clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

The unexpected resonance of Zooropa, U2’s least-remembered album, 25 years later

On the 1993 release, U2 decided to stop being U2 for a little while.

U2 in Dublin in 1993, touring in support of their Zooropa album, which turns 25 this year.
Independent News and Media/Getty Images
Dylan Scott covers health care for Vox. He has reported on health policy for more than 10 years, writing for Governing magazine, Talking Points Memo and STAT before joining Vox in 2017.

When The Joshua Tree turned 30, U2 hit the road for a special anniversary tour and played the whole damn album 50 times start to finish.

There will never be such a revival for Zooropa.

July 5 is the 25th anniversary of the smallest album from the world’s biggest band. Maybe you’ve never heard of it; maybe you have and want to forget it. But you should listen to it now. Because it’s every bit the masterpiece that The Joshua Tree and Achtung Baby were, even if it sounds nothing like them: a weird but heartfelt meditation of humanity on the verge of the technological revolution that is still remaking our world today.

Zooropa also teaches us something about U2, a band that increasingly flirts with self-parody these days. It still strains to live up to that self-given moniker — “the best band in the world” — but its recent output fails to inspire. They’ve invaded our iPhones. Their latest record came and went without much fanfare. They’re still selling out concerts, but critical reception has become middling. Even for longtime fans like myself, U2 isn’t so much a source of wonder as it is a fact of life. They’re as novel as air.

That’s what makes Zooropa such a revelation in retrospect. U2 had hit its creative and commercial peak with 1987’s The Joshua Tree, faced the backlash from 1988’s Rattle & Hum (the archetype album of U2 being simply too much), and then regained its stride with 1991’s Achtung Baby. They had nowhere left to go and nothing left to prove.

So they made this strange little album with few pretenses and a modest agenda: what it’s like to be a person in this changing world. The band members themselves have called it an “interlude,” a sentiment that seems totally at odds with U2 as we think about them today. U2 doesn’t do small. They sell out football stadiums to play their 10-times platinum album from 30 years ago, reliving the glory years one more time.

But they did small once. That is Zooropa’s stroke of genius.

U2 wants to forget about Zooropa

“I never thought of Zooropa as anything more than an interlude,” said U2 guitarist the Edge (given name David Howell Evans), who received his first production credit on the album, in Neil McCormick’s 2006 history U2 by U2. That more or less sums up the band’s feelings toward their oddest production: It was an experiment, even a fun one, but “this is something we don’t necessarily care to do anymore,” the guitarist and co-band leader said.

Once in a while, the album receives some favorable retrospectives — here’s a semi-ironic piece by Rob Harvilla in Spin for its 20th anniversary, an occasion also commemorated by Stereogum — but it’s mostly an afterthought in the U2 pantheon. Boy was a promising first album, War made them stars, The Joshua Tree became one of the biggest records in history, and Achtung Baby wasn’t far behind it.

It was at that moment, during U2’s frenzied, glitzy, and overamped tour for Achtung Baby, that Zooropa was born. The story is that it started out as an EP, but the band eventually fleshed it out into a full 10-track, 50-minute album that they completed by flying back and forth from their shows to their studios in Dublin. The word “mad” gets used a lot by the band and its associates to describe this period.

Zooropa was released on July 5, 1993, and then it just sort of ... disappeared. It sold merely 2 million copies in the United States — a steep fall from Achtung Baby’s 8 million or The Joshua Tree’s 10 — and its singles mostly failed to chart on mainstream radio.

But for a group that thinks of itself first and foremost as a live band, U2’s near-erasure of Zooropa from its set lists is the most telling indicator of the album’s legacy. The first single, “Numb,” hasn’t been played live since December 10, 1993, in Tokyo. “Stay (Faraway, So Close!)” — the “one legit, fairly conventional all-time U2 classic” on the album, as Harvilla put it — is the only song to be played more than 100 times in concert.

For context, “Sunday Bloody Sunday” is the clubhouse leader with more than 1,000 plays. And five different songs from Pop, the band’s vastly inferior 1997 release, have gotten at least 100 turns over the years. (Hat tip to the meticulous for this data.)

Even on the band’s current Experience + Innocence tour — during which U2 has eliminated songs from The Joshua Tree from its set list, following the 2017 roadshow dedicated to that album, and thereby taken several mainstays out of the rotation — not a single Zooropa track has made an appearance yet. Not one snippet for its 25th birthday.

The U2 on Zooropa is unlike we had ever heard, or would hear again

The myth of Achtung Baby was that U2 finally embraced alternative and electronic music after driving the American roots act straight into the ground on Rattle & Hum, an impressive reinvention propelled by radio-friendly hits like “One” and “Mysterious Ways.”

I came here not to besmirch Achtung Baby, but the truth is that album was still very identifiably U2. Maybe a little more jaded, maybe a little more adventurous, but there is a clear line from “With or Without You” to “One.” The guitar licks are clean, Bono is a little moodier but he’s still crooning, and every track still sounds like it was made to be played outdoors in front of 30,000 people.

But on Zooropa, U2 — the stadium-packing, diamond-selling, chart-topping band that had taken over the world — was nowhere to be found.

The album’s first two minutes — an indistinct fade-in of transmitted voices, before a melancholy piano melody sets in with pulsing bass behind — pass before we hear anything that sounds even remotely like U2.

Bono, famed war protester and AIDS activist, beams into the album from outer space with a few lines straight out of a second-rate Don Draper meeting: “What do you want? Be all that you can be. Fly the friendly skies. Eat to get slimmer.” Throughout the album, Bono sounds both alien and inescapably human.

The next song is a love ballad to a woman on TV, powered by a toy piano that sounds exactly like that, and the tone is set. With the exception of the lovelorn and familiar “Stay,” there is really no comfort to be found.

On “Numb,” the Edge drones out a series of “Don’t” commands over a distorted guitar that conjures turning gears, and we never hear Bono at all, except for his “Fat Lady” voice in the background. “I feel numb/too much is not enough,” he cries. It might as well be the band’s thesis statement on Zooropa, warping the overwhelming and guileless emotion that had defined U2 up to that point in their careers into something more listless and postmodern.

In fact, the whole album is like a retcon of familiar U2 tropes. The wailing “Tomorrow” on 1981’s October was Bono’s anguished, affecting cry for the mother he lost so young. He returns to the same subject here on “Lemon,” and we instead are greeted by the Fat Lady again while the Edge and Brian Eno chant in a monotone through the chorus. “Daddy’s Gonna Pay For Your Crashed Car” must be U2’s weirdest song about heroin, another of Bono’s favorite subjects, a tale of dependency played over upbeat industrial noise rock.

The album ends with Bono stepping offstage — and what could be less U2 than that — to give Johnny Cash the microphone for “The Wanderer.” That’s right: Johnny Cash closes the U2 record best classified as experimental electronica, not the gospel and roots-influenced Joshua Tree or Rattle & Hum, singing atomic apocalyptic imagery over a muffled bass that somehow still approximates a country twang.

Finally, Zooropa appropriately ends on a joke or a warning or both: an alarm pulsates and cuts out abruptly.

But it all ... works. There really isn’t a band better positioned to meditate on the excesses of the dawning internet age than U2, which turned earnest excess into an art form during its rise to fame. And they found an oddly alluring sound to match their feelings about this strange new world.

“I feel that they are one of the few rock bands even attempting to hint at a world which will continue past the next great wall — the year 2000,” David Bowie said after Zooropa came out, according to U2 biographer Bill Flanagan. So in its own way, the album remains as resonant as anything they’ve ever produced.

We may never hear an album like Zooropa again — but it deserves to be remembered

U2 seems content to regress these days. Its last two albums have been characterized by a thematic return to the youth of the band’s members, and especially its lead singer. They haven’t totally lost sight of this period, though, even if Zooropa isn’t making it onto their set lists. U2’s latest tour marked the return of one of Bono’s most outrageous stage characters, a glam impersonation of the devil who first appeared on the early 1990s tour that birthed Zooropa.

There’s something identifiable in that character in our ridiculous times, and Zooropa is plump with thematic material that seems as relevant now as it did in 1993. They hit it all: soulless capitalism, digital infatuation masquerading as true love, the hopeless apathy that feels so familiar in the era of Trump. “Some days you wake up in the army/And some days it’s the enemy,” Bono reminds us, about as far from the righteous anger that electrified War as he would ever get.

But it feels earned, in a world just escaping from the Cold War and only just beginning to understand the new age, the digital age, that it was entering. These guys saw it and they recognized it, even if they were as perplexed as anyone about what you were supposed to do about it. Their only real conclusion is to do the same thing you did before: You miss your mom, you get mad at your dad, you fall in love, you get high, sometimes you wonder what the point of all this really is. But you don’t give up. You keep living. It just sounds a little bit different.

That acceptance comes right near the end of the album. After the drone of “Numb,” the operatics of “Lemon,” and the detached sarcasm on “Some Days Are Better Than Others,” we find the serenity of “The First Time.”

Over a gentle guitar — a spiritual sequel to “Running To Stand Still in its sound — Bono finds peace in losing faith. The prodigal son comes home again, the father hands over the keys to his kingdom, and the son ... throws them away. The song’s softly triumphant climax is the only real emotional catharsis over these 50 minutes, and it is beautifully understated.

Part of Zooropa’s appeal is its novelty: U2 making the least U2 album of their career. They overplayed this hand a few years later on Pop — got a little too self-aware, a little too confident that they could make any kind of sound work for them — and they would spend years overcompensating for it. They would retreat to safer spaces in the 2000s: sincerity and soaring riffs and shout-along choruses meant to be sung by thousands of fans. You no longer listen to a new U2 album hoping to be surprised. You just hope there’s a good hook or two.

U2 has never been more U2 than they are now, but, for a flitting moment, on Zooropa, they broke free from all the constraints that come with being themselves. This is a beautiful and discordant, sweet and angry piece of music, out of body and out of time. Spin magazine wrote that the album “freed U2 from itself.” But they didn’t know what to do with that freedom. They didn’t know where to go.

They are the wandering protagonist in the atomic wasteland that Bono wrote and Cash sang about on Zooropa’s final song. Even after the apocalypse, U2 still can’t find what it’s looking for.