Is it time to re-evaluate U2’s Pop album and PopMart tour? Maybe.
U2’s imperial phase–that period of their career where they could do nothing wrong–extended from the release of The Joshua Tree in March 1987 through to the end of the touring cycle for Achtung Baby. Okay, so maybe the Rattle and Hum film fell a little flat and the Zooropa album was…okay, but for the most part, U2’s trajectory brought them almost nothing but fame and acclaim.
By late 1995, though, U2 had run into a roadblock. Under pressure to come up with an album that could meet or exceed the standards of The Joshua Tree and Achtung Baby, the band decided to immerse themselves in the emerging world of electronica. There were many dead ends and false starts and the resulting album, Pop, felt…unfinished. Reviews were not good. Later, Bono was heard to say that he’d like to go back and work on the album until the band got it right.
Over the years, though, opinions on the album have softened. In 2017, the 20th anniversary of the album’s release, Rolling Stone had this re-imagining of Pop. Billboard did the same.
Now comes this article in The Irish Times. (Full disclosure: I’m quoted here.)
A little after midnight on June 16th, 1997, two Irishmen walked into the US immigration pre-clearance facility at Edmonton International Airport in Canada. One wore a silk boxer’s dressing gown with the hood up, his eyes concealed behind mirror shades. The second sported a goatee and was dressed head-to-toe in a white cowboy outfit studded with rhinestone and topped with a vast stetson hat. Under the fluorescent lights of the near-deserted terminal, he looked like a neon ornament brought to life.
Bono and The Edge had come straight from the stage at the city’s Commonwealth Stadium and were hastening towards a flight to San Francisco. Behind the sunglasses Bono could barely keep his eyes open as he filled in the immigration form. The two Edmonton gigs had gone well – certainly better than an instantly notorious concert two months earlier at which U2 had stopped midway through a new song in order to work out to play it.
But he was nonetheless exhausted – physically and emotionally too. Seven weeks into their most ambitious – and expensive – tour to date, the frontman dressed as a boxer was feeling punch-drunk from defending U2’s title as the biggest band in the world.
Twenty-one years on, it seems ludicrous that U2’s position as one of rock’s heavyweights could ever have been under threat. They roll into Dublin’s 3Arena on November 5th for four nights, part of a blockbusting global trek which has to date grossed $106 million.
How different it all was in 1997 as, in service of opinion-splitting new album Pop, they struggled against some of the most sustained setbacks of their career. True, in places such as Edmonton – provincial, happy to be on the international touring circuit – the greeting afforded the PopMart tour had been as full-hearted as U2 had come to expect.
3 thoughts on “Is it time to re-evaluate U2’s Pop album and PopMart tour? Maybe.”
I think Pop is a great album, second only to Achtung Baby. The major music publications at the time, from Rolling Stone to Spin, the NME and Q, loved it as well. In retrospect, the band considers it unfinished, but if you compare the raw album version of Please to the overproduced single version, I’ll take unfinished any day.
To me, the writer is overthinking its lack of success (although it still sold 6 million copies). It’s not that audiences didn’t get the subtext of the album and the tour. I doubt most people cared that Bono’s Fly character was a satire of rock stars – they just thought he looked cool. The fact is the record industry was in a slump. People just weren’t buying albums. We were coming off disappointing sales for R.E.M. and Pearl Jam, and U2 was supposed to save the industry. It was simply too much to ask of this album. Additionally, U2 records live or die based on their first single. Discotheque was the wrong choice. I think Mofo should have been the lead off. The video didn’t help them much either, and I have a theory that many conservative fans were turned off seeing the band dressed as the Village People.
I agree with Raleigh that I think Pop is a great album. I don’t feel it’s their best, but far from the worst thing they’ve ever done. I’m intrigued by the notion that the band considers it unfinished, perhaps by the slim possibility that they might re-visit the album and “finish” it. Given the polarized reaction at the time, might a current reworked version have a more traditional U2 sound?
It wouldn’t be the first time that a band has re-tooled an earlier release.
Pearl Jam revisited Ten, calling the it the Ten Redux. Slightly different sound, but essentially the same, just produced slightly different. Both versions co-existing in the market.
They also revisited the self titled avocado album last year.
There was rumours that Chris Cornell’s Timbaland produced experiment “Scream” was going to get a 2nd release as a rock album, but aside from one or two tracks getting released, nothing has ever come of it. I would guess that given the lukewarm reception to the album in general may have closed the door on a full out revision.
2022 would be the 25th Anniversary for Pop. Perfect time to put the proper finishing touches on the album for a re-release, maybe even re-record a few tracks. A scaled back version of the album followed by a scaled back (from a Popmart perspective) tour?
The Pop album is underrated. I agree with some of the comments above. Songs like Do you feel loved, Gone, Mofo, and Miami are highlights.
I remember seeing a quote from Adam Clayton at some point regarding the Popmart tour. He said “it was a mistake, but it was a grand mistake!”
I also agree that it was the end of a special era for U2, lots of experimentation and different sounds. I’ve long wished for them to bring back the unique sounds they carved out for themselves in the 90’s.