The 'Pop' Enigma: Revisiting U2's Most Misunderstood Album 20 Years Later

Jeff Kravitz/FilmMagic, Inc
U2 photographed in 1997.

For rock legends U2 and their gargantuan fan base, 2017 has already been stamped as a year of reminiscence. The band announced in January that they would do a full 30th anniversary tour for 1987's classic The Joshua Tree album, a run of spring and summer stadium shows designed to re-seed the world-beating LP across the U.S. and Europe.

Though the band has never honored a past work with such grandeur before, this was still a roadshow any astute rock reader could have seen coming a mile over the Irish hills. Of course the foursome would revisit its most commercially dominant, critically fawned-over and fan-worshipped record. Moreover, it’s an album that opens with three of the group’s all-time most enduring singles (“Where the Streets Have No Name,” “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” and “With or Without You”) performed in succession. Bono and The Edge will spend their three months on the road shooting fish in a barrel of cash.

But what about the other round-number U2 commemoration due this year, tethered to a project the group has all but disowned since its release? Where are those celebrations and revivals?

Yes, we speak of Pop, the daring techno-rock demonstration that baffled fans in 1997 with its opacity, punctuated the band’s period of conspicuous experimentation, and catalyzed the arena-ready “comeback” album All That You Can’t Leave Behind three years later. Pop, which turns 20 on Friday (March 3), is unequivocally U2’s most neglected album — virtually none of has been played live in the last 15 years — and is ultimately the venerable group’s most undervalued.

The LP was, for better or worse, the furthest the band has ever strayed from their patented larger-than-rock personage, and wholly relinquished the sounds that brought members their ridiculous fortunes. There is deliberateness in the theming; electronica, hip-hop and funk were kept not just in mind but thrust to the melodic forefront. With that the moniker “Pop” was a tongue-in-cheek misnomer, an album utterly removed from Smash Mouth, Third Eye Blind and the other rock radio hits of the day.

It’s maddening that in 1997, a year that opened with Daft Punk’s lauded debut Homework trickling French house into the mainstream pop consciousness, U2 was panned by some for its exploration of European club music, sampling and drum machines. Listening today, and having been taught by countless artists that rock and electronic can get along just fine, Pop sounds surprisingly fashionable. The menacing chug of lead single “Discoteque” and funky Hollywood sarcasm of “The Playboy Mansion” act, at the very least, as welcome departures from the oversaturated radio anthems that suffixed the brief Pop era — “Beautiful Day” or “Vertigo” is probably playing on your local adult alternative station as we speak.

Of course, U2 doesn’t view Pop this way; as their last legitimately courageous project. Members instead recall the album as a source of great frustration, a record that wasn’t quite ready to be unleashed, their hands forced by poor timing — Pop’s corresponding PopMart stadium tour was to begin only a month later. Songs that U2 spent nearly two years writing and recording were still being tinkered with just as they were sent to mixing and mastering plants. “I always think if we'd just had another month, we could have finished it.” Bono said in a 2005 interview with the Chicago Tribune. "It didn't communicate the way it was intended to.”

By U2’s lofty standards, the album marked a commercial crisis, barely squeaking out platinum status in the U.S. and underselling its adventurous predecessors Achtung Baby and Zooropa worldwide (though the PopMart tour still made a cool at $170 million at the box office). Regardless of the economics, an unsatisfied U2 later went back to remix some songs; the band’s Best of 1990-2000 compilation included new, cleaner versions of “Discoteque,” "Staring at the Sun" (perhaps the LP’s lone sing-along) and “Gone,” a tune whose siren-like guitar pings played more like a transmission from Tom Morello’s six-string than one from The Edge’s.

Some credit here goes to the electro-versed co-producer Howie B., who in his first album with the band did well to shepherd the grinding thump of “Discoteque” and the musingly sexual “Do You Feel Loved,” where Edge’s guitar tone is completely deconstructed, and reassembled to appear rather coarse and robotic. Though Larry Mullen Jr. did, in fact, record many of the album’s drum parts himself, the finished product’s mechanized quality removes his flesh-and-blood playing almost entirely from Pop. Adam Clayton’s bass parts range from recognizable (“Staring at the Sun”) to completely overtaken by samples (“Mofo”). Bono’s vocal role shifted drastically as well, trading triumphant leads for whispers, warbles and verses nearly hidden beneath piles of production.

Expectedly, all of this doesn’t always coalesce as the band would have liked, a fact members have publicly recognized over the last 20 years. “If You Wear That Velvet Dress” is a five-minute snoozer regardless of electronic influence, and the industrially focused “Miami” has always sounded grating and just a hair out of key. But if you give Pop a fresh listen (chances are you haven’t in years) and then immediately follow with its successor, the seven-time Grammy Award winner All That You Can’t Leave Behind, ask yourself: Which one feels more interesting? And which is so unobtrusive it’s almost insulting?

U2 could have easily lived off The Joshua Tree and its predecessors since 1987, phoning in a predictable release every few years. Instead the band spent a decade getting weird in dance clubs, absorbing new plunks of sound, and attempting to write something they hadn’t already. That’s creativity, by definition. Sure, history has not been so kind to Pop, and dissenters bemoan how contrived it felt for a wildly successful rock band (with members in their mid-30s) attempting to write a techno-inspired album, ostensibly to stay relevant, or just not feel quite so behind the times. Twenty years later, all we see is a group that chose not to coast.