Pro ‘Pop’: The Case for U2’s Most Maligned Album

Techno beats. Synth pads. A world tour announced in the lingerie department of a Manhattan K-Mart. A music video that found one of the world’s greatest bands dressing up as members of the Village People.

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Pop marked the final chapter of U2‘s tongue-in-cheek odyssey through the night clubs, raves, and experimental excesses of the 1990s. To some listeners, the album was a colossal misstep, thrown together by four pop-rockers in their late thirties who had no business making dance music. To others, it was an under-appreciated gem that showcased U2 at their most adventurous, unafraid to reach for the gold that lay just beyond their grasp. 

Eccentricity Out of Necessity

The whole thing began innocently enough. When the band started working on Pop in 1995, Larry Mullen Jr.’s back was in bad shape. The drummer underwent surgery that November and spent several months in recovery, while bandmates Bono, The Edge, and Adam Clayton worked on new material without him. Drum samples, tape loops, and keyboard sequences became the main ingredients of the sound they cooked up as a trio—partly out of necessity, since their drummer wasn’t there to keep time, and partly out of a desire to salute the dance trends of the era. 

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Meanwhile, the band’s manager booked a world tour for the group, with a launch date of April 25, 1997. U2’s members were confident they’d be done with the album by then, but once recording sessions started taking longer than expected, corners were cut and songs were rushed. Pop was finished at the eleventh hour, leaving the band so dissatisfied with the final product that they wound up remixing three of the album’s biggest singles. 

Tour-Time Do-Overs

Even so, Pop marks a fascinating era for U2. On the accompanying PopMart Tour—a 100-show trek that found the band visiting every continent but Antarctica—U2 worked out the kinks in many of the album’s best songs.

It often didn’t take much to elevate a song from “good” to “great.” The Edge added some wailing vocal harmonies to the chorus of “Gone,” turning the refrain into a cathartic call-and-response that gave the song new dimension. “Please” was reworked, too—not only onstage, but also in the studio, where the song was remixed into proper shape after the PopMart Tour began. The album version of “Please” might have sounded a little too detached, but the version U2 released as a single was a slow-burning stunner, starting out as an aloof trip-hop track before building itself into a driving, dance-rock standout.

U2 also went back into the studio to fine-tune a new mix of “If God Will Send His Angels.” The song’s updated version hits its stride during the second verse, where The Edge’s guitar adds some spacey backing without resorting to the echoing soundscapes he’d created—and, perhaps, exhausted—on the band’s ’80s albums.  

Not every song needed a revision. “Discothèque” was a cheeky funk number that delivered one of The Edge’s best guitar riffs since “Bullet the Blue Sky,” and it sounded downright fun, too, as it kickstarted the album with a sly grin. Accompanied by an ecstasy trip of a music video, “Discothèque” reached No.1 on the Alternative Airplay chart in America, as did its follow-up, “Staring at the Sun.”

Like the best Oasis song Noel Gallagher never wrote, “Staring at the Sun” found a psychedelic balance between melancholy and melody, and its big-hearted chorus made U2’s new form of medicine go down smoothly. (The song’s B-side, “Your Blue Room”—officially released in 1995 on U2’s Original Soundtrack 1 collaboration with Brian Eno—found Bono switching between a gorgeous falsetto and a spoken-word delivery that recalled Lou Reed and Leonard Cohen. It’s one of the most overlooked highlights of the band’s entire catalog, but that’s a topic for another article.)

Rounding out Pop‘s handful of genuine gems was “Do You Feel Loved,” a sweaty, kinetic song for encounters on crowded dance floors, or intimate bedrooms. 

‘A’ for Effort, and Elegant Ridiculousness

This wasn’t U2’s first venture into club land. Multiple songs from Achtung Baby—including “The Fly,” “Even Better Than the Real Thing,” and “Mysterious Ways”—had become hits on Billboard‘s Dance Singles Sales Chart earlier that decade, bringing U2’s music to a new audience. Achtung still felt like a rock record, though, whereas Pop made no attempt to hide its identity as an electronica record. This was the sound of U2 trying something new, leaving behind the blinding stage lights of the sports arena and, instead, setting up shop beneath the glitzy glimmer of a disco ball. 

This move toward dance music didn’t always work in the band’s favor—just listen to “Miami,” a half-baked sketch of a song that’s far too monochromatic to be named after such a colorful city—and when it failed, it failed big. That’s part of Pop‘s appeal, though. It’s a big, bold, reckless album that served as the perfect way for U2 to close the chapter of its most experimental decade. Pop had the balls to be ridiculous, and we should have the balls to love it for that. 

Photo by Vince Bucci/Getty Images

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