Classic Album Revisited: U2 – The Unforgettable Fire

Classic Album Revisited: U2 - The Unforgettable Fire 2

In 1984 the four young men from Dublin who comprise U2 found they had come a long way in a relatively short period of time. With the release of their third album War in 1983, U2 had their first taste of true commercial success and international recognition. In five years they had gone from playing to a dozen friends at a local market to become an international sensation. They were the tip of the arrow for post-punk bands that were all making themselves felt on the charts and among the youth of the era.

Their earnest lyrics and bombastic sonics, along with iconic imagery captured the zeitgeist of the period. Instead of remaining on the same pathway making the follow-up release “Son of War” or “War Version 2.0”, U2 decided to strike out in an unexpected direction. They had entered a crossroads in their careers and desired something different. The outcome of that intention produced an album that was dramatic, abstract, and experimental. The Unforgettable Fire without a doubt stepped away from the more straightforward “War” into an impressionistic musical mood piece.

The catalyst for this change was in no little part due to the changeup in producers. The band waved goodbye to the stalwart producer of their first three albums, Steve Lillywhite. Instead, they turned to an unlikely guide, Brian Eno. Eno originally turned down the band’s invitation, feeling that he and the band would not be a good fit. After a legendary meeting with the band and Bono utilizing all of his storied Irish charms, Eno reconsidered beginning a monumental collaboration. The inspired addition of Daniel Lanois cemented what would become a remarkable musical relationship. That relationship would yield untold success over a span of three decades. At the time, however, the band’s label, Island had major reservations about the collaboration. They were eventually won over by the results.

The album was recorded between May 7th and August 5th of 1984 at Slane Castle, County Meath and U2’s bolt hole Windmill Studios in Dublin. The title of the album was taken from a Japanese exhibit about the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and its aftermath. U2 was also influenced by their varied experiences and encounters while on tour supporting “War”. There had been a clear progression of growth through U2’s early albums. Boy had captured all the pain of teenage uncertainty and youthful enthusiasm; while carried the day with its earnest searching for answers rather than its musical prowess. October had been characterized as a juggernaut with its excruciating personal difficulties and last-minute catastrophes. All those early tests of courage had culminated in “War” with its excellently ensnaring songs that won over legions to their effort. “The Unforgettable Fire” encapsulated the growth the band had encountered from their debut “War”.

U2’s work with Eno and Lanois would open up new vistas for the band musically and conceptually. Both producers balanced each other’s weaknesses. When Eno got engrossed in musical revelries, Lanois would provide the more earthly tether and practicality that guided everyone back on track. The production duo was able to insert the Fairlight CMI synth among other new studio techniques into the release. What came out of the studio was a richer more orchestrated sound that was delicate yet delivered a strong impact. The label initially had feared that Eno’s production would damage the essence of what made the band great. These fears were pacified as the results showed that rather than destroy each other’s positive attributes Eno, Lanois and U2 brought out the best in each other enhancing the music.

What had been considered an odd marriage struck upon solid success. The release of the album would result in the band’s third top 10 in the UK and a very successful tour. The memorable singles Pride, The Unforgettable Fire, Wire and Bad” would each help in solidifying the ground the band had acquired with their earlier works and position them for the future. “The Unforgettable Fire” scored a number 1 on the UK charts and number 12 on the US Billboard 200. But the most memorable moment would be U2’s performance at Live Aid, which the band thought Bono had blown but established them in the Rock n Roll firmament. Since that time the album has gone 3 times Platinum in the US and 2 times in the UK.

In many ways without the “Unforgettable Fire” The Joshua Tree and Achtung Baby would never have happened. The band needed the transitional effort that “The Unforgettable Fire” provided. It was the bridge from the early incarnation of the band into a more sophisticated professional endeavor. The first track of the album, A Sort of a Homecoming is like nothing the band had done before but was easily recognizable as U2. There was mystical impressionism woven into the song. It instantly connected the integrity of “War” with a more battle-weary feeling, “A high road a high road out of here.” The reverbing chime of Edge’s guitar was classic and Mullen was giving away no ground with his insistent drumming. Bono’s ringing and keening vocal brought the listener to their knees with its evocative earnest feel. The song would set the overall tone of the recording. The imagery is also unforgettable with lyrics like, “see faces ploughed like a field that once gave no resistance”, which spoke to the death of compliance and blindly following leaders without question. The lyrics would also address the destruction of war, “we live by the side of the road on the side of a hill as the valleys explode.” Additionally, there was the lyrical allusion to the final homecoming, “across the fields of mourning to light that’s in the distance. Oh don’t sorrow; no don’t weep for tonight, at last, I am coming home.” The song overall was a pleading to the better angels of our nature.

Pride (In the Name of Love) is the flagship of the album and has attained legendary status. The song is based in part on John 15:13, “There is no greater love than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” The ethos of that verse appears in the imagery of “one man caught on a barbed-wire fence”, someone attempting to escape oppression. “One man he resists” resisting oppression, “One man washed on an empty beach” dying for a greater good, for example, the Normandy invasion, “One man betrayed with a kiss”, Christ and the ultimate act of redemption. Finally, there is the honoring of Martin Luther King’s sacrifice for the civil rights movement. Underlying the beauty of Edge’s crystalline guitar is confrontation best represented by Bono’s vocal and Mullen’s punctuated drumming. There can be no doubt of Bono’s emotional commitment to the song. The song is the very essence of what U2 was and is, it is a classic track that tattooed the band in the music world’s psyche.

Wire is about drug addiction and its false allure and entrapment. It acknowledged the tempting lie of addiction while pointing out that no one goes into substance abuse desiring addiction, ”Such a nice day to throw your life away”. “Wire” spoke to the fact that addiction led to losing pieces of your humanity as your heart turns to stone only looking for the next fix. The end of the song portrays a loved one begging for the addict not to succumb, saying,” I will do anything to not have you sink with this anchor; here’s the rope … now swing away”. Edge provided a memorable riff taking the listener to the cusp of the precipice. The song builds insistently and turns from the groggy drugged feel of addiction to the angry and harsh reality of the consequences. The insistent bass and drum rampage provided the intensity. For those who witnessed this song live during the “UF” tour, this song was an absolute bugger to play with all the overlaying guitars and forced the band to walk back on their belief that their music should only be what they could perform live. The song was too good to hold to those strictures. Guitar genius that Edge is he was still only one man, and so a sequencer was introduced to assist in play the song live. It was well worth the compromise.

My absolute favorite song on the album is the title song, The Unforgettable Fire. This song is a breathtaking amalgam of desperation, uplift, and beauty. The icy Fairlight synth begins the song. Every member of the band is performing to perfection. Edge provided inspired guitar work, Mullen is nuanced in his drumming and Clayton provides the wondrous thump that gives gravity to this spiraling work. Bono’s lyrics are outstanding as he delivers a song where he combines his pondering about the state of humanity and where it is headed with private desperation, the desire to surrender and the uplift of faith. Here he paraphrases Luke 17:6 which taught if you had the faith of a mustard seed you could say to this mountain move from here to there and it will move. His other allusion to the Bible in the track is found in “Face to Face in a dry and waterless place”, quoting David in the Psalms in his moment of desolation asking the great “I am” for help. All in all the message is hope in a time of trouble.

Promenade was a gentle impressionistic track that reeled off a number of collaged images of Dublin. The accompaniment has a dreamy pulled around feel that is almost hallucinogenic. It also displayed that Bono could sing the proverbial phone book and make it engaging. This is one of the points on the recording where you can hear Eno’s ambient influence unobscured. 4th of July is a palette cleanser leading up to Bad. This song would also reflect Eno’s ambient influence, and showcase Adam Clayton’s stellar bass playing skills. The song is an instrumental that is ghostly and haunting. It perfectly set the stage for “Bad” with its shimmering reverb.

“Bad” is anything but, the song is the grand duke of the disc. It saved the album from sliding into an ambient psychedelic chasm. It’s placing was genius on the tracklist because it ushered in a strong second half of the release. The song is simply outstanding. It dealt again with drug addiction as its topic, specifically heroin. At the time the song was written that drug was a scourge in Ireland and had claimed many young lives. There is a brilliant dichotomy in the song. There is the addict in their altered dislocated state and the family member or lover begging the person to walk away offering themselves as a sacrifice if only the person will seek sobriety. Bono encapsulates the feelings of the addict in the lyric “true colours fly in blue and black (the track marks of the needle), blue silken skies and burning flag, colours clash collide in bloodshot eyes.” The loved one pleads, “If I could through myself set your spirit free, I’d lead your heart away, see you break, break away into the light into the day.” The song is utterly heart rendering. Accompaniment wise the song starts gently with a swirling feeling which builds and builds as it ascends to the frenetic climax. It is not surprising that this song captivated the music public of the time and advanced U2’s cause. It is as much a standard-bearer of the band as Bono’s white flag.

Indian Summer Sky has always been a deep track favorite of mine. It conveyed the beauty of unfiltered nature through the awe-inspired lyrics making for glorious imagery and a type of catharsis. The track has an undoubted impact and captured me from the first listen. There is a tension in the accompaniment that makes it such a noteworthy track. I have always felt the song is woefully overlooked and should receive more praise for its urgent intensity. This intensity is conveyed by all the members of the band especially Edge who is incendiary on the track and Mullen whose playing made me wonder if the drum set survived his percussive attack. “Indian Summer Sky” is a great bookend to “Bad” as it continued the earnest intensity of the prior track. The song, in addition, harkens back to the phrasing Bono used so effectively throughout “Boy”.

Elvis Presley & America is the only song that has never sat comfortably with me. Personally, for me, this ramble fest keeps the album from being a masterwork. I think Bono was trying to channel Elvis in his last days. He attempted to portray Elvis as a victim of fame whose disappointment with the dreams he had bought into led to his tragic end. The stream of consciousness lyric produced a trippy feeling and is psychedelic as U2 ever got. The orchestration was a backward run of the title track. I am still waiting for the penny to drop on this track; 30 years later hope still springs eternal. What underlines my disappointment with “Elvis Presley & America” is its marked contrast to the beautiful benediction that is MLK. “MLK” is so effective in its simple portrayal of MLK as a modern-day saint deserving immortality, that “Elvis Presley & America” immediately seems lacking. Ultimately “MLK” is an apt hymn to a great warrior. The track is spine-tingling. The simplicity of the selection makes it even more spectacular and it is a fitting close to an inspired recording.

The Unforgettable Fire is a reminder of a time when artists could challenge themselves and their fans and still come out on the top of the charts. Few would ever again accomplish that feat. The album would help U2 separate themselves from the pack of mid 80’s rock groups that were lifting off. The release gave them gravitas. We all know what followed “The Unforgettable Fire”;” The Joshua Tree” which would enable U2 to become immortal as they ratcheted up success upon success. Their wise choice of direction at one of their initial crossroads made their later success possible. The mighty pillars of the more easily approachable “War” and “The Joshua Tree” tend to overshadow “The Unforgettable Fire” but the album is magnificent and worthy of respect. It was the start of many exciting things for the band and set them on a path to super mega rock stardom. For the young or uninitiated I highly recommend they familiarize themselves with the initial offering that led to the band’s later successes by giving The Unforgettable Fire an attentive listen.

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