Huge. Immense. Enormous. Oversized. Monumental.
By the end of last summer's "Zoo TV Outside Broadcast" tour, those were the words most rock fans had begun to associate with U2. And no wonder. Having already proved itself a major draw on the concert circuit, the band seemed determined to inflate every aspect of its existence, from the information overload of its live show to the ironic excess of its media image.
Big wasn't big enough for this band; U2 wanted more. So when the band announced its new deal with Island Records, the figure floated was some $200 million -- more than Madonna, more than Michael Jackson, more than the Rolling Stones. (Later reports lowered the estimate to a still-hefty $60 million, but by that point, U2 had switched the focus from bigger bucks to bigger hype). And when the EP the band was making to promote its current European tour ended up ballooning to album-length, well . . . nobody ever said this band did things by half-measures.
Still, "Zooropa" (Island 314 518 047, in stores Tuesday) is hardly the exercise in excess the band's most recent efforts may have left fans expecting. Instead of the sonic sweep and stylistic daring of "Achtung Baby," what this new album delivers is music that's subtle, insinuating, more modest in its ambitions.
An album, in other words, that doesn't seem terribly interested in "bigger."
That's not to say "Zooropa" is without ambition. It's still a U2 album, and despite its stopgap-project modesty, it takes that responsibility quite seriously. Indeed, the issues addressed on this album are in many ways even weightier than those poked at by its predecessor.
Let's start with the music, though. As with "Achtung Baby," the band's sound here is digitalized and distorted, dressing up its basic power-trio instrumentation with a high-tech sheen of synths, samples and processing devices. It's an approach that values sound over content, and delights in turning meaning into musical texture. Not surprisingly, one of the first things we hear on the album is a babble of voices, looped and jiggled until they become just another layer of noise in the title tune's opening drone.
But unlike the last album, where the band blared distortion and industrial edge as it gloried in its newfound aural arsenal, there's a greater sense of control and purpose to the sonic manipulation here. For example, though "Numb" fleshes out its mechanized pulse with buzzing guitars and pinball-machine percussion, the focus is kept squarely on the robotic monotone of the vocal. In fact, the whole arrangement seems built around that voice, from the bass line that shores the beat to the descending synth figure that frames the melody.
Even "Daddy's Gonna Pay for Your Crashed Car," which boasts the roughest edges on the album, still manages to avoid the abrasive, industrial tone of "The Fly." True, the rhythm track does clatter and ping like an overheated engine, but the band makes every effort to keep the surrounding textures cool, as if to emphasize the imperturbable perfection of "Daddy's" protection.
Moreover, by keeping the instrumental clutter to a minimum, the band has more room to play with dynamics. Often that's played for drama, as on the title tune, where the music moves from the cool, lean sound of the opening verses to the shimmering intensity of the finale to reflect the way Bono's lyric moves from utopian burlesque to doubt-filled reflection.
It may seem a fairly simple device, but it makes quite a difference when attached to the lyrics. Bono begins by treating "Zooropa" as if it were some sort of miracle product, promising impossibilities like "Be a winner/Eat to get slimmer" over dreamy guitar and a gently loping pulse. What the song parodies is the utopian economic hype used to sell the Maastricht Pact. U2 isn't buying, though, and tries to reflect reality through the self-doubting words and agitated music that bring the song to its guardedly optimistic close.
"Stay (Faraway, So Close!)," by contrast, comes across as a slow-building arc, whose steadily increasing intensity echoes the momentum of the text. It's a wonderful device, drawing us in bit by bit until, before we know it, we're as caught up in its emotional turmoil as Bono.
But as with other songs here, "Stay" is devilishly sly about what it has to say. On the surface, the lyric seems to be about an abandoned lover, one who alternately appalls and amuses Bono to such a degree that he finds it hard to pull himself away. "Aha!" the listener thinks, "it's about the groupie who stole his heart."
Look closer, though, and "Stay" actually turns out to be about the band's unrequited love for its audience, that unpredictable mass which acts like "A vampire or a victim/It depends on who's around." And it's the maddening combination of social distance and physical proximity separating artist from audience that gives the title its paradoxical parenthesis ("Faraway, So Close!").
Another hidden meaning can be found in "Daddy's Gonna Pay," where the father figure isn't some paterfamilias but the Pater Noster -- God himself, portrayed in typical Christian fashion as all-powerful and all-forgiving. Nor is that the only religious reference on "Zooropa," as the band indulges in everything from subtle digs at secularism in the title tune to overt evangelism in the album-closing "The Wanderer."
Of course, what's more likely to strike listeners about "The Wanderer" isn't its Christian content, but the fact that it's sung by Johnny Cash. And while it may appear to be something of a novelty, not unlike B. B. King's contribution to "When Love Comes to Town" from "Rattle and Hum," the cameo is perfectly in character, as "The Wanderer" sounds and feels like a classic Johnny Cash song -- albeit with a feistier-than-normal rhythm section.
Imitation is another of the themes here. "Babyface," for instance, comes off like U2's attempt to write its own "Satellite of Love" (though it's doubtful Lou Reed would ever pen a line as gushingly enthusiastic as "How could beauty be so kind/To an ordinary guy?"). And then there's "Lemon," where the vocals alternate between Bono's Mick Jagger-style falsetto and an Edge-sung chorus that's a dead-ringer for early-'80s Talking Heads.
Still, the album's greatest strength is the depth each of these features -- the rich textures, the dramatic pacing, the sly symbolism -- lend the music. It's almost as if new layers are unveiled and new resonances found with each playing. And if that doesn't quite make "Zooropa" bigger than its predecessors it goes a long way toward making it better.