I’m going to remove all suspense and tell you right now that Pop is U2’s second worst album, at least in my opinion. We all know the story of the album, the fact they went a little out to the edge of things and it didn’t work. They’ve done that many times over the years and sometimes it has worked in a great way - Achtung Baby - and other times it just hasn’t worked at all. Pop is the latter, with almost nothing on the album working well. They tried I think to grab the zeitgeist, to get into the club scene and so on, but really they are better when they are leading the way.
The way to make a poor album is simple, make one without any hit songs. That sounds obvious, but there is a clear curve on every album from great to poor, and there are some otherwise average albums that have been pulled up by one or two great songs. Look at War, which rates just a tenth of a point higher than Pop, and that’s simply because of one song on War that got a ten - I haven’t reviewed it yet, but you can guess which one. If not for that song, the curve these two albums follows is almost identical, several in the average range and several in the poor range.
One of the things that colors the image of Pop is the way it was promoted by the band. Their whole facetious take on the music of the time, trying to say that the music in the 1990s sucked, and the idea of the attacks on consumerism and the way the world was going at the time, well, it just didn’t work. Their weird costumes and presenting the tour in a department store, the public just didn’t get it. And that made U2 a bit of a parody in the eye of the public, especially after Bono had done all that weird stuff with MacPhisto on the prior tour, people just began thinking of them as full of themselves and getting kind of weird. That may have been a death blow to the band, but fortunately they came back to their senses in later albums and moved back to the top again, for the most part. There are still people who have an image of U2 in a giant lemon, and that’s the way they will always think of them.
My highest rating for a song on Pop is for Please, the review of which will be coming up in about a week, for specific reasons I will explain then. Please is a really good song, and really emotional for me, but it doesn’t have great resonance with the public, it hasn’t had great legs with the band, and it isn’t able to carry the album by itself. When you then have to drop a couple of points to get down to Wake Up Dead Man and Velvet Dress (which have a lot in common), you can see that things aren’t well in Pop land (or the PopMart if you prefer).
The album starts with Discotheque, which I think surprised many people, myself included. It seems like one of those parody songs, especially the way they presented it. It slowly moves through the early songs, then gets to what I think of as a trilogy, If God Will Send His Angels, Staring At The Sun, and Last Night On Earth. They make for a middle of the album that is just a little odd, kind of an attempt to go somewhat post-apocalyptic with the music, and again I’m not sure that’s a good thing. It doesn’t exactly bring on a sense of happiness to sing about those things, does it? It’s kind of like the Smashing Pumpkins and their Mellon Collie album, which had one CD of sunshine and one CD of darkness, and there was a clear difference in mood between them. The problem with Pop is that there isn’t that sunshine CD to flip to when you get depressed by the other.
Harsh, right? I don’t have much good to say about it all. They move on through Miami and Playboy Mansion, which are once again throwaways, junk or filler for the album. But they end on a good note, or maybe I should say interesting note, with Velvet Dress, Please and Dead Man ending the album. Interesting that my three highest rated songs are all at the end? Yes, especially given what followed on the next album. Those three songs certainly seemed to hit the ideas of All That You Can’t Leave Behind better than they did Pop, didn’t they?
Pop was in a gap between other albums that was probably the longest in U2 history (not checking specific dates here), it filling in a space of seven years between Zooropa and ATYCLB. I have to say that gap now feels a lot longer than seven years. Even the wait for recent albums technically may have been longer, but they just didn’t feel longer. Pop kind of filled the void in the late 90s, but it was just fluff or filler, and that’s what leaves a disappointing taste.
My rating for Pop: 4.6 / 10