THE UNFORGETTABLE FIRE
Released in: 1984
Genre: Pop Rock / Alternative Rock
Producer: Brian Eno, Daniel Lanois
Issue Date: 1995 (Mobile Fidelity)
Best Track: Pride or Bad
TRACKS: 1) A Sort of Homecoming; 2) Pride (In the Name of Love); 3) Wire; 4) The Unforgettable Fire; 5) Promenade; 6) 4th of July; 7) Bad; 8) Indian Summer Sky; 9) Elvis Presley and America; 10) MLK
U2 (formed in 1976, originally under the name Feedback, then The Hype) is comprised of vocalist Bono (Paul David Hewson), guitarist The Edge (David Howell Evans), bassist Adam (Charles) Clayton, and drummer (Laurence Joseph) “Larry” Mullen Jr.. They are primarily recognized for their ability to mesh together “conscious” and “extroverted” pop rock sensitivities with a variety of post-punk and alternative rock leanings, as well as their collaborations with the esteemed duo of musicians/producers Daniel Lanois and Brian Eno.
U2 are a more than fascinating group, as they have managed to earn the ire of critics and audiences more than a few times. First, they were accused of elevating themselves to the same level as many rock legends in the competent but misguided studio/live hybrid Rattle and Hum (1988). Second, after their highly successful re-invention with the more personal and experimental Achtung Baby (1991), they strayed away from their classic style and experimented with electronic music, a decision that had more than a fair share of critics. Today, however, these electronic albums seem to be more fondly regarded, as, in the 2000’s, U2 settled into a pop rock formula that captured most of what people would expect the group’s music to be, and this formula started wearing thin soon after it came to be. It’s also possible to go in detail on the flak the group have received for both their activism and that of Bono’s, but what is more interesting is how this relates to their music.
U2 are, for certain, one of the pioneers of the “conscious” pop style that permeated the 1980’s, and which can be heard in part in songs such as “We Are the World”. They do music that sounds big, reaches out to its audience, and relays a feeling of solidarity and action, and in the mid-80’s, they did it better than anyone else. This explains, for starters, why the group’s performance in the event Live Aid was a turning point in their career, and also why they are sometimes criticized for sticking to this earnest approach through the years — U2 haven’t changed much, but the world surely has.
The Unforgettable Fire marked the true start of this “conscious” style; while many elements of it (namely its anthemic quality) already had time to develop and culminate in the energetic War (1983), U2 were still rooted in post-punk at the time. If they wanted to, they could have easily stuck to their guns and milked this formula, but instead, the group replaced their original producer (Steve Lillywhite) with the duo of Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois. As the two already had more than a few ambient albums under their belt, it would seem like they and the group wouldn’t mix, but this combination turned out to be much more successful than expected — so much so that they would collaborate again on the genre-defining The Joshua Tree (1987).
The album is, for lack of a better term, “vague” — at the very least, more vague in sound than its visceral predecessor. The production, which clearly demonstrates the influence of Eno and Lanois, makes use of a variety of effects (it’s tempting to say “copious amounts of reverb”, but that would be a much too simple description) so as to give importance not only to the impact of the instruments, but also to the way their sounds travel in the recordings. In other words, a song can be as much about melody as it can be about atmosphere (in the same vein as a classic ambient Eno cut), though some tracks do focus more on one or the other; as much of a turning point as The Unforgettable Fire was in their career, it’s only there that we can truly hear U2 experiment in such a way.
This sound is complemented by The Edge’s (in)famous guitar technique, in which he is able to turn simple melodies into intricate sound textures with the help of reverb and delay effects. It’s easy to debate on the guitarist’s technical skill, considering his reliance on it, but it’s harder to argue over the merits of this technique itself, and it’s on The Unforgettable Fire that it reaches its full potential, as it goes hand in hand with the ambient-inspired production. From a melody standpoint, take the album’s hit single “Pride (In the Name of Love)”: thanks to the sound, The Edge’s seemingly simple guitar “riff” turns into a massive wall of sound, surpassing the iconic six-note melody of “Where the Streets Have No Name” in terms of sheer power. From an atmosphere standpoint, take the ambient instrumental “4th of July”, in which Adam Clayton’s bass melody is paired with a variety of subtle guitar tones.
Nevertheless, while the production of The Unforgettable Fire adds a lot to its flair, what ultimately makes it stand out in U2’s discography is the sheer strength of its songwriting. While the starting four-track stretch of The Joshua Tree may make up the group’s most celebrated 20 minutes of music, this record manages to sustain a similar level of quality over seven of its ten cuts, and even surpasses its successor’s opening stretch with its own. “A Sort of Homecoming” may sound underwhelming in comparison to what comes after it, whether in terms of “hook power” or energy, but it promptly introduces all of the key components of the record. If its selling point isn’t the swelling atmosphere or the vocal work, then it’s the picturesque lyricism — telling of travel “through the sleet and driving snow” –, brought together by the chorus hook: “I’ll be there tonight“.
This focus on imagery is, in fact, a notable characteristic of the lyrics in The Unforgettable Fire, further helping the album’s “vague” feel. Bono called the album “a beautifully out-of-focus record, blurred like an impressionist painting, very unlike a billboard or an advertising slogan” — a very pertinent assessment in every regard, the songwriting included. This is further demonstrated in “Pride”, which not only nearly earns its place as the best cut of the record thanks to its energy and its plentiful amount of hooks, but also thanks to the lyrics (dedicated to Martin Luther King, Jr.), which accentuate the emotional power of Bono’s vocal performance through their simplicity (the singer went on to call these lyrics, as well as those of “Bad”, unfinished).
Following “Pride” is the frantic “Wire”, an unjustly overlooked rocker that hearkens back to the group’s post-punk roots. The notable contribution of all four members (providing a strong bass line, a fast-paced and on-point drum rhythm, a variety of sharp guitar chords, and another remarkable vocal part) not only demonstrates the synergy between them, but also makes the track as powerful as anything on War. Finally, the title track rounds out the four-song set with a bang, offering a sprawling mesh of melodies, as well as fascinating lyrical imagery, including mountains that “crumble or disappear into the sea“.
A small break appears in the form of the calm “Promenade” and “4th of July”, which ease the record’s entry into a more atmospheric direction. After these comes “Bad”, the other contender for the status of best song in The Unforgettable Fire. It’s easy to consider U2’s anthemic style insincere, especially when Bono is seen by so many as patronizing (if not disingenuous) over his philanthropic work, but there is a reason why the group’s performance of this number at Live Aid was such a breakthrough for them. Clocking in at 6 minutes (though live performances can last longer), “Bad” consists of two large build-ups, each leading into the chorus. Here, Bono’s vocals are the star: the lyrics, supposedly about a friend who died of a heroin overdose, are much more abstract than the group’s other songs of the type, and this plays a key part in the singer’s performance. Without a clear topic to refer to, he seems to sing straight from the heart, making the song U2’s most universal and powerful anthem — one that extols solidarity and willpower in general, not just in relation to a particular event. Hearing Bono scream out “I’m wide awake!“, it’s easy to feel he means it.
However, from this point on, the album takes a brief but notable dive. I have grown to like “Indian Summer Sky” very much, as the frenetic instrumentation brings in another welcome touch of post-punk to the material, but “Elvis Presley and America” stops the record dead in its tracks. The longest number in The Unforgettable Fire (though only a handful of seconds longer than “Bad”), it borrows from ambient music due to its mostly static progression — the only evolving component is Bono’s vocals, which are completely improvised. In spite of its pleasant atmosphere, though, what it offers is very underwhelming; it’s easy to tell it was made as a spur of the moment. The biggest problem with the song, however, is that it fails to adequately slow down the record’s pace in preparation for the ending, slightly damaging what would otherwise be a nearly perfect progression from beginning to end.
Fortunately, the album does conclude with another high point; “MLK” (also dedicated to Martin Luther King) is another ambient number, comprised solely of vocals in front of a backdrop of keyboard chords. The results are beautiful, almost like a lullaby, ending The Unforgettable Fire on a peaceful and satisfying note. While the group would go on to release other classics, it’s on here that they would reach their peak, thanks to a more than large share of memorable cuts, a nearly flawless flow from track to track, a fair amount of experimentation, and a certain “impromptu” feel that simply cannot be found in records such as The Joshua Tree. The Unforgettable Fire is, indeed, unforgettable.
PERSONAL RATING: *****
RECOMMENDATION RATING: ****
LETTERED RATING: Epsilon