In 2017, U2 is commemorating the 30th anniversary of its phenomenal commercial breakthrough, The Joshua Tree, with a U.S. tour, promoting the super/deluxe/mondo permutations of the record's second anniversary re-release. (I haven’t check the official website, but I would not be one bit surprised if the $1,999 package includes an actual tree, delivery charge not included.) Don’t get me wrong. I was as enraptured-for-life with The Joshua Tree as any other high school junior at the time, and when all is said and done, very few rock or pop albums can match the one-two-three punch of the first side. Curiously enough, however, my iTunes stats tell me that over the last decade plus, it’s been U2’s popularly maligned, secularly surfaced Pop, released 20 years ago, that’s received more play on my mobile devices.)
Of course, all love is subjective. And to appreciate Pop, I suppose you have to appreciate what it represents - one of the biggest band in the world's last bold, if not desperate, stab at positive evolution and contemporary relevance. Like the similarly-situated, electronically-inflected Adore by The Smashing Pumpkins or Undercover by The Rolling Stones, that last stab was a commercial flop. So what we tend to remember are the apologies that came quickly after: in less than two years, U2 announced an early exit from their decade of reinvention by releasing their first compilation, The Best of the 1980-1990, which paved the have for the first step toward artistic entrenchment and an adult contemporary audience, All That You Can’t Leave Behind, which was followed by U2’s second compilation (The Best of the 1990-2000), which attempted to rewrite 1997 with flattened “new” mixes of Pop’s representative tracks (with members of the band claiming that they never really got to finish Pop properly to “U2 standards”). On the one subsequent occasion in the new Millennium when the band dared to be (half-assedly) daring (No Line on the Horizon), both the critics and the marketplace beat them back down into a state of nostalgic submission (Songs of Innocence). Twenty years after the release of Pop, the most interesting new material that U2 can muster is backing up the second half of a Kendrick Lamar tune.
With the release of Rattle and Hum (1988) hot on the heels of their most artistically and commercially successful record, it seemed like the band would go the route of All That You Can’t Leave Behind. To their credit, however, Achtung Baby ushered in the band’s second decade with a surprisingly deep lack of self-seriousness, and the title of U2’s undisputed masterpiece, seemingly cemented with The Joshua Tree, would forever be disputed. Nonetheless, by 1997, after successively more experimental affairs (Zooropa), the Brian Eno collaboration/faux soundtrack, Passengers), Pop seemed poised to fail. Kurt Cobain was three years gone, while Dave Matthews was on perma-tour. In the midst of the last gasps of radio, Soundgarden, Pearl Jam, and The Smashing Pumpkins had given way to the Foo Fighters, Collective Soul, and Hootie and the Blowfish. The X-geners had tired of the decade of irony; and they were content to just chill.
But if the gentle listener had cared to put down the knee-jerk, bandwagon-piling reviews and put on the headphones, she/he would have found that Pop had quite consciously/critically tapped into that late ‘90s ennui (“Wake Up Dead Man”, “Last Night on Earth”, and the whipping post of the record and lead single, “Discotheque”) - even a certain post-Tarantino pop culture drone of waiting for something to happen (“Miami”). Even setting aside its historical relevance/irrelevance, Pop includes some of the most personal songs in Bono’s oeuvre (“Mofo”, “Gone”), and for my money, one of the highest peaks in the band's songwriting and performance (“Please”). And as for my own iTunes play history, Pop opens with a one-two-three punch that positively pumps.
It's not my favorite U2 record, but I love it, and I'm done apologizing.