Happy 35th Anniversary to U2’s fourth studio album The Unforgettable Fire, originally released October 1, 1984.
Quite often when a band or artist has decades-spanning longevity there is always a defining moment in their career that creates a pre and post era. Often it comes with critical success that will then loom as the benchmark that shadows over whatever is to follow. For U2, many will look to the overwhelming breakthrough success of The Joshua Tree (1987) as the dividing line in their career. The album that made them “U2, the biggest band in the world.”
But for me, that line should be drawn an album earlier, with the landscape shifting The Unforgettable Fire. With this album, U2 closed a chapter on their pure rock inklings that they had refined and finessed on their first three studio albums and so perfectly captured on their high impact live recording, Under A Blood Red Sky (1983).
It would have been easy for them to continue on this rock trajectory, and it’s highly likely the collective talents of Bono, The Edge, Larry Mullen Jr., and Adam Clayton still would have seen them garner the heavyweight title of “biggest band.” But they yearned to be more, to do more, to push their sound in unconventional ways without losing their soul in the process. And in doing so they actually discovered the true soul of U2.
But they didn’t do it alone.
Looking to explore and expand their songwriting, performance and sound, U2 sought out a very unlikely producer in Brian Eno, a man whose own musical works were steeped in ambience and experimentation. Reluctant at first to produce a rock album, Eno brought in his musical cohort, the sublimely talented multi-instrumentalist producer Daniel Lanois as a sort of surrogate safety net, not so much for the band but for Eno himself. Should the sessions not be as pleasing to Eno as the band promised, he could pull the rip cord and jettison to safety, leaving Lanois to steady the ship.
But as recording sessions began in the unlikeliest of places (Slane Castle, with the album finished at Windmill Lane Studios), this unlikely collaboration yielded U2 some of its most visceral and daring music to date. The balance between Eno’s desire to push the band into the murkier, moodier corners of their music and have them revel in the ambience of sounds, and Lanois’ unmistakable craft at being able to sculpt a sonic landscape into a focused point, gave U2 the freedom to explore and step out of what it meant to create a U2 album or song.
This was evident from the get-go with the moody album opener “A Sort Of Homecoming.” Here in its five-minute run time lay the foundations of the album. With more expressive drumming exploring more tom use than snares, big haunting atmospherics, and a murky brooding bass, “Homecoming” is like walking through a deep forest dawn with a heavy mist enveloping you. There’s a sense of calm mixed with yearning. Shying away from writing finished, focused lyrics, Bono formed his narrative through a series of free association sessions behind the mic—first forming melody then letting the words flow without a deliberate or preconceived notion. This allows for a mix of a clear thought in one moment and a more veiled delivery the next. But it doesn’t result in nonsense, still allowing Bono to pull lines like “See faces ploughed like fields that once gave no resistance.” You get a sense of Bono searching for purpose in the lyrics, and finding it in the journey of discovery rather than landing a specific though or notion. Backed by a swirl of atmospherics and echoing guitar lines, room filling rhythm and haunting backing vocals, “Homecoming” is indeed U2 arriving at a new juncture in their lives and finding peace in a new direction.
This approach of experimentation both musically and via Bono’s sketches for lyrics for the most part frees U2 to explore and organically find their new sound, rather than feeling like they are trying to catch up to both the musical trends of the day or the preconceived notion about what U2 sounds like.
For the most part, it works.
On songs like the gloomy instrumental “4th of July,” the panicked chase of “Wire,” or on the dreamy “Promenade,” U2 embrace the experimental nature of the process and yield great results. Elsewhere on “Elvis Presley & America,” it’s not as convincing with Bono’s delivery feeling like he’s looking for a place to land the vocal melody and lyrical content. The result feels defocused, blurring at the edges and ends up being the only dragging point on the album.
But where it really works is when Eno and Lanois work together towards a common goal. Eno encouraging the band to lean into the atmospheric nature of the production and Lanois pulling it all together and pushing them all towards a definitive structure.
“Pride (In The Name of Love)” is a perfect example of this. Perhaps the most straightforward track of the bunch, it stomps forth with purpose. Initially inspired by Reagan-era patriotism, the song’s lyrical content quickly switched tracks. As an exploration of the life, death and legacy of Martin Luther King Jr., the song is a rousing triumph of passion and commitment. Worked and reworked, sped up and slowed down, the journey to “Pride” was one that at once frustrated and excited the band. And it paid off.
With its chiming guitar intro and off-kilter drum pattern, “Pride” lets everyone bring their best to the table. Edge’s guitar work is soaring and adventurous. Adam’s bass work provides a solid platform for Larry’s pounding groove. And Bono’s vocals are empowered, a mix of strain and strength, as he hits each chorus powerfully with his glorious callout “What more in the name of love?” With an initial running time of over five minutes, Lanois and Eno focused and refocused the song, whittling it down to a sub four-minute run, amping up the urgency of the song and packing it full of passion.
Similarly, the titular “The Unforgettable Fire” is a masterstroke of improvisation, ambience and experimentation. As arguably one of U2’s greatest efforts on record, the track is musical alchemy. Bono’s sketching style of on-mic creation results in lyrics that are intriguing and leave space for multiple interpretations. The mix of strings, piano, and atmospherics give the song greater breadth and an inspiring filmic quality. It’s warm and inviting, comforting and soulful.
As the longest track on the album, “Bad” seemed destined to fill arenas and stadiums the world over. With Edge’s harmonic filled guitar work punctured by an echoing tambourine strike, the song lays the foundation for Bono’s lyrics to tip towards the abyss before taking a glorious leap. With each passing verse, the song builds in energy, with jagging strings added in and Adam’s bass slithering up and down the fretboard. As you listen to the song, you feel the build to the climax at the midpoint, but rather than pushing the peak, the production keeps it understated, almost teetering on the edge. It’s not until another verse passes that we leap off with Larry’s drumming switching from snare fills to an alternating combination of open hi-hat and pounding snare strokes that propel the song to its moment of glory.
The same can be said for album closer “MLK.” The second song on the album inspired by the life of Martin Luther King Jr., “MLK” is a haunting song of hope. As Bono sings “Sleep tonight / And may your dreams be realized,” it’s not only a call back to King’s landmark “I Have a Dream” speech, but also a resounding call to hope. With a barebones production of airy prolonged chords and Bono’s vocals, “MLK” is packed with soul, demonstrating that Bono’s warm natural register is as powerful when restrained as his impassioned screams.
With The Unforgettable Fire, U2 delivered an unforgettable album. One that pushed them into a new direction, allowing them to unshackle themselves from preconceived notions or expectations, and find focus by embracing a decidedly unfocused approach to the production. It laid the groundwork for subsequent albums like The Joshua Tree and the bold steps outside the box that are Zooropa (1993) and Pop (1997). You’ll hear the echoes of The Unforgettable Fire still permeating their sound today. And whilst it may have been overshadowed by its follow-up, The Unforgettable Fire (for me at least) remains their most ambitious and daring outing and my all-time favorite U2 release.