When I first listened to the album The Unforgettable Fire I wasn’t sure what I was hearing. I was coming backwards from The Joshua Tree, and the difference between the two is quite profound. The Joshua Tree is a rock album, whereas The Unforgettable Fire at times feels like an art project, one of those “experience” albums people release. It has the clearest influence from Brian Eno of any U2 album.
The Unforgettable Fire is a mix of songs, everything is either good or bad, there’s nothing in the middle. In fact it is the only U2 album where I have no songs rated either a five or a six. Ironically though the average song ends up in that middle ground, because I have half the songs rated highly and half the songs rated poorly. It leads it to be one of those albums that the average rating doesn’t really work on too well.
The most well-known song is Pride, but the best song is Bad. I absolutely love Bad, especially live, I will tell you that it just barely missed the cut for getting a rating of ten out of ten. It is a song that draws you in, gets into your soul in a way. There are in fact other songs on the album that do that too - the title track and Promenade especially so. Just like the album, it took me a while to warm up to the title song, and as so often has happened, it took a live version of the song to get me really into it. Maybe that’s why I didn’t like this album initially, because I didn’t have live experiences of it, and the songs that I rated poorly were also ones I haven’t heard live much and the band hasn’t played live much, if at all.
So to the question of what the album is about. The phrase The Unforgettable Fire refers to the detonation of a nuclear bomb, if I remember correctly they took it from a Japanese art or history project on World War Two. But that is not very thematic, and neither is most of the album. You have something like Pride and MLK, which both talk about Martin Luther King, then you have Bad which is about drugs, The Unforgettable Fire which could be nuclear war, and so on. Nothing specifically sticking together in that lot.
The thing about The Unforgettable Fire that keeps coming back to me though is the idea that it is something very cinematic in a way. More than a decade later U2 would get back together with Eno and make the Passengers album, which was designed as a set of theme songs for movies. If I were to describe The Unforgettable Fire I would describe it in that same way, like they created the idea with this album and used it, then it was a decade later the idea came back to them. For many if not most of these songs it is very possible to close your eyes, listen to the music - and sometimes the words - and feel images running through your mind brought on by it. It usually leads to something very calming, and the feeling that you could be watching the end credits of a movie with the soundtrack running over the top. For most of it, it really does work that way, and perhaps that’s the theme that is missing from the album when you listen to it intentionally.
I can’t help feeling that this is a really good album that just misses a mark, that it should grab me much more than it does. But then there are times, like in the paragraph above, where it grabs me and won’t let go, and it’s those times that I want to get into it. Like the songs themselves, the album as a whole has a split personality, that if I’m in the mood it is fantastic, but if not then I just want to get it done with.
My rating for The Unforgettable Fire: 5.5 / 10