From its earliest origins, U2 has been a band that cares as much about the textures of its songs as about the songs themselves. From the minimalistic approach of albums like 1980's "Boy" and 1981's "October", to the rich, atmospheric sweep of 1984's "The Unforgettable Fire" (which found the band working for the first time with producers Daniel Lanois and Brian Eno), 1987's The "Joshua Tree" and 1991's "Achtung Baby", U2 have displayed an obsession for getting just the right tone for each note of their hook-laden tracks (indeed, "Achtung Baby" found the band and its producers hunched for several months over the mixing boards alone; the recording took so long that drummer Larry Mullen quipped, shortly before the tour began, that he was worried he'd forgotten his sections, since they'd been the first parts laid down many a moon earlier).
So it should come as no surprise that "Pop", their new release, was not only many months in the making, but that it's as aurally complex as a night at the symphony. The songs are, thankfully, as catchy as everU2 may have learned everything there is to know about all those buttons and switches which cover the panels of a recording studio, but they haven't forgotten how to craft songs, and in great profusion and variety, as Pop's arsenal shows.
"Last Night on Earth" and "Gone" are two of he best tunes this Irish gang of four has ever produced, both of them boasting solid melodies and bridges so strong they could almost stand as songs in themselves. "Mofo" is a spectacular ride as well, though purists may be shocked at how closely U2 sounds like Prodigy on this track. The album ends, fittingly enough, with another jaw-dropper called "Wake up Dead Man". A plea to Jesus to clean up what Bono calls this "fucked up world," the song is surprising both for its lyrical content (the band once heralded as the finest example of 'Christian rock' toys with blasphemy!) and its musical approach, which is sparse, gritty, direct, and generally lacking in the smooth cadences which characterize much of the band's other work. It would be hard to picture Macphisto (Bono's bizarre stage persona he adopted during part of the band's marathon 1991-1993 world tour, which found him clad in what looked like several hundred yards' worth of aluminum foil) doing this one live.
The other tracks on the album are, for better or worse, more predictable. "Discotheque," the album's first single, follows the techno-inflected approach that characterized earlier hits like "Zoo Station"; "Do You Feel Loved" and "If God Will Send His Angels" share the same dark majesty of Achtung Baby's slower and more mournful tracks. The album's missteps are few but painful to hear. "The Playboy Mansion" is almost a sonic Xerox of Achtung Baby's "Trying to Throw Your Arms Around the World" (never one of their strongest tracks) without the goofy "I want you" refrain thrown in. "Miami" and "Please" seem half-formedthey're not completely devoid of possibilities, but clearly they require either another few months of jamming work or else some truly ingenuous digital make-over work (though "Miami," with its minimal mix of disconnected vocals, bass, fuzzy drums and ominous background noises comes close to sounding likebelieve it or notsomething off of Nine Inch Nail's "The Downward Spiral", and hence is not deserving of complete dismissal).
All in all, though, U2 is to be commended for a job well done. Few bands sound this fresh seventeen years into their recording career, and few are willing to keep taking so many risks, especially after it seems a winning formula has been found (which seemed to be the case following the monumental success of The Joshua Tree). Best of all: this risk-taking keeps working for them more often than it doesn't.