U2 – The Unforgettable Fire: Super Deluxe Edition [reissue]

January 01, 1970

(Mercury/Universal)

 

www.islanddefjam.com

 

So this is where it really began.

 

Not U2’s initial lift-off; that was a year earlier, with
1983’s War, and an ensuing world tour
that cemented indelible images of a white flag-brandishing Bono atop
scaffoldings and speaker stacks. With Universal’s ongoing overhaul of the U2
back catalog (which began, somewhat curiously, with 2007’s 20th anniversary
edition of The Joshua Tree before
backtracking to the earliest releases) it’s been possible to have,
retroactively, what amounts to a front-row seat for the musical evolution of
the Irish foursome – the youthful fierceness of 1980’s Boy, the moody soul-seeking of 1981’s October, and of course War and its mini-album sibling Under A Blood
Red Sky
, all reissued last year, fleshed out with bonus tracks and
subjected to some frankly remarkable remastering jobs overseen by The Edge.
Longtime fans may have expressed surprise at the sonic detail, but in a sense
that surprise was compounded by the feeling we were receiving a history lesson
on material we long supposed we’d memorized.

 

Those Deluxe Reissues thus far, then, set the stage for
this, arguably U2’s greatest album. For while some tend to cling to The Joshua Tree on commercial grounds
(it spawned at least four hit singles) and others prefer to cite 1991’s Achtung Baby (for its artistic reinvention;
I’ll confess at times I fall into this camp), The Unforgettable Fire remains a groundbreaking record that quite
literally took the band overground while retaining their core aesthetic and
philosophical principles. Much would change for the band between its arrival in
stores in October ‘84 and the March ’87 release of TJT, but upon close scrutiny of The
Unforgettable Fire: Super Deluxe Edition
, it’s clear that an elemental
purity has survived the test of time and commerce, one in which any U2 fan –
old, new, jaded, energized by the current 360 Tour, or otherwise merely curious
– can take heart.

 

From billowing opening track “A Sort of Homecoming,” with its
myriad deep-mix effects signaling from the outset that the U2/Brian Eno/Daniel Lanois
alliance is a – no pun intended – sound one, to the insistent elegance of
“Pride (In The Name of Love),” a textbook U2 rocker that nevertheless
foreshadows the brand of subtle restraint that would serve the group well in
the future whenever they sensed they’d fallen prey to excess; from the
harrowing yet luminous “Bad,” possibly the best anti-heroin anthem ever because
it eschews dissertation and condemnation in favor of the Christian principle of loving the sinner, to closing
number “MLK,” an atmospheric drone cocooning an otherwise a capella Bono vocal to create a mood distinctively gospel in tone;
The Unforgettable Fire arrives and
departs in just under 43 minutes, yet during that three-fourths of an hour, a
journey has been undertaken that travels much farther than its actual duration
would suggest.

 

That’s something you’ll hear time and time again from U2
devotees who experienced TUF first
time around, during ’84 and ’85.  How U2,
on this album, helped open up young minds that had never pondered the nature
of, say, addiction or racism or spirituality or human rights issues or even the
crushing impact of American culture upon the world; or how TUF offered a credible escape from what was rapidly becoming an
MTV-spawned dead-end milieu of aerodynamically-coiffed synth/dance groups (the
irony being, of course, that MTV had a huge hand in U2’s success); or simply
how, with an engaging mixture of poetry and tough love, framed against a
backdrop of cinematic, widescreen rock ‘n’ roll, U2 stumbled upon the zeitgeist and took everyone along with
them.

 

That much I know; for when I interviewed Bono in the spring
of 1985 during the second US leg of The
Unforgettable Fire
tour, he dwelled upon all the above, and more. Sprawled
across the couch of a dressing room deep in the bowels of the Atlanta Omni arena and taking some liberal post-concert swigs from a bottle of
red wine, Bono talked about the band’s desire to show fans, not necessarily the way, but at least a way to conduct their lives with grace
and mutual respect – to attend the lessons of Gandhi, and Doctor King, and
maybe even a little George Clinton free-your-mind/ass too. He seemed leery of
the band’s looming fame (as we sat, we could hear the sound of kids gathering
outside the loading dock doors in the hopes of scoring autographs), but he
willing accepted the challenge because, well, because at this point in the mid
‘80s, who else in popular music had
the cojones, coupled with an
Irishman’s bloody-minded gift of gab, to be a tutor and a role model? Michael Jackson? Madonna?

 

***

 

As with the previous Deluxe Editions, the remastering job
here is outstanding. What was always a widescreen production is even more so
now – you can chuck your old CD of TUF out the window, for by comparison the music on it sounds like it’s coming in
over a tin can and a string – with nuances peering out from virtually every
corner and fold. Larry Mullen’s drums in particular have an uncommon crispness:
the snare crackles like it’s popcorn being zapped in a microwave, cymbal decay
lingers tantalizingly in the air, the kick drum truly kicks. Those famed Edge arpeggios are guaranteed to set the
listener’s teeth rattling (listen to the shiver-shudder funk of “Wire” for
proof), while Adam Clayton’s bass, seemingly an afterthought at times on the
original LP, is now restored to its intended resonance. Bono’s vocals remain at
the forefront, which means all those trademark huffs and puffs he makes are
more prominent than ever, but some of the attendant shrillness has been dialed
back so the voice’s presence is felt in degrees of warmth, not bluster; on this
album he sounds like a friend, not a preacher. (By the time of Joshua Tree he’d be fully ordained, of
course, but that’s another story, for another time and another place.)

 

Bonus material? Lots. Collectively, the 16 cuts on Disc Two
are far more interesting than the bonus tracks on any of the five other
reissues. There’s the entire Wide Awake
in America
EP, also from ’84, comprising a pair of live recordings (“Bad,”
“A Sort of Homecoming”) and two worthy studio outtakes from the original TUF sessions, “Love Comes Tumbling” and
“The Three Sunrises”; the latter’s subtle, jangly island lilt made it a
non-contender for the album, but the former’s contemplative, romantic tenor
would have fit perfectly. Also present are all the proximate B-sides and club remixes
from this period. The “Celtic Dub Mix” of “Wire” is somewhat superfluous, while
the instrumental “Bass Trap” resembles a generic New Age tune; but “Boomerang
II,” a kind of dubby excursion into Krautrock overlaid with chanting,
extemporaneous vocals, is downright mesmerizing, one of the more essential U2
B-sides.

 

For collectors, the selling point here is the inclusion of
two previously unreleased tunes from the original LP sessions: instrumental
“Yoshino Blossom” features a piano line similar to the one in “New Year’s Day”
plus some eerie psychedelic guitar; “Disappearing Act,” which we’re told was
“recently completed” by U2 specifically for this package, has a nominal vocal from
Bono (I’m guessing it was done during the latterday sessions, but the rhythm
section’s insistent throb and Edge’s arpeggio-and-Frippertronic flourishes combine
to give the track a substantial, satisfying heft.

 

Disc 3 of the Super Deluxe Edition is a DVD (there’s also a
non-super Deluxe Edition comprising just the two CDs) that rounds up most of the
officially-released footage of the band from around the time of TUF. Chief among it: the long-coveted The Making Of The Unforgettable Fire documentary, directed by Barry Devlin (it was originally aired a couple of times
on MTV and eventually saw commercial release on VHS tape), which though
containing far more down time than a good rock doc should, still manages to let
the principals’ (including Eno and Daniel Lanois’) unfiltered personalities
come through. The original and alternate versions of the “Pride” video are
included, as are the clips for “The Unforgettable Fire,” “Bad” and “A Sort of
Homecoming.” Factor in a pair of legendary live appearances, the July 13, 1985
Live Aid concert from Wembley Stadium and the June 15, 1986 “A Conspiracy of
Hope” Amnesty International concert from Giants Stadium, and you’ve got a
pretty good idea of what the band looked and sounded like back in the day.

 

Nowadays, Bono’s mullet appears more than just faintly
ridiculous; it’s like a raccoon crawled up on his head, went to sleep, and
stayed there. But you have to view this in context, and as suggested above,
listening to and understanding The
Unforgettable Fire
in its context is important. At Live Aid, during “Bad,”
Bono starts prowling the boards restlessly, finally jumping down into the pit
where the video crew is located. He scans the crowd, then points, and suddenly
roadies are hauling a young girl over the barrier and taking her over to the
singer.

 

And then – the embrace.

 

Theatrical, sure, but not like Bruce Springsteen-Courtney
Cox/”Dancing In the Dark” theatrical. Recall how, at the time, this sort of
thing really wasn’t done by a rock band, particularly not in huge stadium
setting. As naïve or silly a gesture as such a gesture, on paper, may seem from
a vantage point of nearly a quarter-century, viewing it now it somehow still
rings true. Recall how just a few months before Live Aid Bono had acknowledged,
in our interview, that the times when he could go around and shake every hand,
sign every autograph, even give out a few hugs, would soon be few and far
between. I reckon he found a way around the dilemma. The embrace. That girl, she was a signifier; she was us.

 

I didn’t buy the latest U2 albumNo Line on the Horizon. I listened to it several times while it was
streaming online prior to release and it left me feeling… nothing. Not
“nothing” in the sense of it being a bad or substandard album; it was more like
the tunes just breezed past me without so much as disturbing a hair or lodging
a scent in my nostril. My ass wasn’t moved to follow either. As a music critic,
that happens to me practically on a daily basis, but it’s rarely, if ever,
happened before with U2.

 

Luckily, the staying power of The Unforgettable Fire, a combination of the lingering emotional
resonance of the original LP and the renewed freshness wrought by the reissue,
is partly why I’ll keep coming back to U2. All musical artists have at least
one key, hopefully classic, album in them; U2’s lucky enough to have several,
and that’s why it’s not hard to keep the faith when the inevitable career
misfires happen.

 

I don’t pretend it’s 1984 all over again when I listen to TUF. But I feel good about knowing that
I was there when it was happening in
real time.

 

Standout Tracks: “Pride,”
“Disappearing Act,” “Boomerang II” (CD); “The Unforgettable Fire” video, “Bad”
at Live Aid (DVD) FRED MILLS

 

 

 

 

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