"Buyer beware!" should be emblazoned prominently on every copy of the bizarre new U2 release, "Zooropa." This is not the listener-friendly Irish rock band that fans have come to expect. In fact, songwriter and lead vocalist Bono's trademark moan-wail is the only recognizable feature on the album.
The harsh, discordant music grids, clanks, reverberates and buzzes in a manner reminiscent of an auto mechanic's garage--at least, one in which a chain-saw-wielding maniac runs amok. The only unifying theme to this eclectic collage of songs appears to be disharmony, distortion and above all a disturbing sense of disjointedness.
And yet, despite "Zooropa's" focus on techno, synthesized noise, or perhaps because of it, this may just be the U2 album with the greatest emotional depth. Gone are the rousing anthems and raw energy of their early albums ("Pride," "Sunday, Bloody Sunday"), the spiritual ballads of "The Joshua Tree" and the dance rhythms of their 1991 LP, "Achtung Baby." "Zooropa" is the raw emotional waste of the new cyberpunk world of the '90s--humans lost in the mechanical morass of technology.
This turn should not have come completely by surprise. "Achtung Baby" contained hints of this latest incarnation, especially in the resonating "Zoo Station." And in many ways, "Zooropa" is nothing more than a musical extension of the still running Zoo TV Tour.
Zoo TV, replete with dozens of TV sets blaring MTV-style blips, caricatures the extravagances and banalities of the mass media. "Zooropa" takes this theme and creates an entirely new musical sound.
The last track on the album, "The Wanderer", epitomizes this search of the human soul lost in the midst of a dehumanizing modern era. Johnny Cash sings in this original U2 song: "I went out walking through streets paved with gold/Lifted some stones/Saw the skin and bones/Of a city without a soul." His earthy, gruff vocals express the world-weariness of his wandering persona perfectly. Yet they contrast oddly with the drudging synthesizer beat, to convey a sense of disjointedness.
This effect is strengthened by other unexpected aspects of the album--such as the Edge's turn as lead vocalist on the first track of the album, "Numb." Its eerie mantra-like lyrics throb hypnotically and, for U2 at any rate, somewhat oddly.
"The Wanderer" contains what is best about this album--the combination of lyrics, instruments and vocals into an evocative artistic whole. At the same time, the music is difficult to enjoy on an aesthetic level for these same reasons. The cacophony of noise doesn't make for pleasant listening.
Another example of this phenomena is "Dirty Day," dedicated to poet, writer and barfly Charles Bukowski. Bono assumes an eerie falsetto, with a frantic buildup of the Edge's guitar for the first part of the song. Yet the song inexplicably swoops from this to slow melancholy, and then to a hopeful throbbing. It plumbs the emotional heights and depths, yet this just makes it all the more difficult to listen to.
Some of the tracks do escape this trap. For "Daddy's Gonna Pay For Your Crashed Car," the Edge employs a scratchy metallic guitar groove with the reverb of Bono's vocals to obtain a psychedelic dance beat. This song about a friend's heroin addiction loses none of the artistic quality of the other songs, combining metallic pings and clanks with Bono's disembodied voice.
"The First Time" is reminiscent of some of their slower, more melodious "Achtung Baby" tracks, probably because it explores the theme of love and emotional commitment that pre-dominated that album.
"Some Days are Better Than Others," however, comes closest to the traditional U2 sound. The chorus harmonizes and grooves in a return to its "Joshua Tree" roots.
But just when you get comfortable in familiar territory, the Edge's guitar solos puncture the melody with a buzzing machine whine that abruptly returns you to their techno motif. U2 obviously wants to make sure that no listener will mistake this album for their past works.
"Zooropa" is artistically exhilarating, the experimental cutting edge. Most bands would become comfortable upon reaching U2's level of success, and churn out more of the same old stuff. U2, however, has decided to stir up the familiar components and throw in a few new elements. Consider it an experiment to see if the public can accept a changing U2.
The question here is whether the experiment works. In this case, U2 has sacrificed enjoyability for artistry--but they haven't let themselves become slaves to their past, no matter how dear it may be to listeners.