Chicago Tribune JULY 4, 1993 - by Greg Kot


Still in the midst of a world tour in support of its 1991 album, Achtung Baby!, U2 hasn't been idly counting its millions in between concert dates. Instead, the Irish quartet has whipped up yet another studio album, Zooropa, which Island Records will release Tuesday.

Departing from superstar convention, in which new albums take five years to make and then are released with end-of-the-world fanfare, U2 recorded Zooropa in two quick months. Sonically, it's more like a guerrilla strike than a full-blown studio extravaganza, a seat-of-the-pants tour of, to paraphrase one of the song titles, dirty days.

Among its surprises:

- A lead vocal by the anti-Bono, Johnny Cash, who brings the album to a close with his stern, unflinching performance of The Wanderer (not the old Dion hit, but a new U2 song).

- The disappearance of The Edge's soaring, reverb-laden guitar, which has been the group's signature since I Will Follow in 1980.

- The absence of a charging rocker along the lines of Pride or Where The Streets Have No Name.

Technology is abused with even greater impunity than it was on Achtung Baby! The music is saturated with backward tape loops, sputtering synthesizers, dirt-encrusted guitars and distorted voices.

U2 also dabbles in faux soul reminiscent of mid-'70s David Bowie, as Euro-disco dance beats and falsetto vocals are garnished with hints of techno and hip-hop.

The album bears the brilliantly disruptive imprint of Brian Eno, who was a peripheral presence on Achtung Baby! but returns to a full-fledged producer role here along with The Edge and Flood. It's also the first time The Edge has received a producer credit on a U2 album, ironic in that he has downplayed or distorted his guitar-playing sometimes beyond recognition.

The lack of preciousness about preserving what once was thought of as the group's signature sound is refreshing. In the most convincing manner possible, Zooropa has finished the job started by Achtung Baby!, which upon its release was hailed as a significant upheaval of the U2 aesthetic.

The first single, Numb is even more disconcerting than The Fly, the claustrophobic grunge-gospel number that preceded the release of Achtung Baby! It features a rare lead vocal by The Edge, who in a baritone mumble intones, "Don't project / Don't connect / Protect / Don't expect / Suggest." All the while, a kitchen cabinet full of noisemakers-none of them readily identifiable as a guitar, bass or drums-wheezes, plinks and whirs like a Cabaret Voltaire outtake, while a falsetto voice, dubbed "the Fat Lady," cries, "I feel numb."

U2 has a touchy-feely reputation, but humanity has been dumped in a techno dungeon on Numb. And it serves as a perfect introduction to an album that is as timely as it is disconcerting. As counterculture guru Timothy Leary told his young audience at Lollapalooza '93 two weekends ago, "You're taking control of the new language, and the new language is multimedia."

You'd expect young rockers like Jesus Jones and Stereo MC's to instinctively grasp the concept, but no major group-let alone one on the verge of dinosaur status-understands the implications of the high-tech revolution better than U2. Beginning with the brashly unsanctimonious Achtung Baby! and continuing with the high-concept Zoo TV tour, the Irish quartet transformed themselves from rock messiahs to digital-age subversives.

It was perhaps an all-too-convenient transformation, given the band's eroding reputation. But U2 has been nothing if not self-aware through the years, and rightly sensed the time was ripe to search rather than retrench.

With Achtung Baby! the band stumbled onto something weird, dissonant and disturbing, but it wasn't until the Zoo TV tour that its fans, and maybe even the band itself, figured out what it all meant. Besides turning into an awe-inspiring visual feast, Zoo TV served as a corrosive and sometimes poignant commentary on the loss of intimacy in a media-glutted age.

Zooropa deepens the perspective with a series of characters adrift in uncertainty and loneliness, coping with various stages of degradation, either imposed or self-inflicted: the abused lover in Stay (Faraway, So Close!), the voyeur in Babyface, the fallen evangelist in The Wanderer.

"And these are the days when our work has come asunder / And these are the days when we look for something other," Bono declares on Lemon, in lines that could refer the politics of the world as well as the band.

In searching for "something other," insidious beauty is created out of incongruous elements. Lemon is an acid-house trance-and-dance number spiked by Bono's gender-bending, French-accented falsetto. Babyface alternates an inexorable chorus with what sounds like a children's toy percussion instrument. Guitars and a wordless chorus out of a Sergio Leone spaghetti western ride a thumping techno groove on The Wanderer.

On the band's current European tour, Bono has taken to wearing devil's horns and whiteface makeup in the guise of "MacPhisto". On Zooropa, there is no cartoon Jack Scratch, only a vague, discomfiting malevolence.

It's embodied by the fallen angel in Stay (Faraway, So Close!) and the benefactor in Daddy's Gonna Pay For Your Crashed Car, who "gives you the keys to a flamin' car" and is "with you wherever you are."

It's heard on Some Days are Better Than Others - "Some days you use more force than is necessary" - and in the scarifying Dirty Day: "Wake up / Some things you can't get around / I'm in you / More so when they put me in the ground."

It's the rich man of The First Time, in a verse that recalls the biblical passage about Christ's temptation in the desert: "He gave me the keys to his kingdom / Gave me a cup of gold / He said, 'I have many mansions / And there are many rooms to see.'"

And it struts like Jimmy Swaggart and sings in a voice like God Himself on The Wanderer, in which Johnny Cash brings a chilling, jut-jawed certainty to Bono's lyric: "I went out there / In search of experience / To taste and to touch / And to feel as much as a man can / Before he repents..."

On Zooropa, U2 implies that nothing is incorruptible. Not even its once-hallowed sound.