Album Review

U2's 'The Unforgettable Fire' at 30: Classic Track-by-Track Album Review

U2's Unforgettable Fire
Courtesy Photo

By its third album, 1983’s War, U2 had mined its influences and forged the building blocks of its unique sound. These included Bono’s obliquely heroic lyrics, the Edge’s polished-shrapnel guitar riffs, and the charging rhythms of bassist Adam Clayton and drummer Larry Mullen Jr.

On their fourth full-length, The Unforgettable Fire -- released 30 years ago today (Oct. 1, 1984) -- the Irish rockers assembled these pieces as never before, creating music that sounded like it was recorded in a friggin’ castle. In fact, much of it was, though it wasn’t just the 18th century masonry that gave these songs their mystical power. Mostly, it was Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois.

Taking over production duties for Steve Lillywhite, who’d handled all three of U2’s previous LPs, Eno and Lanois sought to give the group exactly what it was looking for: a creative reboot. At the time, U2 was becoming one of the biggest bands in the world, but with War, these non-virtuosic children of punk had taken their standard guitar-bass-and-drums setup as far as they could. If they were going to realize their stadium-size ambitions, they’d need collaborators of equal or greater vision. With Eno -- the godfather of ambient music -- and his then-unknown sidekick, they certainly found them.

The Unforgettable Fire marks the moment when U2 became "U2" -- the band that people now love and/or hate and need special tools to remove from their iTunes libraries. Eno and Lanois didn’t reinvent the group’s sound so much as they made it richer and more complex. The foursome had always been earnest and strident -- willing to spout off on huge issues like God, death and war -- but now, it added “artsy” to its list of descriptors. The boys began working with synthesizers and strings, and Bono allowed himself to become an even more opaque lyricist than he’d been before.

Despite Eno’s atmospheric touches and the loosened definitions of what a song could be, The Unforgettable Fire remains a powerful rock ‘n’ roll album. Tunes like “Wire,” “Indian Summer Sky,” and the hit “Pride (In the Name of Love)” feature plenty of the Edge’s rugged guitars, and even the experimental likes of “4th of July” and “Elvis Presley and America” are the work of guys taking guitar music in new directions, not abandoning the form altogether. That would come later, on albums like Zooropa and Pop. For now, U2 was still an overachieving Irish post-punk band that had somehow infiltrated the mainstream and positioned itself to become the next Who or Led Zeppelin.

While The Unforgettable Fire peaked at No. 12 on the Billboard 200, it set the stage for 1987’s The Joshua Tree, the first of five No. 1 albums in a row. Read on to get our track-by-track take on the sleeper classic in U2’s discography.

“4th of July”: Fashioned from an impromptu 7/4/84 studio jam that Eno recorded on the sly, this instrumental interlude manages to say about as much as Bono does in his more cryptic verses. It’s all spacey intensity and simmering passion.

“Elvis Presley and America”: Bono and the band have an excuse for this one’s formlessness. Musically, it’s Eno and Lanois’ chopped and screwed reworking of the backing track from “A Sort of Homecoming.” Lyrically, it’s Bono following his producer’s instructions and adlibbing about the Elvis biography he just read. Even sticking up for one of his heroes, Bono can’t resist some good sky and sea metaphors. Eno was out to capture spontaneity, and what he got was U2 being itself -- chasing down profundity even in off-the-cuff moments.

“MLK”: Another ode to one of Bono’s idols, another set of weather metaphors. As the group follows its Elvis tribute with another shout-out to Dr. King, Eno and Lanois counter with a warm ambient hum that evokes a church choir bringing comfort to a funeral. Somehow, Bono turns trite poetry into a moving elegy for a man whose words shook the world. It’s an audacious move from a band that would only get bolder from here on out.