Bosnia and Herzegovina. The resurgence of Nazism in Germany. Mafia terrorism in Italy. Escalating unemployment throughout the former Western Bloc. Zooropa, indeed.
None of those issues is explicitly addressed on U2's startling new album, of course. But the chilling emotional atmosphere of Zooropa – one of grim, determined fun, a fever-dream last waltz on the deck of the Titanic – is well suited to contemporary times in the Old World. "I feel like I'm slowly, slowly, slowly slipping under," Bono wails amid the dizzying disco rhythms of "Lemon." "I feel like I'm holding onto nothing." From that vantage of desperate spiritual dislocation, the vanished certainties of Cold War Europe look comforting.
Principally recorded earlier this year, Zooropa began as a toss-off EP to crank some juice into the European leg of U2's worldwide Zoo TV tour. Deeper inspiration struck, however, and with Brian Eno, the Edge and Flood producing, this 50-minute, 10-track album emerged.
Historically, U2 have always attempted to follow up breakthrough albums with less ostensibly ambitious efforts. Live EPs came hard on the heels of both War (1983) and The Unforgettable Fire (1984), and for the most part, they effectively eased the pressure on the band and left U2 free to explore whatever new aesthetic directions they pleased.
Unfortunately, the strategy backfired the last time U2 attempted a "spontaneous" one-off. In 1988, to get some distance on the prodigious success of The Joshua Tree, U2 perpetrated Rattle and Hum, an album-book-movie media blitz so self-conscious and contrived that it seemed about as unplanned as the invasion of Normandy.
With Zooropa the results are far more satisfying: The album is a daring, imaginative coda to Achtung Baby (1991), U2's first unqualified masterpiece. Zooropa defuses the daunting commercial expectations set by that album while closing off none of the band's artistic options. It is varied and vigorously experimental, but its charged mood of giddy anarchy suffused with barely suppressed dread provides a compelling, unifying thread.
The title track sets the tone from the very start. As the song opens, a stately piano figure, beautiful and foreboding, underlies indecipherable, static-stricken signals from the information-age inferno of Zoo TV. That alluring sonic chaos ultimately yields to the wah-wah blast of the Edge's guitar and the insistent groove of Adam Clayton's bass and Larry Mullen Jr.'s drums. Bono enters like a Mephistophelean seducer, offering jaded pleasures, nurturing dissatisfaction and stoking desire, crooning the pander's eternal appeal, "What do you want?"
The exuberant paranoia of Bob Dylan's "Subterranean Homesick Blues" gets a postmodern twist on "Numb." Above a hypnotic rhythm track and a repetitive, industrial guitar screech, the Edge blankly intones a long string of disconnected injunctions, post-apocalyptic advice ("Don't move/Don't talk out of time/Don't think/Don't worry everything's just fine/Just fine") for stunned survivors. Meanwhile, Bono coos in a woozy falsetto, "I feel numb/Too much is not enough."
For "The Wanderer," Zooropa's concluding statement, U2 usher in Johnny Cash to handle the lead vocal. It's a wildly audacious move that could so easily have proved a pathetic embarrassment – U2 overreaching for significance yet again – but it works brilliantly. Speak-singing with all the authority of an Old Testament prophet, Cash movingly serves as a link to a lost world of moral surety ("I went out walking with a bible and a gun/The word of God lay heavy on my heart/I was sure I was the one/Now Jesus, don't you wait up/Jesus, I'll be home soon"), literally replacing the various corrupted and confused personas Bono (and, on "Numb," the Edge) had occupied in the course of the album.
Cash's "Wanderer" is no less lost than the album's other dead souls, but his yearning to be found and redeemed sets him apart. Zooropa never resolves whether that yearning is merely nostalgic – a wish for a resurrection that has long ago been canceled – or a genuine intimation of hope. No matter: The album's true strength lies in capturing the sound of verities shattering, of things falling apart, that moment when exhilaration and fear are indistinguishable as the slide into the abyss begins.