggage” when it comes to U2, but it seems like that baggage is defined differently by each listener.

NB: I’ve always been annoyed by their – especially Bono’s – vanity. The Edge and Larry Mullen seem genuinely cool.

MR: There is a self-importance to Bono that came off as profound to a young me, and annoying to a cynical 20-something me.

NB: Bono is so annoying, but the music was good. By the time of Pop, neither was good.

Zooropa, LP (1993)

MR: Well, that’s a good cue to move on to the albums then. Let’s talk Zooropa.

GK: I think Zooropa is when I started to listen more critically. U2 could do no wrong in my eyes up until then.

MR: For a band that was no stranger to grand gestures, Zooropa was a surprisingly low-key album. I was following U2’s every move really closely at that point – at least as much as you could in a pre-internet era – and that album arrived with relatively little fanfare or advance notice. They put it out while they were still touring for Achtung Baby.

GK: I feel like the “wilderness” of this era, beginning with Zooropa, is sort of a creative wandering. Exploring. It was certainly a searching.

NB: For U2, everything changed with Rattle and Hum. They lost their North Star in some ways… chasing a lark. Their infatuation with the U.S. was getting boring, and they went Euro with Achtung and even more so with Zooropa.

MR: Well, after Rattle and Hum they were ridiculed in the press for: a) their sudden “discovery” of American music, and; b) their somewhat-transparent attempt to place themselves in the pantheon of great artists by paying tribute to them (The Beatles, Bob Dylan, Billie Holiday, Elvis, B.B. King). I think that’s what kind of forced them into a new exploration of their own continent.

GK: I really appreciate Zooropa now in a way I couldn’t (or didn’t) when it came out. The Euro vibe is an intriguing direction, but it was such a departure at the time, that it was shocking or maybe disappointing. 

NB: It was to guys born in the sixties, like my brothers, but the world was changing for us.

GK: I appreciate it now. Especially listening to it again this week.

MR: I definitely remember being a bit confused by the new direction of Achtung Baby, but I was just reaching an age where the rest of the world was becoming more than a minor curiosity. Europe was undergoing some pretty massive changes at that time, and it seemed like U2’s new music really tapped into that. Seeing a Zoo TV show in person – at twelve no less – was a mind blow, and the decidedly “European” element of it was a big part of that for me.

GK: Now, for clarity sake, the Zoo TV show was the tour supporting Achtung Baby, right?

MR: Yes.

GK: Did they tour specifically with the Zooropa album? Or was it sort of a fallout/result/leftovers of the Achtung Baby Zoo TV tour?

MR: The Zooropa tour was just the later stages of the Zoo TV tour. They recorded and released the album in the middle of the tour.

GK: That makes sense. Maybe that’s why Zooropa sort of came and went at the time.

MR: What do we like from Zooropa?

NB: Critics don’t tend to like it, but I dig “Stay (Faraway, So Close!)”

MR: I’m listening to that one right now. I think it’s one of the best of the era.

GK: I remember just cringing through “Numb” and “Lemon” back in the day, but listening to them again, I actually quite like both those tracks.

MR: I’ve never really cared for “Numb” too much. I really like “Lemon” though. I like the build of the title track. Pre-2004, I always said that “Babyface” was the worst U2 song – at least among those that made it onto an album.

NB: “Zooropa” was a big song in the UK. Are we fans of “Some Days Are Better Than Others”?

MR: Yeah, I like the guitar work on it. I feel like through the 90s, even the worst U2 songs tended to be salvaged by The Edge.

GK: Yeah, the guitar work is pretty great throughout. I think the entire B-side, while it doesn’t have any massively dynamic moments, is quite catchy.

MR: I feel like the B-side is pretty strong. “The First Time” is really similar to “Running to Stand Still,” but it’s still a pretty decent track.

GK: “Dirty Day” has a Joshua Tree B-side vibe to it as well.

MR: Yep. Listening to that one right now. It has a good vibe to it. Again, great guitar work.

NB: Obviously, the appearance of Johnny Cash makes the closer a total gem!

MR: Definitely. Hearing his voice over a weird synth song is a very welcoming kind of disorientation.

NB: Zooropa can stay on in the background with little protest from me. If I sit down and scrutinize it, it may grate on me at times, but in general I dig it. “Zooropa,” “Stay,” “Some Days Are Better Than Others,” and “The Wanderer” are probably my favorites.

GK: Agree. Those are the high points.

MR: Let’s not forget who absolutely had a major influence on this “new” direction in the 90s.

GK: Eno!

MR: The most overqualified fifth member of any band ever.

GK: Seriously.

MR: The Eno influence is something that I never would’ve been able to pick up on as a teenager, but it has really stood out to me as I’ve revisited these albums as an adult. He is the secret ingredient to so many fantastic albums, and, you know, has released a few masterpieces on his own too.

GK: Another Green World!? Sheesh. Yes, please.

NB: I didn’t know Eno until I bought Music for Airports as a twenty-something.

MR: Okay, final thoughts on Zooropa?

NB: On a 5-star scale?

MR: Sure.

NB: I give it 3.75. Again, my mind recalls fun times with good friends…but then I evaluate them today and their music just doesn’t tend to age well for me. So, 3-3.75 is my range

GK: A younger me would’ve given it a 1.5. But today, a more objective me (I hope), says 3.5 seems about right.

MR: Always interesting, sometimes great, rarely less-than-good. A nice low-key follow-up to a major “statement” album. Solid 4 for me.

GK: Well said.

MR: Before we move on to the next album, any thoughts on “Hold Me, Thrill Me, Kiss Me, Kill Me”?

GK: Wasn’t that the Batman song?

MR: Yep.

NB: Glad you asked! I dug it at the time, and it lasted a while. I don’t dislike it. I’d include it in a period best-of.

MR: I kind of hated it at the time for some reason. I don’t know why. It’s a pretty decent track.

GK: It has that opening Zoo TV guitar feel. I dig it.

NB: Couldn’t this song have fit alright on Achtung? That record would be bigger for me if it had.

GK: Yeah. That’s what I mean by the “Zoo TV” guitar vibe.

MR: I remember being a bit put off by the video and the Batman connection. I think I might have viewed it as “beneath them.” This was 1995 for me though – maybe to me what 1991 was to Bert. We were all very concerned about “selling out,” for some reason.

NB: …not for some reason, but because we all LOVE music.

GK: Yeah, it felt like a cash grab at the time. Looking back now, I’m not sure the whole era isn’t a cash grab.

MR: Funny that you mention that. I remember when The Best of 1980-1990 came out with the picture of Peter Rowen [who appeared on the covers of Boy and War] on it. I joked at the time that the 1990-2000 one should just be a picture of a sack of money. Looking back on it now though, I think that if U2 had really been about a “cash grab,” they might not have been as “adventurous.”

NB: Right. They did that next…

MR: With Pop, or in the 2000s?

NB: Pop. No me gusta.

MR: We’ll get there.

GK: Wait. Weren’t there some more movie soundtrack sellouts around this time? When was that Mission Impossible theme?

MR: Oh yeah. 1996? 

Original Soundtracks 1, LP (1995)

MR: Speaking of soundtracks, let’s talk about Passengers – described as “soundtracks for non-existent movies.”

NB: I’ve never heard the whole thing, only “Miss Sarajevo.” That song is decent.

MR: That was the only thing I heard from it for quite a while. I got a used copy of it a few years after it was released. And yes, I think “Miss Sarajevo” is an excellent song.

NB: Bono’s “ooh and ahs” don’t grate on me here, though his religiosity is still front and center.

GK: This is a great ambience album. That’s the Eno touch.

MR: Passengers is where they actually treated Eno as a full-fledged member of the band.

NB: I’m intrigued. I’d like to hear it.

MR: There are some really excellent moments on it. And one awful one.

GK: Oof. “Elvis Ate America”!?

MR: Yeah, that one is bad.

GK: I try not to dwell on that too much. Sometimes you whiff when you’re swinging for the fences.

MR: I suppose. It just seems very much at odds with the rest of the album.

NB: Well, no one has ever successfully convinced me that Elvis is worth looking into…

GK: Aside from that one, the entire album is just full of atmosphere and ethereal movement. I dig it.

NB: So, it’s Eno ambient! Cool!

MR: It’s not a very “song-y” album, which is why it never really caught on – even among U2 fans.

GK: That makes sense.

MR: With that said, “Miss Sarajevo” and “Your Blue Room” should appeal to any U2 fan. “Slug” is song-ish. That’s a good one too. The rest – “Elvis” aside – is decent-to-excellent ambient.

GK: “Always Forever Now” is pretty good too. Are those vibraphones? Marimbas? Spacey mallets.

MR: Maybe? Larry Mullen hated the Passengers album.

GK: Really!?

MR: He implied that it was “art for art’s sake.” I think that’s exactly what’s missing from post-2000 U2 though.

GK: Yes. This. I wonder if you couldn’t say that for this whole wilderness era. It feels like they’re trying to find that art.

MR: Perhaps, but often succeeding. 

Pop, LP (1997)

MR: Okay. Let’s move on to Pop.

GK: Bring the hate, Bert.

NB: Lyrically boring. Weak vocals. Musically uninteresting. Naive religiosity. I’m sorry, but I can’t stand by any song, except (possibly) “If You Wear That Velvet Dress.”

MR: I will opt to counter at least a couple of those arguments.

GK: I’ll counter the “musically uninteresting” too.

MR: I will start by saying that I was very put off by “Discotheque” when it came out as the advanced single. Like, seriously pissed. Despised it.

GK: Same. Despised….past tense?

MR: I eventually found a few things to like about it, but pretty much all The Edge.

GK: Right. Guitar work. That was going to be my argument. But “that lovey dovey stuff” is pretty rough.

NB: He can’t save that song or the album. It’s bad. It has no staying power either.

MR: There were other bands that I loved at this time, but U2 and R.E.M. were the uncontested peak for me. “Discotheque” – and all of the initial marketing of Pop – felt like a serious betrayal. I actually didn’t buy the album for at least a month after it came out, which may not seem like a big deal, but it was unfathomable at the time.

GK: Betrayal of…?

MR: There was a strong sense that electronics had been posing a threat to “real” rock music, and to me, it seemed like U2 was chasing a trend.

GK: Right. Yes, those would be the kinds of objections I had as well. If you were a kid with a guitar in a garage band around this time, these would be serious threats to your existence.

MR: Totally.

NB: You and I have that in common. U2 and R.E.M. were my early favorites too. But, again, by 1991 I was coming into my own musically, instead of taking my brothers’ lead. U2 was way off my radar. Zooropa was tangential at best, and Pop was a zero for me.

MR: This was a wild transitional year in music (also the year I graduated high school, incidentally). Pop came out in early March, but by May I had come around on it enough to go see the PopMart tour.

GK: Yeah. I went to that Pop tour. But not for the Pop album.

MR: I think, for me, it took a little time for me to hear Pop for the songs, and not just the electronic flourishes – most of which are really limited to about four or five songs. I actually taped the whole album off of a radio broadcast, which led me to buy the CD. So, I guess this is where I counter one of Bert’s arguments: Pop is actually really interesting musically to me.

GK: I agree with the musicality.

MR: Even when they are most deeply into the electronic thing, they use that as a springboard for some of Edge’s most experimental guitar work.

GK: This comes back to the exploring of what pop/rock music is. They certainly loosen the leash. Super experimental for the time, in my eyes.

MR: Yeah. They were trying a lot of new stuff. Some of which rock bands hadn’t really done before, and certainly none of which had been done by a rock band of their prominence.

GK: They’re trying different things. Back then, for a young me, that was a cash grab or a threat of my rock existence or whatever, but I can now appreciate them not wanting to remain stagnant. Wanting to progress.

MR: Now, obviously, there was another album from later that year that better set an example for how a rock band could integrate electronic elements, but U2 did it with their own earnest/ambitious/anthemic spin. It’s endearing, and works well on more tracks than it doesn’t.

NB: Naive religious (preachy) commentary?

GK: Sure. This comes back to a common problem for me with Bono. It’s like the whole college poet dilemma. You’re trying really hard to make something beautiful and you end up too simplistic, too on-the-nose. There’s an earnestness that can come off as corny or cheesy or maybe too sappy? He’s trying sooo hard.

NB: Yes. He’s see-through.

MR: Actually, Bert, that was the other point that I wanted to contend. I can see the “simplistic” argument, but I actually think there is some kind of interesting “crisis of faith” commentary on this album. I think there are probably multiple ways to interpret “If God Will Send His Angels” (not a favorite track), but “Mofo,” “Last Night on Earth,” and particularly “Wake Up Dead Man” have a somewhat interesting “skepticism” about them. Way more interesting than the religiosity of some of their earlier stuff.

NB: October is bad. I like it musically in many places, but the lyrics…

MR: October is tough album for me. I’m pretty far toward the “skeptic” end of the spectrum, and that one definitely has parts that I find way too preachy.

GK: I can see some skepticism creeping in. There’s almost a cynicism of the whole cultural push. Wasn’t that the whole attempted commentary with the massive pink lemon and the shopping cart at the tour?

MR: Very cynical. The whole album is cynical, as was the tour. It took me a while to see that in it. It was a bit more nuanced than Zoo TV.

GK: Even those nuanced cynical critiques of capitalism and excess culture feel a little preachy. Not subtle enough.

NB: They do, Glenn. Because Bono’s platform is built on Styrofoam and ivory.

GK: I can appreciate the earnestness, but the execution is a bit “college freshmen poet” cringe-y. 

MR: Which was always an issue with Bono, and any number of other rock lyricists. You have to kind of accept the bumbling sincerity/earnestness with U2, which can be tough for a lot of people.

GK: At a certain level, that’s a really consumable package. That may be part of the problem. The consumability. Marketability. You lose depth and nuance.

MR: Yeah, where they lose the message is when they try to reconcile it with the fact that they clearly want to be the “biggest band in the world.”

GK: Oh. They want it so bad.

MR: But again, they are so earnest about wanting to be the second coming of The Beatles that you can’t help but be put off by it.

GK: Poor Bono. He just wants to be important. He wants to make a difference. Is that so bad?

MR: That’s the thing. I think he’s a “true believer” in the power of music to bring about positive change. And yet, in Pop, I think you have him at his most cynical. I think that’s what makes it a pretty compelling album for me. That and The Edge. He was still awesome.

NB: My friend Joe had an effects pedal in college with a setting for “The Edge.”

GK: I rushed out and bought a Boss DD-5 to get those Edge triplets. Can’t deny it.

MR: Edge is a Memory Man man. That’s why I have one.

GK: Right, but the Boss was cheaper.

GK: Can we agree The Edge is the best part of U2?

MR: Through 2000. Then the best part about U2 was the “back catalog.”

NB: Yes. The Edge is dope. I liked brotha Larry Mullen Jr. before they went “techno.” 

MR: Okay. What are the highlights of Pop?

NB: “If You Wear That Velvet Dress” gets my stamp, I think.

MR: Another great Edge moment in that one.

GK: I like “Staring at the Sun.”

MR: Agree on that one. Just mentioned The Beatles. That may be their most Beatle-esque track.

NB: Not totally sure. It just has too many thin preachy bits.

GK: “Do You Feel Loved” has some interesting moments. And I like “Please” as well.

MR: “Please” is great. One of my favorites of theirs. This performance is stellar:

GK: I don’t think I’ve seen that. It helps seeing them perform it live. Bono takes himself soooo seriously. I can see that turning people off.

NB: I’m sorry, but this is the album where I think I fully quit U2. I can dig the music sometimes, but I can’t handle the lyrics.

MR: I get it. They lost me eventually too.

GK: I think I quit U2 to a certain extent with this album as well. But looking back, I think that was a bit juvenile of me.

MR: I agree. They “lost” me with this album before I ever bothered to listen to itbut I came around after giving it a shot. I think Pop stumbles out of the gates, but nails the landing, after finding its way in the middle. Some of my appreciation for it is likely nostalgia-based, but I think it’s a noble experiment.

GK: “A noble experiment.” I’ll drink to that.

NB: I mean, I appreciate that Bono said the world was “fucked up” to close the album… but, what does he want me to do? The truth for me is that by this time it had been four years since Zooropa, and high school had come and gone. I hadn’t thought about U2… You know what I mean? I started high school in 1993 and got out in 1997. Zooropa started me off, Pop came out at spring break [senior year]. I had forgotten them…except nostalgically.

MR: Yeah, I’m the same grad year, so those albums bookended my high school experience too. Four years in which I discovered a ton of other music, but U2 still somehow remained at the center of my musical world in a lot of ways.

GK: So, what, are high schoolers now going to have similar conversations in twenty years about Kanye?

MR: Everything is more fragmented now. For instance, one thing that I “re-discovered” this week was an ABC special from around the time of Pop‘s release. It was an hour-long “infomercial” – narrated by Dennis Hopper – that spent much of its time focusing on how much the industry “needed” U2 to release its new album. Unfathomable in today’s landscape, in so many ways.

GK: Interesting.

MR: It was pretty cringe-y. I wouldn’t advise watching it, but here it is:

GK: Not sure I can take that.

MR: The other thing that we haven’t mentioned about Pop is that the band themselves never seemed to reach a “peace” with it. They were still remixing songs from it five years later for the 1990-2000 compilation. Pop was reasonably well-received at the time, but has become known as a flop after the fact. A lot of that was tied to the tour’s underperformance. Glenn, I know you saw them on that tour. What did you think?

GK: It was a crazy tour. Super over-the-top. That had to bankrupt them, right!?

MR: Maybe.

NB: It was definitely regarded as pompous.

GK: I mean, they came out of a massive bejeweled motorized lemon.

MR: It seemed like its “critique” was harder to pinpoint than that of Zoo TV. I mean, it was a broad critique of consumerism that cost $100 a pop for a cheap seat.

GK: It was attempting to be art for sure. I can see it coming off as pompous, what with Bono coming into the crowd in his boxer robe and all. And the McDonald’s-esque arches.

MR: My brother and I were so far up in the nosebleeds at Sun Devil Stadium that you could see Larry hit the crash cymbal well before you heard it. Like Glenn said, you saw the spectacle of it, and figured that it had to bankrupt them. I mean, I knew where all that ticket money was going. They were definitely trying to put on a show. It’s just that no one seemed to get what the message was.

NB: It seemed to bankrupt Bono lyrically…

GK: Zing. I recognized it as an attempt at art and cultural critique at the time. But it still had that gnawing in-your-face preachiness that comes off as pompous. No subtlety.

MR: Yeah, it was one of the least subtle things I’ve ever seen. But still a decent show.

GK: Oh. It was a great show. Lots of spectacle.

MR: Who was your opener, Glenn?

GK: Oasis was the opener.

MR: Talk about “confusing the message.” Our opener was Rage Against the Machine.

NB: Whoa!!!!

GK: I wish I had Rage.

MR: Yeah, that’s what I mean. The irony/sincerity thing was really hard to gauge.

NB: Sometimes, I wonder what drew me to U2 as a kiddo. Very few songs hold up for me today. I have a 120GB iPod in our family travel car. I can fit a lot on there. I haven’t squished too many U2 songs on it. You know what one my favorite U2 songs is? “Van Diemen’s Land” (The Edge… again!).

MR: Better than “Numb.” I’d go with “Seconds” as the best Edge-sung song.

NB: “Seconds” is good too! He could have been the front man of a DOPE band! Honestly, quick digression… imagine if The Edge fronted a band.

MR: I’d like to say that I’d listen, but I’ve had a solo soundtrack that he did in the 1980s on vinyl for twenty years, and have never listened to it, so…

NB: No… imagine there was no U2 – like Bono failed art school or left or something – and The Edge put together a band in 1979.

MR: I think Edge was a great, innovative guitarist for an impressively long amount of time. He was a foundational influence on my own playing. I’m not sure he could’ve handled “front man” status, but I could be wrong.

NB: I think The Edge is just too mellow to challenge Bono’s ambitions to be an interstellar megastar.

GK: Yeah. I think he thrived because Bono was out there in front absorbing everything so The Edge could just happily do his thing.

MR: Okay, so let’s talk about “Sweetest Thing.” I guess it’s the last track from this era.

GK: It was a B-side on the “Where the Streets Have No Name” single, so it had been around for a while.

MR: It was probably a bigger hit than anything on Pop. After that tour had been described as a flop, they retreated back to a safe route, by literally revisiting a track from The Joshua Tree era. I think that led to the “back-to-basics” approach of All That You Can’t Leave Behind, and the string of album/greatest-hits tours that have followed since.

GK: Right. “Sweetest Thing” was money in the bank.

NB: The video is ridiculous. Bono looks a bit Elvis Costello, right?

MR: Oh yeah. Totally.

GK: I like the song mostly for nostalgic purposes, but, yeah. It’s totally emblematic of this failed wilderness and a retreat to safety.

MR: Yeah, they found their way out of the “wilderness” by going back to the road more travelled.

GK: So, Matt, you alluded to another album with electronic tendencies. It feels like after U2’s Zooropa/Pop wilderness perceived failure, their retreat to “Sweetest Thing” and All That You Can’t Leave Behind’s recipe for the “good old days of U2” formula is disappointing. Whereas this other electronic album…

MR: …showed the way to the future of rock music. A future that U2 probably realized they wouldn’t be a part of, so they went back to their own past.

NB: Yep.

GK: That’s why I think I can look back at this attempted wilderness fondly. With those Radiohead hopes and possibilities. Can we just leave it at that?!

MR: Yeah. It’s not necessarily U2’s fault that Radiohead made everyone else look ridiculous. It did seem like rock music was at a crossroads in 1997. The “grunge” thing had definitely passed its prime. The nadir of Nu-Metal hadn’t arrived. Electronic music seemed to present an intriguing possibility for reinvention. I credit U2 for trying to forge a path of their own. Radiohead just did it better.

GK: WAY better.

NB: Not a congruous relation, I’d say. Radiohead wasn’t “out there” to me until Kid A.

MR: They definitely went further out with Kid A. Interestingly enough, Kid A was released in the same month as Pop‘s follow up, All That You Can’t Leave Behind. Talk about two bands on different trajectories…

GK: Right. Those are some serious crossed paths there. In 1997 U2 puts out Pop, and Radiohead releases OK Computer. Then fast forward and U2’s response in 2000 is ATYCLB, whereas Radiohead continues with Kid A.

NB: Not that they were in competition. Yorke was about ten years younger than Bono. Plenty of time to have a completely different mindset.

MR: Bono always seems to be in competition with younger artists, even if it’s one-sided. Even still.

NB: True. It usually ends embarrassingly. 

GK: For example…?

MR: I mean, look at the “tag team” production crew of their most recent albums. They pick every “hip” young producer that they can find.

GK: Didn’t they do a track with Kendrick Lamar!?

MR: Yep. Two, actually: “American Soul” on their album, which sucks; and “XXX” on Kendrick’s, which is good. I even remember them talking about competing with “boy bands” around the time of ATYCLB. They would frame it in big general terms about “rock vs. pop,” but you know they were referring to themselves in that.

GK: Yikes. I always seem to frame ATYCLB as their hard push for radio hits.

MR: Definitely, and a lot of it works. Incidentally, I have a TON of nostalgic love for that album, but I can’t show much enthusiasm for anything that followed.

GK: It sort of taints the artistic pursuits of Zooropa and Pop when you think of it that way. Maybe Zooropa and Pop were just pursuits of pop stardom. Mass global acceptance.

MR: I think they were already there. Maybe those albums were them spending their critical and commercial capital. Tough to tell, but there always seems to be an agenda with this band. How very Mike Love of them.

GK: How very Mike Love. I guess I can see where nostalgia can bring some of these songs down like you’re saying, Bert. I like “Sweetest Thing” and many of the tracks on ATYCLB, but when you think of the context and the history and what these songs represent in the trajectory of the time… it sours them a bit.

MR: Alright. Favorite/least favorite albums of this era? It’s tough, since there are only two actual “U2” albums on this one.

GK: Of Zooropa, Passengers and Pop, I’ll take Zooropa.

NB: Regardless, it’s chronological…including Passengers.

GK: And I think it’s a downhill chronology for me. Even though I don’t hate Pop as much as many.

MR: I’m gonna go with Pop just edging out Zooropa. I think it may be a case of defending the runt of the litter, but I think it’s unfairly maligned. 

MR: The playlist seems more relevant than the album list this time out. First pick goes to whoever can tell me Edge’s real name first.

GK: David Evans!

MR: Got it. You’re up, Glenn.

GK: Yeah. It’s like riding a bicycle.

NB: Damn… was pouring beer.

MR: Again, a noble distraction.

NB: He doesn’t look like a David, does he?

MR: Not really. I can see “Dave.”

GK: Well, since Bert won’t pick it, I’ll take “Staring at the Sun.”

NB: “Stay (Faraway, So Close!)”

MR: “Please,” but the single mix. Round two:

GK: “Lemon”

NB: “Hold Me, Thrill Me, Kiss Me, Kill Me”

MR: “Gone,” but the “new mix” from 2002. Round three:

GK: “Your Blue Room”

NB: “If You Wear That Velvet Dress”

MR: “Miss Sarajevo.” Round four:

NB: Thief!

GK: Gotta get that Johnny Cash in there. “The Wanderer”

NB: Thieves! “Some Days Are Better Than Others.”

MR: “Zooropa.” Last round:

NB: Damnit!

GK: “Slug.” I really like that Passengers album.

MR: Good pick.

NB: Can “Electrical Storm” slip in?

MR: Nope.

GK: Nice try.

NB: “Sweetest Thing” 

MR: At least Elvis Costello’s in the video.

NB: He definitely is.

MR: Why the hell not? I’m going with “Mofo.”

NB: Happily, I share enthusiasm for nearly all the choices.


  • Matt Ryan

    Matt Ryan founded Strange Currencies Music in January 2020, and remains the site's editor-in-chief. The creator of the "A Century of Song" project and co-host of the "Strange Currencies Podcast," Matt enjoys a wide variety of genres, but has a particular affinity for 60s pop, 90s indie rock, and post-bop jazz. He is an avid collector of vinyl, and a multi-instrumentalist who has played/recorded with several different bands and projects.

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  • Glenn Krake

    Glenn Krake is the associate editor of Strange Currencies Music and a co-host of the nearly flawless podcast of the same name. He counts among his proudest achievements taking his daughter to her first concert: Brian Wilson performing Pet Sounds in its entirety on its 50th anniversary (as a way of making amends for his own pitiable first concert: The Osmonds at the county fair).

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  • Nick Bertram

    I have been a melomaniac for as long as I can remember. By middle school, I had become a serious music collector. By high school, I had every record store in town mapped out in my brain and frequently made the rounds on the hunt for the classics and the obscure!

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