New York Times JULY 4, 1993 - by Jon Pareles


U2 has grown wary of anthems. When it released Achtung Baby in 1991, the most earnest band of the 1980's remade itself as a noisy, wayward 1990's outfit. But under the distortion and crunch of songs like Who's Gonna Ride Your Wild Horses, there still lurked U2's old marches and hymns, with Bono's voice rising in his old heroic crescendos.

The Irish band's Zoo TV tour last year was split down the middle, with the newer, eccentric songs followed by the old arena anthems. And with its new album, Zooropa (Island 314-518-047; CD and cassette), U2 announces there's no turning back: Even more than Achtung Baby, the lyrics turn inward and the music grows willful, tangled, amorphous. Cynical observers may have thought Achtung Baby was a calculated attempt to keep up with alternative rock, but Zooropa proves that U2 is a transformed band: raucous, playful and ready to kick its old habits. The new songs seem destined not for stadiums (though that's where they will probably be performed) but for late-night radio shows and private listenings through earphones.

The title song, which opens the album, harks back to older U2: the open chords, the triumphal beat, Bono's voice rising into his Irish-tenor range as he sings, "I have no reasons, no reasons to get back." But the music has been processed to sound as if it's being heard under murky water, with the vocals partly distorted and with its repeating, squealing guitar noises. "Skip the subway, let's go to the overground / Get your head out of the mud, baby," Bono sings. But the music contradicts him, drawn to the underground and muddying everything.

The sound of a straightforward four-man band is hard to find on Zooropa. U2's guitarist, The Edge, who co-produced Zooropa with Brian Eno and Flood, has always enjoyed warping or echoing his guitar parts, but now he's joined by all the band members. Instrumental tones are set askew, from fuzzed bass lines to chomping wah-wah guitar notes to snare drum equalized for a penetrating hoot on every impact. There are loops of piercing, sirenlike noise, echoes that surround lead vocals with whispering uncertainty, static pouring out of the spaces between notes.

Bono chants Numb, a bleak set of horizon-shrinking imperatives ("Don't project / Don't connect / Protect / Don't expect"), amid buzzes and zaps that sound as if they could come from a welding shop or a torture chamber. (Some are from a video arcade.) Throughout the album, Bono underplays his lung power in almost every song, preferring to insinuate or whisper instead of belting. When he finally does let his voice rise in Stay, an abstract love song to a battered woman, he sounds tender again.

In its 1980's incarnation, U2 played songs like I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For that projected yearning backed with muscle: ringing guitars and the martial beat of Larry Mullen's drums and Adam Clayton's bass. Now, the rhythms are still steady but the sense of certainty has frayed. The First Time, which could have been a quasi-religious anthem in U2's early vintages, sets Bono's voice against a quiet but slightly jarring distorted guitar, until celestial organ chords finally emerge late in the song. Now and then, a dissonant feedback note challenges him.

Zooropa follows through on the ideas underlying the Zoo TV tour, which rarely let concert-goers forget that it was a high-tech consumer product of a television-dominated world, selling itself even as it gave (or simulated) pleasure. In U2's new songs, media messages infect characters' souls. Lovers become television viewers, watching from afar instead of touching; dreamers become consumers in search of some commercially available panacea. "What do you want?" a voice asks as Zooropa begins; the first verses answer with a jumble of advertising slogans.

In the late 1970's and early 1980's, the Talking Heads and David Bowie took up similar ideas. Zooropa sometimes sounds like the Heads' Fear Of Music and Remain In Light and Bowie's "Heroes" and Scary Monsters, not just for its lyrics but for the way their song forms dissolved and floated along, letting a vamp carry two or three different sections instead of using typical verses and chorus. (Eno also collaborated back then with Bowie and Talking Heads.)

Babyface, a love song to the video image of a cover girl, melds U2's With Or Without You and Bowie's Ashes To Ashes, as a tinkling countermelody challenges the rest of the song's harmony. In Lemon, which sounds something like an eroded version of Madonna's Like A Virgin, Bono romances the video image of a cover girl while Eno sings about the technology of movies and mobility.

In U2's new sonic netherworld, technology is neither admirable nor ominous; it's just there, intruding on matters both intimate and public, changing everything from a drum sound to a lovers' rendezvous, destabilizing what might have been taken for granted. U2 grapples with the confusions of consumer society but comes to no conclusions. While the band likes electronic toys (and it profits from the global star system they make possible), the songs seem to wish for something more substantial than high-gloss images.

In fact, they're still searching for some kind of faith, and in the album's final songs, U2 returns to the biblical language that was the foundation of its early anthems. In Some Days Are Better Than Others, chugging along below a wonderfully woozy guitar, Bono sings about "Looking for Jesus and his mother," and the songs that follow it seem to do exactly that.

The First Time extols the devotion of a lover and a brother, then turns to a father who hands over "the keys to His kingdom"; but the singer throws the keys away. And in The Wanderer, the country icon Johnny Cash takes over lead vocals, singing the story of a character who left "with a Bible and a gun," looking for "one good man." He's part Diogenes, part Saint Augustine, hoping "to taste and touch and feel as much as a man can before he repents," complaining about people who "want the kingdom but they don't want God in it."

If Bono sang it, The Wanderer would be an agnostic anthem, and he might belt it too hard; Cash gives it an unflappably stoic reading. In the 1980's, Bono had his own chance to be a pop icon, and at times he seemed to relish it. Now, however, he's skeptical about pop stars, including himself; like cover girls and consumer treats, they're just commodities distributed through an amoral, implacable system. He abstains from The Wanderer to give himself some distance, making sure his yearning isn't just a product trademarked by his face and voice. "Hear what I say," Bono sings in Dirty Day. "Nothing's simple as you think."