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U2 - "The Unforgettable Fire" (reissue)   Print  E-mail 
Written by Mark Reed  
Monday, 30 November 2009

Possibly the best U2 album ever made..

There was a time when Bono coulda been a contender. A brief fragment of time when, in the mid Eighties, Bono reached a level of artistic potential that could have put him up there with the great artists of history. Instead, Bono took a left turn : he became what he is today, a world statesman, a political campaigner with a day job singing in a band, and stepped away from artistic exploration in favour of the obvious and the surface. For those of us who grew up in the 80's, Bono was a boring, hectoring, painfully obvious singer with a big hat bleating on about America and War. Yes, we get it Bono. War is really really bad. There's no mystery or depth in a lyric that is as subtle as a brick in the face.

That Bono, existant for almost all of the decade, is thankfully mostly absent here. Originally released in 1984, the dark ages of Wham and Ronald Reagan, “The Unforgettable Fire” was, at the time, a brave move. U2 ditched their conventional rock writing and production, roped in Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois, and became impressionistic, ambigious, brave, visionary. The songs became shimmering things, built on arpeggios and fragments, never afraid to pull back instead of the suckerpunch stadium chorus. This was, until 1993's “Zooropa”, U2's most experimental record in every sense, and the first time U2 latched onto a concept – that of nuclear war and the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki : a clear parallel between then, and the now-of-then (of 1985) where we all lived under the threat of instant extinction in a Dr. Strangelove farce.

Aside from the poking-you-in-the-eye lyrical sledgehammer and thumpingly workmanlike structure that was “Pride”, every lyric and melody on this record is something other. U2 were stepping into a new dimension of work, and this would serve them well for the rest of their career. From here on, U2 were two bands at once, obvious stadium rockers in love with the big chorus, and also, trying to weld to that a desire to explore and invent. The album threw away the obvious lyrical clunkery and sincerity instead of impressions and ideas, suggestions of music and wordless melodies that exist in the keening, crooning lift of a modern hymn. “The Unforgettable Fire” was a brilliant record that challenged your idea of what U2 are with ambiguity and fog. It wasn't long before they went back to dreary treatises about streets and war and America and political hectoring.

I know what you're thinking, boring, hectoring, obvious Bono, a man nowhere near as clever as he thinks he is, being... interesting? I long felt Bono was holding U2 back with his love of the obvious, whilst The Edge and Adam were chomping at the bit for something a little more complex.

Next, U2 would stand in a desert in sharp focus. Here, they are barely visible in overgrown ruins. The listener brings to this their own imagination. And this combination is wonderfully effective. Songs hover into view, stay for a few minutes, then fade out with cloud and form new shapes. U2 would never be quite so accessably obtuse again.

Remastered from the quick and dirty original CD, it's also a revelation. The songs have never sounded so clear or so bright. Thankfully, there is little if any of the ugly compression and squashed sound of modern mastering. Whilst the tracklisting lacks, to me, much in the way of narrative focus – the songs don't always sound as if they fit well together – the material itself is some of the best U2 ever produced. “Bad” - still featured in live sets today – leaps off the deck with clarity. I've been hearing these songs for 25 years, and there's something new I heard in the remaster I'd never noticed before. In fact, all of this material deserves to be heard more often : “Elvis Presley and America” is a formless, halfspeed jam, but one that transcends such beginnings with Bono's imaginary words and invented dialect that moves beyond English into some kind of impressionistic new vocabulary. It's the inarticulate speech of the heart that can barely grasp whatever vision is evaporating in front of your eyes. Miles Davies would sit and listen to this album on repeat on his death bed.

“A Sort of Homecoming”
is possibly the greatest lost song U2 ever written. There's three versions on this remaster : a staid studio recording, a thrilling rearrangement by Daniel Lanois that was clearly destined for a hit single, and best of all, a version re-recorded at a London soundcheck that deserves to be on every compilation they release. Sadly, this version is marred by overdubs from a concert, so the delicate acoustic strums and dynamic rhythm interplay is spoilt by 10,000 Londoners clapping at the wrong time, which completely removes the dreamy landscape the song creates. Normally three versions of the same song would be boring, but each variant is substantially different. Quiet why this song isn't a staple of their live set today is baffling to me – it knocks better known but lesser songs into the dust.

Filling out the second disc are two unreleased songs – the superior, fabulous “Disappearing Act” that is the equal of anything on the album itself, and the more abstract “Yoshino Blossom” that is a compelling blur of sound that sounds akin to a wonky, broken, frazzled “New Years Day”. Around this time, U2 also pushed some of their greatest material onto b-sides : “The Three Sunrises” and “Love Comes Tumbling” are better certainly than a couple of album cuts and could very well have elevated the band to stadiums sooner. There were also some unusual b-sides : “Sixty Seconds In Kingdom Come”, “Bass Trap”, “Boomerang I”, were all odd, fragmentary improvisations, and thus often shunted to the fourth side of double 7” singles and picture disc formats. They weren't particularly good, and reminiscent of The Edge's subsequent soundtrack album “Captive”.

Rounding out the bonus disc are alternate versions of “Wire” (lots more everything, and less Bono), “A Sort Of Homecoming”, “Pride” (more choruses), “11 O Clock Tick Tock” (more guitars), and “Boomerang II”, a vocal version of the aforementioned improvisation that is light years beyond, and practically a different song, It's surprising to see how little work could turn a formless jam into a realised song, and here U2 provide both parts of the song. A fascinating look. They should do more of this.

For the anal, not everything is here : an alternate version of “Love Comes Tumbling” was released by mistake on a 12” when someone pulled the wrong tape out of the box. There's a couple of live songs on compilation albums. The DVD has excerpts of a live show, and fails to include a full concert. This is probably for the best as the footballers haircuts are truly horrific, but still a bit of an own goal as the band were at least, on fine fettle. (Come to think of it, why each of the remasters doesn't include a live show on a DVD when there are dozens of shows circulating is a bit of a mystery to me...)

What there is though, is a faithfully presented and packaged version of U2's most interesting album, replete with worthy extra material that expands the original and reveals a few, oft-unheard nuggets from the time. The alternate versions and unheard songs are as good as most of the material on the album itself, and well worth a second glance. If you are to re-visit U2, this is their most intruiging work : before age, guile, money, and fame corrupted them, when they were young, almost naive, and hungry to explore.


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