The Unforgettable Fire (Deluxe 25th Anniversary Edition)
By Calum Marsh | 6 November 2009
Given our conception of U2 in 2009—that is, one of the biggest bands of all time touring the globe in support of the latest and most perfunctory record in their ever-growing catalog of platinum hits—it’s difficult to imagine them being in a position wherein artistic and commercial risk is even an acute possibility. Sure, Achtung Baby (1991) was championed from the beginning as the definitive symbol of U2’s mutability and willingness to explore uncharacteristic stylistic avenues, and that album’s inflated contextual legacy, from the group’s exploits in a recently liberated Berlin to the debilitating struggle with songwriting that threatened to cancel the project entirely, vividly depicts it as the product of exhausted superstars overcoming crisis through total reinvention. But the mythos is misleading: Achtung was not the reinvention of U2; it was their readjustment. Sensing waning relevance as they approached their third decade active, the band retreated, recapitulated, and changed exactly where necessary—and though the results were certainly fruitful, there’s no real risk in necessity. Follow-ups Zooropa (1994) and Pop (1997) stand as the most ostensibly distinctive albums in the U2 discography, but the differences are superficial. Through the 90s, the band continued to pursue the claims on hipness and refreshed relevance that had been successfully established by the “revelation” of Achtung Baby, so while the traditional U2 aesthetic had been temporarily shed, the surrogate veneer of difference remained expected and sensible. U2 continued to play it safe, just obliquely.
But long before U2 had ensconced themselves too deeply into rock and pop culture to act genuinely brash, they nearly derailed their burgeoning career by trading impassioned anthems for arthouse impressions. Their fame and reputation growing rapidly after the release of 1983’s War and its accompanying live record, Under A Blood Red Sky, the subsequent move in U2’s career seemed pretty obvious: build upon War‘s critical and commercial groundwork by releasing a similarly anthemic record and then promote the hell out of it the United States. That path proved successful, eventually, but the band didn’t settle in and try it out until 1987 when The Joshua Tree‘s three enduring singles (“I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For,” “With Or Without You,” and “Where The Streets Have No Name”) each topped the North American charts. The reality of U2’s late-80s mega-success was nearly quashed by the boldness of the preceding outing, the woefully misunderstood The Unforgettable Fire, which celebrates its 25th anniversary this month.
The word “transitional” gets thrown around a lot in speaking of The Unforgettable Fire, but the sentiment feels too dismissive, positioning the record as a bridge between War‘s smarmy rock and The Joshua Tree‘s more subdued Christian pop rather than as the experiment, the oddity in the band’s otherwise linear career trajectory, that it really is. Despite Island Records’ insistence that their decision meant artistic and commercial disaster, the band deigned to hire Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois to produce and engineer what was initially expected to be their “breakthrough.” And though his recent production work has been decidedly mainstream, Eno’s reputation circa 1984 was established upon arty punk and, uh, artier ambient, not the vulgar battlecries of the band that wrote “Sunday Bloody Sunday.” Nobody, Eno included, felt the working union made good artistic sense; the band, people seemed to think, should just stick to what they do best.
You wouldn’t know it to hear them now, but U2’s musical interests have veered away from the straightforward and the mainstream more than they’re given credit: they started out, in high school, as a Clash cover band; they were present during the recording of “Love Will Tear Us Apart”; they recorded “11 O’Clock Tick Tock” with Martin Hannett. Their pervading aesthetic seems so far removed from underground music that for U2 to have actively sought the aid of avant-garde’s major practitioners is difficult to reconcile with most of the resulting work, but when U2 asked Brian Eno to produce their new record, the motive was strictly personal: at a point in their career when stardom and obscurity were equal possibilities, U2 rejected duplication to avoid stagnancy.
And so The Unforgettable Fire is U2’s riskiest, most distinctive album, and also one of their best. But rock history hasn’t exactly remembered it this way. Critical reception for the album was pretty much exactly as the label reps had predicted: people found the album muddled, abstract, ultimately confused. That abstraction was largely the point, of course—Eno, who shares only production, not songwriting, credits, reveals his influence most strongly in the warmth and density of his arrangements. Songs like “The Unforgettable Fire” and “Bad,” fleshed out by deep synthesizers and overlapping layers of guitar, have a richness and breadth of texture U2’s earlier material never hinted at. Even whopping anthems like “Pride (In The Name Of Love)”—which, along with the less successful title track, is one of only two singles released from the album—has an expansiveness that threatens to totally envelope the clarity of its pop-rock core. If the band’s natural songwriting instincts directed them toward this kind of concise pop, Eno’s job was to expand the material outward. It’s flagrant studio trickery, but the results are uniformly gorgeous: “4th Of July,” an ambient instrumental interlude cobbled together by synth washes and snatches of bass and guitar recordings, should feel totally out of place in the middle of a U2 record—that it fits perfectly is a testament to how abstrusely the rest of this material was treated.
As I mentioned before, when a rock band as otherwise predictable as U2 takes a chance like The Unforgettable Fire, the reception is bound to be divisive. Tellingly, Rolling Stone‘s original review of the album derides the band’s drifting focus, again stressing the notion that U2 were in too precarious a position to be acting so irresponsibly. Citing “conceptual shortcomings,” “a misconceived production strategy,” and, if that weren’t enough, the “occasional interludes of soggy, songless self-indulgence,” the review dismisses the very idea of The Unforgettable Fire, as though the concept of an arthouse record, rather than its specific execution, was so essentially ludicrous to be necessarily doomed. And this is really unfortunate, because in neglecting one of the band’s strongest outings—if it’s not strictly their single “best” record, it’s certainly their noblest—we’re implicitly punishing U2 for a gesture they’d now never repeat even if they could. After 25 years, as the record is given a Deluxe box set treatment (including a pleasing but unessential second disc of album b-sides and live material), hopefully we can realize our mistake in overlooking the achievement. The Unforgettable Fire shows U2 choosing, simply, art over commerce; let’s relish the rarity of the sentiment.