Opening Argument: U2 is unlike nearly every other rock band in the world in that they have had more than one masterpiece album. One could easily say that TJT, which launched them into stardom here in the States, would be the best...or the groundbreaking Achtung Baby is the point at which they really broke through with innovation and creativity. But I put to you, ladies and gentlemen, that The Unforgettable Fire is actually U2's best album.
What was U2's output up through late 1983? Three albums of raw, somewhat unrefined but kinetic rock & roll with some real religious imagery thrown in (Exhibit A: the entire October album). They went into the recording studio in May 1984 with a completely new producer and with the intention to go in a completely different direction. What emerged in September was a very mature sound with some real sonic experimentation and fantastic songwriting.
I present the songs as evidence and let them speak for the quality of the album:
Exhibit B - Quality Standout Tracks: A Sort of Homecoming, The Unforgettable Fire, Bad, Indian Summer Sky. These songs set the foundation for the album. Edge is doing some really amazing things with the guitar - stuff that he hadn't done on previous albums. On A Sort of Homecoming, Larry has some really nice fills. What really comes across on these songs is the backing instrumentation - it adds a lot of depth. The result is that these songs are all very evocative of a - a haunting bleakness, if you will. I think that the title track The Unforgettable Fire is some of the best lyrical work Bono has done. The bleakness really comes through on the fan favorite Bad, which has become a U2 tour anthem. Indian Summer Sky is the sister song to A Sort of Homecoming in that they both have a driving power and soaring vocals.
Exhibit C - The Radio Single: Pride is a really good tune...and not just because it got a lot of radio play.
Exhibit D - Deep Cuts, Experimental Stuff and the Closer: Wire is a deep cut that I like...I think Edge's starting guitar riff and the way the song unfolds at the outset is really neat. Does it sound a bit dated? Perhaps. But I can appreciate it for its time and place. On vinyl, Promenade is another deep cut that closes out side A perfectly before the runout - Bono's lyrics are super easy for me to put in a visualization. It's a nice break from the rest of Side A, which is a bit uptempo. This song has long been a favorite of mine; I think the instrumentation around the crescendo (Oh...tell me...part) is really the best feature of this song. I classify 4th of July and Elvis Presley in America as the experiments of the album. 4th of July is a brief bass-driven interlude to open side B before the anthemic Bad; it's a rare moment when Adam gets to shine. Elvis Presley is very Eno: he took A Sort of Homecoming, spun it backward, and had Bono do some free verse over it. It is what it is (I like it, but I can understand why others might not). I appreciate that it was created in the moment - it represents U2 taking chances - contrast this with the very corporate, nothing released without years of analysis, design, and anticipation by today's U2. For an experimental, improvisational track it has a very nice structure to it - including a chorus, playful vocals, and great sounds. MLK is a 130 second closer song with a really nice set of lyrics and a very reverb background. It's a bit of a hymn, and it serves to end the album well.
Closing Argument: on The Unforgettable Fire, you have four anchor tracks with very expressive elements. Those four tracks are spread well across the album - which results in a consistent feel across the album. The second song of the album is the radio hit, designed to draw new U2 listeners in - I think we can agree at this point that Pride accomplished its mission. Interspersed between these tracks are quality deep cuts and shorter experimental songs that serve as pallete cleansers from the mood of the rest of the album. This is an album of introspection, of thought, but also of beautiful sonic textures and far reaching vocals. I am confident that, based on the exhibits I have presented, you will have to agree that the album is U2's best work.