Relax, U2 fans, it's not disco Review: New album, 'Pop,' has not tripped back to the club it's just an image thing. The music is still potent.

March 02, 1997|By J.D. Considine | J.D. Considine,SUN POP MUSIC CRITIC

It's not what you think.

Forget what you may have heard about "Pop" (Island 314 524 334), the U2 album that arrives in stores Tuesday. There's no truth to the rumors that U2 has turned against rock, given up its guitars and gone techno. There was more techno in the 1995 remix of "Lemon" than there is on all of "Pop."

Forget as well the interviews that have found Bono, the Edge, Adam Clayton and Larry Mullen proclaiming their boredom with rock while praising the vitality of club culture. As much as that seems to underscore the sound and sensibility of "Discotheque," the album's first single, it actually has more to do with the image U2 is cultivating -- that of post-modern, superstar hipsters -- than with any music it has made.

Forget, even, "Discotheque" itself. Because despite the pains taken to emphasize the song's disco roots (the mirror ball on the single's sleeve, the Village People reference in the video) and dance-floor ambitions (why else would there be three club-style remixes on the CD maxi-single?), "Discotheque" is no more typical of "Pop" than "The Fly" was of "Achtung Baby."

Simply put, this ain't no disco album -- U2's just foolin' around. Far from marking some great leap into the future, "Pop" is barely a departure at all, with plenty of heroic vocals and valiantly strummed guitar amid the electronics. Heck, there's even a dash of that heart-on-sleeve emotionalism Bono and the boys pretend to be so embarrassed by. All told, the album's feel is so traditional you almost have to wonder why the band even bothers to pretend otherwise.

Selling the sizzle

Blame the pressures of superstardom for some of that. After the post-modern media spectacle the band mounted for its Zoo TV tours, U2 found itself in need of some excuse to up the ante for the next tour. Hence the disproportionate emphasis in interviews on dance music, electronica and such -- they were downplaying the steak in order to sell the sizzle.

Given all that is riding on this album's success (like, for instance, the fiscal health of many record stores), it's not hard to understand why the band has been stoking the fires of publicity so assiduously. But at the same time, it's not easy to endure such hype without beginning to suspect that there's not much snap or crackle to "Pop."

Not to worry. However much the members of U2 may be insecure about their stardom, they needn't worry about the potency of their music. "Pop" not only delivers the goods, but does so on every level.

Start with the album's sound, which allows the band to have its guitars and electronica, too. U2's sound has always had less to do with the notes themselves than with what happens in the space between the guitar, bass and drums, and what the technology applied here provides is an ability to warp that space in every way imaginable, until the lines between "live" and "digitized" are all but meaningless.

So "Last Night on Earth" has no problem deploying throbbing synths and thumping club beats alongside edgy rhythm guitar and live drums. They aren't disparate threads, but are woven into whole cloth, so that the Edge's supple guitar and Mullen's loose-wristed stickwork seem almost part and parcel with the preprogrammed loops.

Old-fashioned, new-fangled

That makes it hard to distinguish between old-fashioned and new-fangled U2 here. "Staring at the Sun," with its ringing acoustic rhythm guitar and droning bass guitar, sounds so much like the U2 of yore at first that it could almost pass for an outtake from "The Joshua Tree." Listen closely, though, and all sorts of other elements turn up, including electronic drums, heavily manipulated guitar sounds, even dub-style bass on the bridge. It's not your older brother's U2.

Then there's "The Playboy Mansion," a wicked social satire that finds Bono poking fun at the superficiality of American superstardom ("If beauty is truth/And surgery the fountain of youth ") even as he aspires to it. Funny as the lyric is, though, the song's best jokes are purely musical, for "The Playboy Mansion" is a perfect post-modern blues, embracing the form and feel of the blues even as it upends the basic aesthetic.

Funky and feckless

It's not just the way Bono's lazy croon (listen to the languor in his voice as he frets, "What am I to do?") makes a mockery of the emotional release the blues are supposed to embody; it also has to do with the groove, which manages to be both funky and feckless at the same time. Because as much as the lock between Clayton's bass and the Edge's rhythm guitar may evoke the classic contours of a Stax rhythm arrangement, it's hard to have a genuine down-home feel when the bluesiest element on the track is a slide guitar part sampled off an old Byrds record.

But then, U2 has never had much of a flair for traditionalism ("Rattle and Hum" proved that much). This band's strength has always lain with its ability to remake the present in its own oversized image and that trait definitely carries through here.

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