Today, July 5th, marks the 30th anniversary of the release of U2's album Zooropa (1993). The album was conceived as a 3-song or so EP follow-up to 1991's Achtung Baby. U2 wanted to add some new material to their ZooTV tour as they shifted from Europe to North America.
U2 had hit paydirt with their album The Joshua Tree in 1987, now a classic. The album was such a success that it threw U2 for a loop. They felt that The Joshua Tree marked the end of a sound that they had set out to explore with The Unforgettable Fire (1984). They weren't sure how to press on with that particular sound trek any longer, so they blew it up and tried something entirely new. The result was Acthung Baby, another classic.
Achtung Baby was recorded in Berlin in the afterglow of the collapse of the Berlin Wall and while Germany was in the midst of reunification. Europe was in the grip of a jubilant celebration of newly emergent democracies in Central and Eastern Europe. America, meanwhile, was producing … grunge. Don't get me wrong; I was swept up in the vortex of Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, Alice in Chains, Red Hot Chili Peppers, and others, like most of my generation – but while we Yanks were singing along to "Rape Me", Europe was soon embracing the upbeat "Unbelievable" (EMF) and the wave of Britpop bands like Blur, Suede, and Oasis, to name a few.
U2, who had just spent several years on tour in North America, seemed torn between two continents. Achtung Baby captured the exuberance of newfound freedoms in Europe and the melancholy of America at its pinnacle.
While touring for Achtung Baby in Europe,U2 felt overwhelmed by the embrace of Western commercialization and the rapid spread of emerging technologies like cell phones, personal computers, the internet, and what would become known as social media.
Yet America seemed to be the source of their ambivalence.
Maybe that was the source for the melancholy of grunge as well: Is this (America in 1991-92) all there is? This is the victory we've worked so hard for? (You ain't seen nothing yet; wait until the late 2010s and early 2020s!).
But U2 is U2, which means they can party, yes, but not without a sensible dose of moderacy and catholic guilt. Except for that time when Adam Clayton missed a show for being drunk out of his mind before the show even began; but that would be the extreme to snap them back.
Adam Clayton's impaired judgment came during the tour after the recording of Zooropa.
Zooropa was supposedto be an EP of two or three new songs a la Wide Awake in America – their 1985 EP similarly recorded in the middle of their Unforgettable Fire tour – but instead turned into a 10-track full album that was recorded in three frenzied weeks. They didn't even have time for a proper producer, like Brian Eno, who had produced their previous three albums. No, this one's recording was managed and manipulated almost entirely by U2's guitarist The Edge. (He would do the same with a mountain of recordings over the years that he pieced together in what would become their most recent album, Songs of Surrender.) Brian Eno and Flood are nevertheless given production credit alongside The Edge for their contributions to recording and mixing.
Zooropa would turn out to be polarizing to both U2 fans and non-fans alike. Anecdotally, one of my artist friends at the time asked, "What happened to U2?" as I played "Lemon" on the car stereo. Too much disco for him, a heavy metal enthusiast with an ear for other genres.
Even U2 dismissed Zooropa as a glorified EP, a 2-or-3-song throw-off that morphed into a full album-length of B-side material. Pop (1997) would be the album that they would truly explore the ideas of Zooropa. But Pop turned out to be an over-produced and unfinished mess as a contracted global concert tour, dubbed PopMart, loomed.
And 30 years later, the album that sounds the most fresh and timeless of all of U2's discography is Zooropa. I think it was the pent-up creativity that they had developed during their first leg of ZooTV, and the limited time that they had to record it before the second leg kicked off, that created the uniqueness of Zooropa. They didn't have enough time to over-think and over-produce material as they would later do with Pop.
If you've never listened to Zooropa, and even if you have, give it a(nother) whirl. I think you will be surprised that it was recorded 30 years ago.