The title of U2’s fifth album is perversely suggestive. Over the course of three studio LPs and one live-in-concert item, this stormy Irish guitar band, borne aloft by its grand, anthemic roar and an earnest concern for social issues, had ascended to the verge of substantial rock stardom in this country. Unfortunately, with The Unforgettable Fire, U2 flickers and nearly fades, its fire banked by a misconceived production strategy and occasional interludes of soggy, songless self-indulgence. This is not a “bad” album, but neither is it the irrefutable beauty the band’s fans anticipated. What happened?
Initially, U2’s decision to abandon the pop-conscious ministrations of its previous producers, Steve Lillywhite and Jimmy Iovine, and to hire instead the veteran experimentalist Brian Eno and his current collaborator, Canadian producer Daniel Lanois, seemed not only interesting but also admirably consistent with the band’s vaunted idealism. The four members felt artistically constricted by their chart-tested monster-guitar format; the right producer — somebody with serious art credentials — would understand their impasse, would be able to help them grow. It sounded like a brave gamble: art over gold.
But idealism is not art. As a producer — as opposed to a producer-songwriter, the role he played with Talking Heads — Eno is most valuable as a conceptual organizer and sonic strategist, a master of atmospheres. But with guitarist Dave “the Edge” Evans churning out squalls of postpsychedelic ambiance, U2 already had more atmosphere than it really knew what to do with. In that narrow regard, Eno was an unnecessary addition to the team.
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A more serious problem was the band’s conceptual shortcomings. Like the German producer Conny Plank, another post-Spectorian studio auteur (who was also considered for this project), Eno is able to express his own ideas through the artists he produces (or processes). But short of cowriting songs, he cannot supply the musicians’ art. And what all his masterful marshaling of tribal-style chants, ethnoramic percussion and lush electronic sounds often serves to reveal here, dismayingly enough, is a creative vacuum where the band should be. The album sounds formless and uninhabited.
Actually, that’s not entirely true. Singer Bono is certainly at home here — as well he should be, given that his vocals are way out in front in the mix. Lacking consistently strong, well-defined material, the producers attempt to create dynamic tension in the tracks by focusing on discrete musical elements: the rich tone of Adam Clayton’s bass, the hypnotic possibilities of Larry Mullen’s drum patterns, the subtle symphonic swell of Eno’s own synthesizer. And in the process they chop Evans’ roaring guitar style into inventive snippets, enriching the mix but draining the band of its fundamental source of power, Bono tries to make up for that loss. His stentorian bellow remains impressive — particularly on “A Sort of Homecoming” and “Pride (In the Name of Love),” the two most successful tracks — and he exhibits a new sense of control (primarily on the title song, in which his fragile, cracked grasp of the falsetto phrase “stay tonight” suggests an engaging vulnerability).
Unfortunately, though, Bono’s lyrics are too often a spew of artsy blather, unredeemed even by their own best intentions. Such lines as “True colors fly in blue and black/Through silken sky and burning flak” (from the song “Bad”) apparently are intended to convey an image, a poetic truth, about the ravages of war. But the attempted metaphor is hopelessly muddled: If the “blue and black” refers to the traumatized flesh of war’s victims, what are they doing flying through the sky? Why a “silken” sky? And on the pointlessly titled “Elvis Presley & America,” Bono indulges in that most ancient of artsy pretensions, the on-the-spot improvisation, and delivers himself of some one-take babbling that makes the onstage effusions of, say, Patti Smith seem, in retrospect, paragons of spontaneous clarity.
One would like to be able to summon praise for such well-intentioned tracks as “Pride (In the Name of Love),” which was inspired by Martin Luther King, and “MLK,” which appropriates King’s initials for its title. But “Pride” gets over only on the strength of its resounding beat (a U2 trademark) and big, droning bass line, not on the nobility of its lyrics, which are unremarkable. And “MLK,” a pensively pretty studio concoction, consists of one verse, sung twice, which begins, “Sleep, sleep tonight/And may your dreams be realized.” An admirable sentiment, of course, but Bono brings no artistic illumination to it.
The Unforgettable Fire seems to drone on and on, an endless flurry of chinkety guitar scratchings, state-of-the-art sound processing and the most mundane sort of lyrical imagery (barbed wire is a big concept). U2’s original power flickers through only intermittently. When it does, though, you can forgive them the uncharacteristic flounderings found here (among a few memorable tracks) and hope they won’t forget where their real fire lies the next time out.