1991 was a funny time for U2 to be cool. Music at that time had hit both a bad patch if you look at what was on the radio, and a great patch if you looked at what was released from 1990 to 1992. U2 had made the now infamous, “dream it all up again” speech at Point Depot in Dublin in 1989 at the end of the Lovetown tour. A tour that even in fans eyes must have seemed like four guys from Dublin trying to play an encore set on the deck of the Titanic. Enter a bunch of music in my life that was not U2. Ride, Skinny Puppy, Ministry, My Bloody Valentine, Pigface, The Tear Garden, Einsturzen Neubaten, Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, Tom Waits, Cocteau Twins, Dead Can Dance. All of which seemed cooler than U2. Brian Eno who is English wrote this about the nature of cool and U2 from his amazing Bringing up Baby Article.
Cool, the definitive ’80s compliment, sums up just about everything that U2 isn’t. The band is positive where cool is cynical, involved where it is detached, open where it is evasive. When you think about it, in fact, cool isn’t a notion that you’d often apply to the Irish, a people who easily and brilliantly satirize, elaborate and haggle and generally make short stories very long but who rarely exhibit the appetite for cultivated disdain – deliberate non-involvement – for which the English pride themselves. The Irish are storytellers, pattern makers, great salesmen and inspired fantasists, and they remake their world by describing it – several times a day. Temperamentally, they aren’t inclined to remain spectators to someone else’s idea of how things are: they’ll jump right in and make it up for themselves. Reality, that arid bottleneck of European thought, comes to seem much more relative and negotiable – something to be continually reinvented, even at the cost of occasionally losing touch with it completely. It is this reckless involvement that makes the Irish terminally uncool: cool people stay ’round the edges and observe the mistakes and triumphs of uncool people (and then write about them).
This erudite paragraph neatly encapsulates what people hated about U2 from the Rattle and Hum days, and probably now too. Enter the end of my High School days. A lot of my friends were a year or two older and had left for college. My girlfriend broke up with me. And then a week later this album came out. The conditions under which you hear something for the first time are always why you end up loving it. All of the music I’d been listening to, all the different types of shows I’d been going to had been heard by the band I’d loved since I was 13, but reprogrammed into a U2 package. It was like they took the same crate of records and ideas like Legos and then reassembled them into a new transformer U2 that was undeniably… cool. I played this record for my friend Josh, who hates U2. He didn’t hate this record.
The ideas that got thrown around from the recording of the album were trashy, throw away, dark. They referred to it as “Nighttown” from Joyce’s A portrait of the artist as a young man. Yet somehow the record maintained the emotional core of the music they always made. Zoo Station exists in the same world as One somehow. Add in the drama of recording in the same room as Bowie’s heroes, the band almost breaking up, the recording sessions not going well, and the mystique of this record if you like that sort of thing ramps up.
I remember watching the video that came out for the Fly in my parents basement, and from the opening hit of guitar and vocals, I thought what the fuck is this? Turns out I wasn’t alone. The record when it came out a few weeks later hit me like a brick. Every track is gold. I remember floating around in a car full of kids, (probably Josh Laycock’s Purple Ford Fairlane) hearing Zoo Station at full volume.
I might mention every track, but I think the uncelebrated highlights are better.
Until the End of the World
Strange to think that U2 doesn’t have many uptempo rockers. This one always lights up a live set and has great drumming, awesome bass part, and a terrific guitar sound that is very U2 but so different from the albums that came before it. Lyrically the idea of Judas and Jesus having a dialogue is great, but also can double as anyone who’s felt betrayed.
In my dream I was drowning my sorrows
But my sorrows, they learned to swim
Surrounding me, going down on me
Spilling over the brim
Waves of regret and waves of joy
I reached out for the one I tried to destroy
You, you said you’d wait
‘Til the end of the world
The combination of programmed drum parts, the piano and the tremolo effect on the guitar made this sound otherworldly, but this is such an earnest heart breaker. They almost never play this song live, I have two mp3s of short snippets they’ve done in soundchecks. Not sure why. The following lyrics, are psalmic beauty.
Her heart is racing, you can’t keep up
The night is bleeding like a cut
Between the horses of love and lust
We are trampled
You say in love there are no rules
You’re so cruel
This was a great time to be a U2 fan. Maybe it never got better than this.