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.
“A Sort of Homecoming”: The “sort of” qualifier makes sense. Ostensibly a song about returning to one’s place of origin, Fire’s chest-thumping opener radiates wanderlust and love of motion. Bono goes full-on Odysseus — “see the sky, the burning rain” — and Eno and Lanois outfit the band with a widescreen sound perfectly suited for its wayfaring adventures.
“Pride (In the Name of Love)”: Even with artsy production, U2 find a way to write anthems. Anyone looking for a detailed account of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s life won’t find it here — the shots that killed the civil-rights leader that fateful April 4th weren’t fired in the “early morning” — but the ambiguity is what makes “Pride” great. It’s about whomever you like, and the lyrics are as timeless as the Edge’s guitars are triumphant.
“Wire”: Recalling the nervy funk-rock sound he got on Talking Heads’ Remain in Light, Eno turns the spiky churn of U2’s earlier albums into something almost danceable. The lyrics, purportedly about drugs, are equally club-appropriate. “Wire” boasts one of U2’s greatest mid-period hooks, and it comes out of nowhere, breaking up a crackling groove that would’ve worked just fine on its own.
“The Unforgettable Fire”: Inspired by an exhibit of artwork made by victims of the Hiroshima atomic bombing, the disc’s title track says nothing about nuclear war — nor anything else for that matter. It is stirring, though, thanks to those synths and strings. Bono’s imagery centers on ice, not fire, which is kind of fitting, since the music shines big and bright, like a glacier in the sun.
“Promenade”: Here’s the icy grandeur of the disc’s earlier cuts frozen in its tracks. Bono is wandering the streets, thinking about football, music, Coca-Cola, and this girl he hopes will come back. While not the sketchiest “sketch” song on Unforgettable Fire, “Promenade” is a dreamy vignette. In the end, it’s unclear whether the restless narrator makes it up the spiral stairs to enlightenment or simply logs a couple of laps around the block.
“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.
“Bad”: Hookless and repetitive, with no major dynamic shifts, this six-minute rumination on heroin addiction stands as one of U2’s most beloved songs, especially in the live setting. (The band played a star-making 12-minute version at 1985’s Live Aid concert.) Bono’s lyrics are typically vague, but once you know they’re about drugs, his “I’m wide awake!” proclamations take on special meaning. As a good friend slips away, he’s spurred to action, even if he knows there’s nothing he can do.
“Indian Summer Sky”: Adam Clayton’s bass sends a chill up the spine, and Bono, out gallivanting in the woods, hugs his tunic closer to his chest. “So wind blow through to my heart,” he sings. “So wind blow through my soul.” There’s little here beyond the dour post-punk rhythm and some nondescript nature imagery, and for four minutes, The Unforgettable Fire fizzles ever so slightly.
“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.