The Worst U2 Album? Looking Back at 1997’s “Pop”

So does “Pop” deserve its ridicule and obscurity?

I’m no U2 aficionado, but like anyone with ears, I’ve absorbed my share of U2 by osmosis. It’s impossible not to. Turns out, though, there was an entire album worth of U2 songs I’d never heard before. Unless you were paying close attention in 1997, you might not have heard it, either. That album is called Pop and its disappearance from popular culture (ironic, I know) might be intentional. It’s one of the few U2 albums that was truly polarizing, with the band itself largely abandoning it after a poorly-received supporting tour and mixed album reviews. 

I recently discovered this album by accident. I was watching a highlight reel for long-forgotten NFL quarterback Chris Chandler (don’t ask) and the backing song was a trippy dance track called “Do You Feel Loved.” I was hooked. Upon looking the song up, I was stunned that it was by U2. I had to listen to the rest of the album. Was “Do You Feel Loved” a fluke, just a change-of-pace track amidst an ordinary U2 record? Or was there something more to this?

So let’s head back to 1997 and find out.

Background

For U2, Pop was part of a wider period of experimentation that spanned roughly the entire 1990s. The band had entered the decade with a chip on their shoulders after 1988’s Rattle and Hum had been widely criticized, taking more risks on 1991’s Achtung Baby and 1993’s Zooropa, both of which were well-received. Pop built upon those earlier albums and continued the band’s foray into alt rock, grunge, electronic music, and dance. 

Pop was in progress from 1995 up until its release in March 1997. It had been slated for release in late 1996, but the band needed more time. When the album rolled out in early 1997, everything that could go wrong did go wrong. Not only did U2 feel like they’d had to rush the album (and thus felt like it was an unfinished product), but that time crunch also cut into their rehearsal time. The resulting “PopMart” tour suffered, with the band struggling in early performances due to lack of practice (the tour had been scheduled before the album was finished). 

Aftermath

Several of the album’s songs were abandoned after just a few lackluster live performances, including the aforementioned “Do You Feel Loved.” U2 continued tinkering with the tracks into the 2000s, and some later releases of Pop’s songs were heavily reworked, again hinting that the band wasn’t kidding when they said they felt Pop was unfinished. A Pitchfork review of How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb (U2’s 2004 album) went so far as to look back on Pop as a “disastrous” record.  

Today, some U2 fans regard this entire 1990s period as a dark age (with Pop as the worst of the bunch), preferring the classic 1980s U2 sound. Others feel like this was the last era in which the band took real risks, aside from that time in 2014 when they forcibly put their latest album onto your smartphone. Anyway, as for U2 in the 1990s, I don’t have much of an opinion yet. As I said above, I’m not a U2 expert by any stretch of the imagination. But enough of that — let’s move onto the album itself.

The Good

Pop comes out swinging, proving to me that “Do You Feel Loved” was not merely a change-of-pace track on a bland album. The first track and lead single is “Discothèque.” It sounds exactly like you’d imagine for a song called “Discothèque.” Très chic. It’s a groovy European dance song with some very funky — and obnoxious — vocals: “You just can’t get enough of that lovey-dovey stuff.” I’m actually good, thanks. Some of the vocals sound like Fred Schneider from the B-52s talk-singing his way through the song, so it’s kind of love it or hate it. But that guitar riff is damn catchy, and near the end, Bono starts to become recognizable as himself. 

“Do You Feel Loved” and “Mofo” are the album’s other dance tracks: the former is my favorite song on the album, featuring heavily-distorted guitar loops riding confidently atop the bassline, all wrapped up in aggressively sexual lyrics. I’m frankly just shocked this is U2. “Mofo” sounds like it could be the theme to an action movie, sounding more like Moby’s “Extreme Ways” for Jason Bourne than “Sunday Bloody Sunday” (update: turns out that two members of U2, Adam Clayton and Larry Mullen, Jr.,  were responsible for the 1996 Mission Impossible theme. That explains things). “Do You Feel Loved” and “Mofo” are one hell of a one-two punch sitting in the 2 and 3 spots, respectively.

Other highlights include “Last Night on Earth.” It’s a little grungy at times, but overall, it sounds more like traditional U2, especially when you listen closely to the philanthropic lyrics (“You gotta give it away! / You gotta give it away!”). Nothing too challenging there, but this later part still gives me goosebumps, even after several listens: “She hasn’t been to bed in a week / she’ll be dead soon / then she’ll sleep.” Say what you want about Bono, but sometimes he manages to capture a feeling that resonates with even the most cynical listener. It’s an ability he frequently overplays, but it works well on “Last Night on Earth.” 

The 60s-tinged “Staring at the Sun,” which is clearly Beatles influenced, is another highlight. Other bands playing with this sound in the late 1990s include Fastball (listen to their albums, not just the singles, to see what I’m talking about) and Oasis (no explanation needed). Another weird fact about this song: in 2005, Gorillaz achieved a bona-fide hit with “Feel Good Inc.” which — unintentionally or otherwise — borrowed the “Windmill, windmill for the land / Turn forever hand in hand” melody from this song. It’s almost identical and has accordingly spawned numerous crappy YouTube mashups. This quick, no-frills comparison is helpful, though. I had no idea “Feel Good Inc.” had anything in common with an old U2 song, but there you go.

The piano and falsetto-laden “Gone” is another good one, as is “Please.” In fact, I would be willing to put “Please” up against “Do You Feel Loved” as the best song of the album, but for entirely different reasons. Whereas “Do You Feel Loved” is catchy, punchy, and lyrically aggressive, with “Please,” the sense of desperation sells it. Like “Sunday Bloody Sunday,” it’s pretty obviously about The Troubles. As easy as it would be to think U2 was trying to capitalize off something that helped make them famous, this song is so genuine, so earnest, that I can’t help but feel it’s sincere. I know that writers often use that word, earnest, as a backhanded compliment for sappy songs, but I don’t mean it that way at all. It’s not sappy. It’s really well done:

You had to win.

You couldn’t just pass.

The smartest ass

at the top of the class.

Your flying colors,

your family tree,

and all your lessons in history.

“Please” by U2

The Not-so-Good

But before you think this is all going to be positive, there are misses. The weird spoken-word/drum loop combo in “Miami” doesn’t work. It’s just grating. If you’re willing to suffer through the first four minutes, there’s a surprise near the end, though. Ever wanted to hear Bono scream like a hair metal rocker? No? Well, if you change your mind, listen to the end of “Miami” on the Pop album. 

“The Playboy Mansion” might be even worse. There are snarky references to plastic surgery, Big Macs, Michael Jackson, and O.J. Simpson. It’s a product of its time if there ever was one. It’s like a parody of a Don Henley song. It hasn’t aged well. 

“If God Will Send His Angels” is more boring than outright bad — there’s talk of Jesus, Christmas, and country songs (actually, you know what? That does sound pretty bad when I write it out). It’s a clear outlier in an otherwise risky album, almost like it was carefully calculated to be released as a single and climb the charts just before Christmas. As a matter of fact, it was released as a single in December 1997. Hmm… 

The Verdict

Even though Pop is a black sheep, there are still a few hints that this is a U2 album: The Troubles, a wistful Christmas song, and religious metaphors that are as frequent as they are heavy-handed. You can almost see the smirk on Bono’s face as he writes some of these lines. 

But there are a lot of risks here, and overall, Pop lands more punches than it misses. The one thing I don’t get is the title. Pop? This is a bizarre fusion of dance, electronica, grunge, and traditional U2. So don’t be fooled by the title. There’s a lot more going on here than in your regular, generic pop album. 

So does Pop deserve its ridicule and obscurity? In my mind, not really. This is an expensive, gutsy, and complicated record full of ups, downs, and everything in between. It doesn’t always work, but it’s rarely uninteresting, and there are plenty of gems buried in this forgotten release.  

Album breakdown

1-3: The Dance Tracks

4: A Christmas Song

5-7: Some Good Stuff

8-9: Stinkers

10-12: More Good Stuff

The Unappreciated Career of Ron Parker

Parker spent six seasons with the Chiefs, never missing a single game until his benching: that’s 94 straight appearances, including 76 consecutive starts from 2014-2018.

Above: a 2018 Facebook post from the Kansas City Chiefs thanks Parker for his tenure with the team.

The Kansas City Chiefs saw a lot of momentous change between 2013 and 2019, especially on defense. The unit was one of the best in the league and one of the worst. Its star players were young, and they grew old. Marcus Peters came and went. Justin Houston recorded 22 sacks in 2014 and was released in 2019. Eric Berry was healthy, then he had lymphoma, then conquered it, then he was injured for two seasons, and finally he was released. Dee Ford went from promising rookie to alleged-bust to breakout star to playoff villain — and then he was traded. One mainstay during those years was a rather overlooked member of the defense: Ron Parker, fittingly nicknamed “Ghost” since his early days.

Parker is one of my favorite NFL players, which might seem odd given that my hometown team has more obvious choices like Patrick Mahomes II and Travis Kelce. I love them, too. But once you realize that I like an underdog, it all makes sense. There is hardly a bigger underdog story in the NFL than Ron Parker. Sure, Kurt Warner bagged groceries and Matt Cassel never started a game in college, but Parker isn’t a quarterback, so his journey has been far less covered (although ESPN gave him some much-needed attention recently).  

When you look at the stats from his Chiefs career, it would be easy to assume that Parker’s origin was typical — maybe he was a mid- to high-round draft choice who was developed and became a full-time player. That was not the case, though. Parker played his first two years of college football at a community college in Kansas, followed by two seasons at Newberry, a Division II school in South Carolina. Despite his immense physical talent, he was not selected in the 2011 NFL draft (he ran a 4.35 40-yard dash, very impressive for a safety). Part of this may have been the relative obscurity of Newberry, as well as his age. At 24, Parker was on the old side for a rookie player in a league where careers are often short and brutal.

Early NFL Career

That physical ability, mainly his stunning quickness, put Parker on the radar, though. He made it into the NFL, but spent the next few seasons bouncing around the league in practice squads and battling for roster spots in preseason. He was released at least eight times (five by the Seattle Seahawks alone). Much of that time was spent playing out of position, with coaches putting Parker at corner due to his speed rather than keeping him at safety, which he was more accustomed to.

In 2013, Parker joined the Chiefs, who had sunk about as low as an NFL team could go. They had gone 2-14 in 2012, with one of their defense’s starters making international headlines in a murder-suicide. The organization cleaned house, swapping Scott Pioli’s Patriots-based regime for one led by Andy Reid and John Dorsey. Matt Cassel was out and Alex Smith was in. Bob Sutton became the defensive coordinator.

The Chiefs turned around in 2013, going 11-5 for one of the biggest comeback seasons in league history. Parker appeared in every game, but in a backup role. More importantly for him, though, he had hung on to a roster spot all year. Now he just needed a big break.

Chiefs Mainstay

That break came in 2014 when Andy Reid named Parker as one of the team’s starting corners. When starting safety Eric Berry was hurt for five weeks, however, Parker moved back to his more natural position, safety, to fill in. When Berry was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma later that year, Parker was again his replacement. After seeing significant playing time for the first time in his career, Parker set career-highs in all categories. He made 15 starts, racking up 94 combined tackles, while his 84 solo tackles led the team. He also intercepted a pass (he’d picked off two others in 2013 as a backup), but more importantly, he had stabilized a position that was in flux without its leader. The secondary could depend on Parker.

The Chiefs rewarded Parker for his efforts, inking him to a long-term deal potentially worth over $30 million. It seemed odd that an undrafted, 27-year-old defensive back (DB) who had been cut eight times could reach such heights, but he had. The typical NFL player (undrafted or not) is already out of the league by 27, especially if they are a DB who relies on speed and quickness. Those are often the first traits to deteriorate. Parker was just getting started, though.

In 2015, Parker was cemented at safety as the starter alongside Berry, who had recovered. They combined to form one of the most effective safety duos in the league, with Parker responsible for 76 combined tackles; he also made three interceptions, good for second-most on the team. He was utilized as a pass rusher, too, recording 5 sacks, which remains the Chiefs’ single-season record for a DB.

2016 brought more of the same, with Parker remaining a stable, if often unrecognized, force in the secondary. The common statistics showed a slight downturn (64 tackles, 1 INT), but analytics sites like Pro Football Focus (PFF) actually graded 2016 as one of Parker’s best seasons. While the NFL’s advanced stats have a long way to go before they hold the same kind of weight as MLB’s, Parker excelled in 2016 by the eye-test, too. Sometimes being a deterrent is just as good as making plays.

Pro Football Focus recognized Parker as one of the NFL’s best safeties in 2016.

By 2017, at age 30, it appeared that Parker was beginning to slow down. PFF graded him as one of the league’s least effective safeties, but he managed to record a pair of interceptions and was still regarded as an unquestioned starter, especially with Berry injured for nearly the entire season. Curiously, though, Parker’s 2017 may not have been as disastrous as some would like us to believe. One article called Parker “extremely disappointing” in 2017 only to point out that passers managed a rating of just 71.9 when targeting him. Other safeties on the roster like Eric Murray were far less successful against the pass, surrendering a passer rating of over 100. Daniel Sorensen was lit up for a rating of 111.2, while also missing an astounding 17 tackles. At least in coverage, the stats make Parker look almost godlike compared to his 2017 alternatives, declining or not. However, Parker was released after the season in a cost-saving move, with Reid preferring to move forward with Berry and Sorensen as his starters.

Departure and Triumphant Return

Parker signed on with the Atlanta Falcons in the 2017-18 offseason. Despite four straight seasons of consistent starting duty, Parker was signed to be a reserve for the Falcons. Meanwhile, trouble was brewing in Kansas City. The Chiefs had parted ways with star corner Marcus Peters. Eric Berry was hurt. Sorensen suffered a severe injury. The Chiefs defense would have to enter the season with unknowns and reserves in the secondary. With no obvious successors to Peters, Sorensen, or Berry, they could really use a guy like…Ron Parker.

Luckily for the Chiefs, the Falcons had been less-than-impressed with Parker during preseason and cut him — the 10th time in his career that Parker had been released by an NFL team. In typical humble Ron Parker fashion, he announced his own termination and thanked the Falcons for the chance. The Chiefs moved in swiftly and reclaimed Parker, immediately reinstating him as their number one safety.

Perhaps reinvigorated by his triumphant return, Parker dominated in the 2018 season opener against the Chargers. He piled up eight tackles and intercepted Philip Rivers. He darted across the field after the interception — a sign that there was still some agility and quickness left in those legs. The return would eventually be called back (the interception counted, though), but the point had been made: Ron Parker had returned.

Another highlight came during a rout of the Cincinnati Bengals, where Parker returned an interception for a touchdown. It was the first touchdown of Parker’s career.

An Inglorious End

That said, the 2018 season also saw plenty of lows for the aging Parker. The entire Chiefs secondary was historically bad in 2018, with Murray and corner Orlando Scandrick attracting most of the fans’ ire. Berry also began to test the patience of a vocal segment of fans, who were upset over his nearly two-season-long absence. Parker largely escaped criticism for the first half of the season, as though there was an unspoken understanding that Parker was at least acceptable — even if all else failed, fans seemed to spend little time fretting about Parker in particular.

That began to change as the season wore on and the Chiefs defense failed to adapt to a league that ran and passed all over them. By October and November, Parker too became a lightning rod for angry fans, who often complained of his deteriorating speed and missed tackles. Then there was this infamous moment against the Patriots, which is still being played in offseason highlight reels as I write. The Chiefs seemed unwilling to take Parker out of the lineup, however, or even to let him come off the field. A common theme in the 2018 snap counts was Parker’s ubiquity: “Ron Parker Plays Every Defensive Snap Once Again” says a headline from October. The same article actually notes that Parker had not missed a snap all year up to that point. Whether fans liked it or not, it seemed that no one could unseat Parker.

Until it happened. It was sudden and swift, but on December 23rd Parker was inactive for the game against the Seahawks, just after ESPN ran their aforementioned story. There had been no lead-up, no gradual decline in playing time. Then Parker was not just benched, but completely ineligible to play. Was Parker chosen, along with Scandrick, to be a scapegoat for a defense that had been atrocious all-around? Was he caught in a power struggle between Sutton’s old guard and Reid’s younger acquisitions? In any case, Parker would not regain his starting job this time. He appeared in the next game against the Raiders as a backup, but was listed at the tail end of the depth chart. He had fallen from the top to the very bottom of the hierarchy in one fell swoop.

Finally, after a playoff victory against the Colts in early 2019, the Chiefs released Parker, just days before they would face the Patriots for a chance to advance to the Super Bowl. After the Chiefs lost to the Patriots, Parker mysteriously tweeted out “God don’t like ugly,” with no other context. It’s impossible to say what prompted this comment, but it seemed out of character for a man whose daily tweets usually just consist of “thank you God.” It’s hard not to speculate. After all, this was an inglorious and insulting end to the tenure of a player who had been a Chiefs mainstay for years.

Parker’s Chiefs Legacy

It’s hard to say where Parker goes from here. He’ll be 32 at the start of the 2019-20 season, at which point most corners and safeties are not merely over the hill, but are careening down the other side. Fifteen-year careers like Champ Bailey’s are the exception, not the rule. Offseason speculation has not been kind to Parker, with one resource listing him as the 10th-best free agent safety. It could be the end of the line, but I would also be far from shocked to see him pop up somewhere in 2019. Parker has overcome greater odds, after all.

That said, for all of us Chiefs fans, 2018 is not how Parker should be remembered, as the guy who was cut before a playoff game, or the guy who was slammed to the ground on national TV. He should be remembered as one of the most stable Chiefs players of the decade, a “Ghost” who often materialized out of thin air to snag an errant pass — sometimes one-handed. He should be remembered as Eric Berry’s trusty sidekick who ensured that teams could not beat the Chiefs secondary merely by avoiding Berry, or as the guy who could be utilized all over the defense, whether he was at free or strong safety, outside corner, covering the slot receiver or tight end, or as a lightning-quick pass rusher.

In all, Parker spent six seasons with the Chiefs, never missing a single game until his benching: that’s 94 straight appearances, including 76 consecutive starts from 2014-2018. He was never suspended. He was never too beaten up to play. He was never fined for an illegal hit (at least not that I could find reference to online). He never taunted or brawled.

He recorded 11 interceptions with the team, along with nearly 400 tackles (395 total and 345 solo). He holds a franchise record for most career sacks by a DB (8.0) and another for most sacks by a DB in a single season (5). Pro Football Reference lists his career Approximate Value at 28, which ranks just behind Dante Hall and Marcus Peters, and just above Dee Ford (AV is a counting stat, which means that it favors every-down players like Parker and Peters more than specialists like Hall).

That’s a pretty good place to be in Chiefs history, especially for a guy who had never started an NFL game before age 26, didn’t enter the league until 24, and started his college career at Independence (Kansas) Community College. On top of that, Parker represented Chiefs Kingdom well, proving himself to be a dependable and hard-working man of character who just so happened to make it big.

Well done, Ron Parker, and best of luck to you from Kansas City.