U2 – The Unforgettable Fire

What I Think of When I Think of This Artist

This and The Joshua Tree were among the first CDs I ever bought (also, Dire Straits’ Brothers In Arms). It was a time when I was becoming more aware of music, but fitfully and without regard for how to be a fan. Mainly, I pretended I knew a lot more about it than I did. Ninth grade me acted like he was a huge U2 fan when he really did not know a damn thing about U2. I just wanted to be cool and respected, and if referencing Under a Blood Red Sky would help, then I was going to act like I knew that live album inside and out. Needless to say, I remained uncool and not respected.

What I Think of This Album

This is really the album where U2 became U2, even if what it meant to be U2 later evolved (or devolved, depending on your point of view). Working with Brian Eno (Roxy Music) and his engineer, the then-little-known Daniel Lanois, U2 consciously, but not completely, moved away from their earlier, more traditional rock sound to embrace atmosphere and texture.

If you want the old U2, it is still there, on the admittedly rousing “Pride (In the Name of Love),” “Indian Summer Sky,” and “Wire,” and to a certain line-straddling extent, the title track, too. But in the context of the new approach heard on the rest of the album, these tracks come across as blunt and blustery, if not histrionic.

The heart of the release is the quieter material. The poetic, hushed “Promenade” is one of my favorite U2 songs, with Bono uncharacteristically singing in a (mostly) subdued manner, and the Edge (Jesus, why do these guys make it so hard to like them; I can barely bring myself to type these stupid stage names) playing delicate, effected skeletal figures, with subtle keyboards behind them, and a barely-there rhythm section. I can’t complain that it’s only about two-and-a-half minutes long, because it works that way, but I wish it had gone on for longer. I don’t think they ever wrote a more beautiful song.

Compelling drug tale “Bad” finds everyone contributing, with Adam Clayton’s creative bass part working in sympathy with Larry Mullen, Jr.’s drumming, which combines a steady bass drum beat with more technical polyrhythms; the Edge’s crystalline guitar figures interlocking with Eno’s keyboard contributions; and finally Bono’s impressionistic lyrics and modulated delivery. “Promenade” may be my favorite track, but there is no question that “Bad” is the highlight of the album.

Of course, the band gave you a good idea of what was going to happen on the opener, “A Sort of Homecoming,” which presents a funkier drum sound than ever heard on a U2 album, as well as a more painterly guitar effort. “Elvis Presley and America” features improvised lyrics, and in that light, is not at all bad (supposedly Bono was not aware that Eno would not allow him to go back and rerecord it with proper lyrics), but regardless, the music is pretty great (and that’s because it is a slowed down backing track from “A Sort of Homecoming”).

“The Unforgettable Fire” tries to have it both ways, marrying the band’s early sound to a striking, string-enhanced framework, and it doesn’t really work. Taking the opposite approach is instrumental “4th of July,” which is fully an ambient piece (though to credit the band with intentionality is to overstate things, as Eno created the track by surreptitiously recording the Edge and Clayton while they doodled). The lullaby that is “MLK” closes the album, and is a very slight (and somewhat pandering) song, but is not terrible by any means.

The Best Thing About This Album

It’s not the best song, but “Promenade” makes this album for me.

Release Date

October, 1984

The Cover Art

More, please. Dutch photographer Anton Corbijn captures the moodiness and mystery of the best parts of the album with this ivy-covered shot against a dramatic sky. Unfortunately, it was essentially the same photograph as one already taken and published by Simon Marsden, and the band had to pony up for copyright infringement. This image makes it look like the dominant color is maroon, but my copy is full on purple.

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