Classics: U2's Zooropa (30 years)

by Zane Ewton

In the early 1990s, the line was drawn between the Sunset Strip bands who reigned popular rock culture for most of the '80s and the sudden explosion of Seattle bands as a flanneled harbinger of doom.

The funny thing is they were all just a bunch of suburban kids who got started in their garages listening to Led Zeppelin records.

And there is nothing wrong with that.

While those bands may have disagreements on hair, pants and questionable morals, they shared a lot of common ground musically.

The other rock band at the top of the charts at the time was U2. The Joshua Tree was huge. Rattle and Hum is considered a misstep despite having a handful of excellent songs. And then Achtung Baby and the wildly successful Zoo TV tour put U2 back at the top, with a fresh coat of paint.

Dialing down the earnestness was a great move for a band known for Anton Corbjin's moody black and white photos in the desert. Now the band tread in neon cities within Corbjin's colorful, moody photos.

The propulsion of Achtung Baby and Zoo TV sparked something unique in U2 - a willingness to not overthink. This lack of overthinking (and the seemingly endless road of Zoo TV) meant an opportunity to roll with the momentum.

Here comes Zooropa.

What was going to be a stopgap EP released in the middle of touring became a full blown album, recorded in hotel rooms and tour buses.

Zooropa is U2 at its most loose and light on its feet. Freewheeling, even, by U2 standards.

They had a head start with some Achtung Baby leftovers. But rather than going the Load/Reload Metallica route, U2 kept Zooropa tight and the filler to a minimum.

Lead single "Numb" might be remembered more for the music video - one continuous shot on The Edge's face as various people, objects and feet enter and leave the frame.

Your interest in "Lemon" depends on if you enjoy Bono's falsetto. "Babyface" and "The First Time" are overlooked gems.

"Stay (Faraway, So Close!)" is the one Zooropa song that has stuck around U2's setlists. With good reason, it's the album's emotional highlight and the closest to pure pop songwriting craft.

The 1990s were also a moment of reinvention for the legendary Johnny Cash, heard here in moody, apocalyptic voice at least a year prior to his collaboration with Rick Rubin on the initial American Recordings records. "The Wanderer" is proof that even when having fun, Bono has spiritual redemption on his mind.

Another song looking for somewhere to go during this time was the track that best captured what U2 was trying to accomplish in the 1990s. That song being "Hold Me, Thrill Me, Kiss Me, Kill Me" - the glammy, campy yet sexy bombast of a song landed on the Batman Forever soundtrack.

Pop was the next stop for U2 in the '90s and all the looseness of Zooropa was gone. Pop was the spirit of Achtung Baby without the fun.

It's a shame U2 tends to ignore Zooropa. Even in the upcoming Vegas residency celebrating Achtung Baby and Zoo TV, they might not leave much space for Zooropa. It's a shame. The album is an overlooked gem in a catalogue of overly dissected rock music.

Hagiography of the band at this time argues The Edge was trying to rewrite what the guitar would become in the future. I wonder if he's disappointed the guitar wasn't reinvented by the late '90s, instead it found its way back to suburban kids listening to Led Zeppelin in their garage.

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