Ayuh Music: U2’s “Zooropa”

I need Brian Fantana to help me describe how I feel today:

Hung Over

Thanks, Bri. You stay classy. Yeah, I was out late last night catching up with a friend. Much Anchor Steam and Blue Moon was drunk. Feminism and how hot Tom Hiddleston is were the main topics of discussion, with a brief sideline into everyone’s favourite new talking point, that being “how fucking stupid is Fifty Shades of Grey and how on earth did it ever get published.”  First my mate missed her bus at 8.30, then 9.45, then 11, and then it was time to go to the dance club, because that’s what you do when you’ll have to take a taxi anyway.

oh, Girls With Slingshots, you complete me.

And now, one solid dancing evening behind me – including a stunning physical rendition of Cake’s “Short Skirt, Long Jacket” with my mate Ben – the only question I’m fit to be asking is OH MY GOD, WHERE IS ALL THE IBUPROFEN, CAN I POSSIBLY GET SOME CODEINE OVER HERE, SHUT UP BIRDS. Yes, it’s hangover time! This column is approximately twelve hours late, and the music I’m listening to is doing a good job of matching the feeling in my head, which is that it has come detached from my body and is bumping around gently against the ceiling like a balloon. It’s spacey, it’s industrial, it’s electro, and in the mid-90’s it sounded a little bit like the future.

U2 is played out these days, I know. But when Zooropa was released in 1993, they were arguably at the very top of their game, Two years earlier, in 1991, Achtung Baby was a smash hit, reinvigorating the band’s career after the critical flop that was Rattle And Hum. The song “One” in particular cemented U2’s place on the airwaves and as one of the biggest bands in showbiz. (“One” is also the first popular song I ever remember hearing on the radio.)

So when U2 went on tour to support Achtung Baby, with its dystopian futurismé and celebration of Berlin as a newly unified city, they really went for it. Spotlights for the stage were provided by actual Trabant cars, the cheap standard-issue auto of the former USSR, wrapped around with chains and slung from the ceilings. At one show Bono prank-called Ronald Reagan. It was insane. And along the way, they recorded Zooropa, out on the road.

The result is this weird, shimmery album, full of guitar flourishes and sound effects and eerie harmonies. The lead guitar technique the Edge developed and perfected circa 1984 with Brian Eno has never been better used than on Zooropa, where one or two strings delicately plucked with a shitload of reverb create incredible lingering fabrics of sound. The real credit on the album, though, goes to the production: they combine the fabulous instrumentalism of the band with amazing old sound effects looped and swirled around the music. The end result often makes me feel like I’m in Metropolis or something:

You hear it? It’s a factory, an assembly line, dingy windows and the bread dole. AND THEN ROCK.

The most famous track off Zooropa is either “Numb” or “Lemon”. I love them both. The video for “Numb” is fun and often parodied, but the music vid for  “Lemon” was conceived as a partial homage to Eadward Muybridge, the first man to capture motion on film. Its frequent visual references to death, the passage of time, scientific progress, and memory fit perfectly with the spacey, ambient nature of the song itself.

Sometimes I listen to “Lemon” on repeat for hours. I find it weirdly meditative: the ripplelike nature of the main guitar riff, which always seems to me to be the aural equivalent of a stone dropped into a pond, puts me into a trance. Bono’s keening is, for once, totally in sync with the rest of the song.

All of Zooropa is drifty and strange. It occupies a sort of post-industrial wasteland in the mind, full of static and rusting metal. As if to really bring this point home, they get the Man in Black himself to come in for the last number.

Even if you hate, hate, haaaaaaaaaaaate U2 and Bono’s stupid face, Zooropa is worth it for this song alone. Cash is a rock, his voice steady and low, anchoring the music and perfectly complemented by Adam Clayton’s pensive bass line. The chorus of voices in the background pick you up and sweep you away at the end. The song itself, an anthem to loss and redemption, is one of U2’s most beautiful.

I used to listen to this album every night, while I took a walk around the streets of Edinburgh (where I lived at the time). To me it will always be associated with that city. On a more general level, though, it’s an album for cities: every city in Europe, where these songs were composed and recorded while U2 was on tour, but perhaps most of all for Berlin – a city which, in 1993, was still in the infancy of its post-Soviet existence. I’ll leave you with the title track, a glorious satirical hymn to capitalism and all Berlin was waiting and ready to jump into. The song takes a while to warm up – it has a long, slow fade-in – but once it gets going, it’s a whirlwind of sound and frenzy, busy and lit up, ready to begin.

By Dr. Song

Dr Song is an archaeologist, in exile from the great state of Maine. Her life motto is "Hold fast."

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