Tuesday, July 12, 2005

Zooropa: At the Crossroads of Rock's Future

I listened to U2's Zooropa today, their second best album, behind only their masterpiece Achtung Baby. Zooropa is interesting because despite its brilliance, it's the only U2 album not to yield a hit single. Your average person would recognize stuff off of almost all their other albums, but Zooropa has no songs that make it big in the cultural mainstream, nothing you'd hear on the radio. However, that doesn't mean it's not great, I would argue Zooropa represents a reach into a new world of music, creating a new type of sound, a sound that could have defined the 1990s, but sadly never made the cultural impact it deserved to make.

Throughout the 50s, 60s, 70s and into the 80s, there were constant innovation and evolution in terms of what rock music could do. The 50s started rock and roll, and it matured in the 60s, with the album rock masterpieces of The Beatles. In the 70s, prog and the heavy, blues rock sound of Led Zeppelin represented steps forward in creating a new rock sound. This excess was countered by the minimalism of the punk scene. In the 80s, hair metal and synthesizers, regardless of your opinions on them, created a unique new sound.

However, there's nothing I would consider the 90s sound. You could call a song very 80s or very 70s, but I'd hesitate to call any rock very 90s. There's some bands who you could definitely identify with the early 90s alternative sound, your Pearl Jam or Red Hot Chili Peppers, but I don't think there was anything that was as culturally pervasive as in previous decades.

As the 90s began, U2 released Achtung Baby, an album which, at the time, was praised for its bold leap into a new type of sound. Listening to the album today, the leap doesn't seem that big, Achtung Baby is an album of fairly conventional songs with the well chosen incorporation of some electronic sounds, along with slight dance influence. I think it's one of the best albums ever made, nearly every song is a work of genius, and could have served as a single. Acrobat and Ultraviolet, my two favorite U2 songs, both hail from this album.

However, I don't think Achtung Baby is that radical. The album that followed it, Zooropa, is the massive leap that Achtung Baby was purported to be. If each decade is to be defined by new leaps in music, I would argue that Zooropa should have been that leap for the 90s. It features songs that are liberated from traditional chrous/verse structure, frequently jumping between different sections that could be considered equally chorus worthy. For example, on 'Lemon,' there are three distinct sections of the song, one in which Bono sings "She wore lemon...," another in which he sings "Midnight, it's where the day begins," and then a third part in which some other guy speak-sings "Man paints a picture, a moving picture..." So, all these pieces are combined with a an amazing electronic loop and some cool guitar stuff.

So, this song is in someways a throw back to prog rock, and Pink Floyd's electronic rambling songs. However, it uses much more repitition than the frequently improvisatory Floyd, and I think that's where the dance music influence comes in. What the song does is take a bunch of cool elements and combine them on rotating loops, just like a dance song would. This is evident on 'Numb,' which is a driving vocal loop by The Edge, with the chorus from Bono coming in over the top.

I'd consider this rock music made with dance rules the lost music of the 90s. This was the new sound, the bold step forward that could have been the reinvention of rock for the 90s. U2's Pop was noted for their embrace of dance music, but I would argue that's actually a step back towards more traditional song structures and anthemtic music. While I love the album, it's got a lot more traditional song structures, and even the song called 'Discotheque' isn't that dance driven.

As time has passed, the 90s alternative movement has basically disbanded, and rock has been totally displaced as the dominant form of mainstream music. Your average person hasn't heard a song by Radiohead, despite the massive critical acclaim for their albums. And each new 'it' band, like The Strokes or The White Stripes, have some hit songs, but generally speaking don't make a huge cultural impact. Part of the reason for this is that nearly every band out now is a throwback to something in the past. A huge number of bands out now draw influence from the 70s New York indie scene, generally speaking, bands seem to be reinventing stuff from the past, rather than creating something new. This is one of the primary reasons for the 'death of rock,' hip hop is actually doing new things, while rock is just reliving its history. Now, this isn't every band, but there's definitely more focus on updating the past than creating something completely new.

Now, there's definitely a place for giving respect to the past. One of my favorite albums ever, Daft Punk's 'Discovery' is an update of music from the 70s and 80s to fit today's style. It works brilliantly, and I would argue is actually a new sort of music, born out of the ashes of 70s and 80s stuff. This is different from The Strokes who are just doing songs in the style of 70s rock, not updating it in any way to reflect the changes in music since.

Even U2 have retreated from their push to create a new type of music. On 'All that You Can't Leave Behind,' they returned to the anthemic rock they were known for during the 80s, and despite the fact that it's a great album, 'How To Dismantle an Atomic Bomb' is not a major step forward either. Now, sometimes making a great song is enough, but when a band makes such bold steps forward as U2 did on Achtung and Zooropa, it seems counteractive to go backwards. It's like Richard Linklater directing Bad News Bears, he might make a good movie, but I'd rather see him do something original than do something that's been done before.

So, this brings up back to Zooropa, which offers us a view of a new type of rock, a vision that was never realized. Just listening to it, you can hear how different is from other U2 records. The songs are all centered around these driving instrumental loops, and it's the change in the loops that signal shifts in the song's mood more than changes in the vocal. The vocals are just one part of the musical mix, rather than being the central focus. This is evident in 'Dirty Day,' which ends with a vocal loop that repeats so much as to become abstract. You don't hear the words so much as the music in the vocal.

It's interesting to hear the way U2 integrates their previous trademarks into the new style. The title track opens with a traditional Edge delay guitar riff, but it's placed into a swirling electronic environment, with vocal samples serving as the driving element in the song until it reaches a Bono vocal.

And while it is very innovative, it still pays tribute back to the past. Much like Led Zeppelin takes blues and reinvents it for the times, 'Stay (Faraway, So Close)' takes a ballad and places it into a really interesting musical environment. This is my favorite song on the album, and one of my favorite ever, so much so that I watched the movie Faraway, So Close just for its association with the song. Anyway, the vocals are fairly standard, but on the chorus, there's a guitar line following "If the night won't give you up," that's amazing. I'd argue that guitar line is so crucial to the chorus, the song is essentially a duet. It makes the song unique. So, the music becomes just as important as the vocal here, the two are interchangable, I can't imagine the song without that guitar part. Another reinvention takes place on the final track, as Johnny Cash sings 'The Wanderer,' a song notable for its driving electronic loop, and the repeating rhythmic vocals from Cash.

Zooropa is an album that's sadly unappreciated. I think it's because most people still see U2 as the band from The Joshua Tree era, 'Where the Streets have No Name,' being their archetypal song. So, U2 fans aren't fans of this incarnation of the band, and the general public wouldn't pick up a U2 album expecting something radical like this. But, if you give the album a chance, you'll find something incredibly rewarding. 'Lemon' is great partially because it's so completely unique, you've never heard a song like this. The song gave us a vision of what rock could be, but it never really came to pass, electronic music was a bust here, and rock slowly moves toward obsolesence, at least in terms of the cultural mainstream. There might be hit songs, but I couldn't see rock ever having the exclusive hold over popular music it held in the 50s-80s.

However, there is some good news. Recently, I've heard a couple of albums that seem to follow up on the electronic, dance inspired rock that this album promised. United State of Electronica are a bit more dance than Zooropa, but they definitely follow the same dance inspired rock formula, as does Bob Mould's new album, Body of Song, which is a bit more rock, but sounds fresh and new. Then, there's N.E.R.D, who are a bit more hip hop, but a lot of their songs follow up on the promise of Zooropa, which is to dancify a rock song and mix in a bunch of electronic stuff. Listen to 'Lapdance' and you can hear how a traditional rock song is made new through the combination of driving instrumental parts and interesting vocal loops.

So, perhaps it just took ten years for the promise of Zooropa to be realized, and in the near future, we will see this new form of music finally enter the mainstream.

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