Look at the album cover. Why is that spaceman frowning? Because if one has to choose between listening to Zooropa and the soundless vacuum of space, the choice is obvious.
Not really. It’s not an awful record . . . for the most part. But it’s abstract for abstraction’s sake, an album about easy and ubiquitous mass communication released literally two weeks before President Clinton announced his “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy. We can’t really blame that sort of timing on Bono, but we can certainly point a finger at Island Records, which pressured the famously perfectionist band to release the album early.
Zooropa’s critical reception was largely positive, and it did net a Grammy for “Best Alternative Album.” But its win in that category, in retrospect, is curious in light of its competition . . . Nirvana’s In Utero, Liz Phair’s Exile to Guyville, Siamese Dream by the Smashing Pumpkins, Radiohead’s Pablo Honey, PJ Harvey’s Rid of Me, and the ridiculously underrated Vs. by Pearl Jam all came out that same year.
More importantly, the album’s standing within U2’s massive discography is also shaky. Sandwiched between Achtung Baby’s self-deprecating brilliance and Pop’s hungover self-indulgence, Zooropa is weirdly self-unaware . . . like a college paper written at 3am the morning it’s due, Zooropa feels rushed and unpolished. For instance, while “Stay (Faraway, so Close)” is unquestionably a classic, I won’t be adding “Lemon” to my Arnold Palmer any time soon. Meanwhile, side two’s “Some Days are Better than Others” has the rare great bass line for a U2 song, but the chorus sounds like mewling cats.
[I’m starting to realize that it is a lot more difficult to write about music than it is to listen to it . . . how did Lester Bangs do it? Then again, I’ve written plenty of history book reviews for various academic publications, so hopefully I’ll figure this music commentary thing out soon.]
But maybe we can cut U2 some slack. They were touring almost non-stop at the time, trying to stay relevant and edgy during the frenzied alt-rock revolution of the early 90s. While it’s my least favorite U2 album, it isn’t terrible, and many people remember it fondly (if not the band itself) . . . and what other band can put out over a dozen albums without a single clunker? Perhaps Zooropa’s weaknesses are a testament to U2’s enduring strengths as a perennially interesting, and never unsurprising, band.
. . .
Seriously, though, why is that spaceman frowning?
Ground control to Major Tom?