Monday, November 16, 2009

U2 5: The Unforgettable Fire

For their fourth full-length album, U2 wanted to try something different. Rather than the dependable sound Steve Lillywhite gave their previous albums, they turned to a more atmospheric sound picture. The band most likely knew Brian Eno’s production work from his collaborations with David Bowie and Talking Heads; Eno convinced them to also work with his sidekick Daniel Lanois, with whom he’d recently been exploring more “ambient” recordings.
When The Unforgettable Fire appeared, critics pounced on the murky chaos evidenced in the opening track, “A Sort Of Homecoming”. Had they waited, they could have been carried away by the chorus. They were much kinder to the first, obvious single, “Pride (In The Name Of Love”. This was what sold the album to the public, who knew a hit when they heard one. (Unfortunately, nobody told Bono that Martin Luther King was killed in the evening, and not the “early morning [of] April 4”.) “Wire” turns the Lillywhite sound inside out, from the harmonic guitar riff through the trebly funk bass to the double-time drums. The title track is a surprise, a showcase for the Edge on piano, Bono’s passionate vocal and the near-orchestral treatments, likely courtesy of Eno and Lanois. The track is one of the band’s best. The first side closes with “Promenade”, more of a musical poem than a song.
Similarly, the second side begins with a sketch, the atmospheric “4th of July” built around improvised bass and guitar. Unlike the title, it inspires visions of snowy fields at dusk. “Bad” would become another surprise for the band. Built mostly around two chords, it starts quietly and builds through two crescendos under covert lyrics about heroin addiction. “Indian Summer Sky” seems to echo “Wire” on the previous side, another insistent drum-driven sung under angry vocals. “Elvis Presley And America” also came under fire as “indulgent”; the stream-of-consciousness vocal wanders over a slowed-down early mix of “A Sort Of Homecoming”, yet still manages to hold your interest. (Though we’re still not sure what the hell it has do with Elvis Presley or America.) The album ends with the simple “MLK”, another tribute to the subject of “Pride”.
The album was a worldwide hit, and added to the band’s growing mystique in the US—so much so that some B-sides and live tracks were hurriedly issued the following summer as the Wide Awake In America EP. Driven by a powerful performance of “Bad”, it became a huge hit in the wake of Live Aid. A rearranged “A Sort Of Homecoming” brought out the strengths of that song, and the outtakes “Love Comes Tumbling” and particularly “The Three Sunrises” also got airplay. (The title was not just misleading, but false advertising; not a note was recorded in the US.)
The EP was included in full on the 25th anniversary edition of the album, alongside remixes and other B-sides of the period that further explore the collaboration with Eno and Lanois (the anachronistic extended mix of “11 O’Clock Tick Tock” notwithstanding). The band’s affection for the album is also evident by their finally completing two tracks from the sessions. “Disappearing Act” sounds more like 2009 U2 than the 1984 version, but “Yoshimi Blossom” was thankfully never updated past its original mix.
Hindsight being what it is, The Unforgettable Fire has long since escaped its tag as an indulgent experiment to be appreciated as a terrific album. And they were just getting started.

U2 The Unforgettable Fire (1984)—
2009 Deluxe Edition: same as 1984, plus 16 extra tracks
U2 Wide Awake In America (1985)—3

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