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