1984 – The Unforgettable Fire (Island)
Yeah, I absolutely adore this LP. As with anything, I can criticize it, but it's one of about a handful of recordings in history that I feel is somehow above criticism, so special and wonderful is it. It occupies a very lofty and secure place in musical heaven.
Back when I was about 9 in 1985, I first 'saw' U2 in "The Unforgettable Fire" video on Canadian TV. I remember thinking the video looked, and the song sounded, different from other video stars like Phil Collins and Duran Duran (and, needless to say, nothing like stuff I was reared on like Bob Dylan or Willie Nelson). It made an impression, and I still remember the powerful image of Edge walking in the snow in that video. (For years, I wondered what city is shown in that video.... I think someone confirmed once that it is Pittsburgh...?). That summer of 1985, I was at my Grandparents' place on the lakes and saw some of Live Aid, and I vaguely remembering seeing U2 doing "Bad". Hard to forget that mullet.
So, before I even get into the music, this was an incredibly brilliant career move by the U2. There are two "pivots" in U2's history that have allowed them to still be popular and sell out stadiums in the 2020s with the same line-up they (almost) started with in 1976 – an absolutely unbelievable thing, no matter how you slice it. The first pivot is the 1983-84 decision to take on a new producer (they'd already considered that back in '82), and, more importantly, to get Brian Eno (and, to their surprise, Daniel Lanois) of all people, and to write and record their music with a new and different approach. Or, maybe it's more like they had had no particular "approach" before – they just tried out songs live and laid 'em down with Lillywhite – and now they were self-consciously attempting something they could imagine in their minds. What's important, however, is that unlike every U2 record since 1997, this self-consciousness did not interfere with the free, live, natural creative process. They still recorded mostly live, very quickly, and under a deadline. So, we've got a new and slightly risky approach from a band who are working with new people are who are determined not to repeat themselves, but we've also got strict parameters of time to keep everybody focused and not second-guessing everything. It was a career move sideways to take this approach when a guaranteed windfall of live touring money awaited them for the rest of the decade if they'd just made War pt. II and War pt. III. (The second great pivot in U2's career is, of course, the 1990-91 period that forever prevented them from being remembered as an "80s band".)
Now, the music: I have never heard any recording that sounds like The Unforgettable Fire. I've never heard any U2 recording that sounds like The Unforgettable Fire. It's a total one-off, as even later Lanois/Eno collaborations don't sound like this. Of the many clichés that abound to describe it, I think the best one is that it sounds like an impressionist painting. But it's an impressionist painting with strong and solid colors, all the same. It's fuzzy around the edges but very easy to see and feel, still very accessible and powerful.
A Sort Of Homecoming
Just incredible. You can see why they put this on top of the record, as it is the quintessential "Unforgettable Fire" sound and track. Everyone is at the top of his game. When I hear this amazing recording, it always calls to mind the waves of the ocean pounding against the rocks of the Irish coast. Bono's voice is staggeringly great. The drum sound is superb, and appropriate.
The perfect 1980s' rock/pop single. They worked long and hard on this to get the arrangement just right... and succeeded. The intro to this song – the first 10 seconds – is genius. (The band thought maybe it would be their first UK #1; in the end it peaked at #3, while missing the US top-30 entirely.) For me, this sounds completely of a piece with the album, with its shimmering guitar tone. The only problem with "Pride" is that Bono for some reason thought Martin Luther King was killed in the "early morning" of April 4th, when in fact he was killed at about six p.m. But anyway. Just a stunning, overwhelming track that is so easy on the ears but is filled with amazing touches of subtlety that elevate it into greatness, like Edge's guitar parts during and between verses. (Incidentally, I've never really enjoyed hearing this song played live, partly because the guitar tone always sound way too thin... the only exception being the very first time they ever played it, in New Zealand, in 1984, which for some reason sounds a lot like the LP and has a fatter guitar tone.)
Another stunner, but a very unconventional song. A manic, racing pulse drives through this. Bono is almost rapping by the end. It's exciting and – again – sounds nothing like anyone else.
The Unforgettable Fire
I don't like this as much as some do, but that's not to say it isn't great. The synthesizer parts (hello, Eno!) are a little on the strong side, maybe, but I think they mainly work. (This is another one that never sounded right, to me, live.) Vocals on this recording are incredibly stellar, again.
I love this track. I believe Bono "wrote" (free associated) it while sitting in his home, with his wife Ali, and just watching people walk by. His voice is to die for, the vocal melody is just beautiful, as is the music. This is the dreamy, hazy feeling of being drowsy on a summer evening, with your loved one.
4th Of July
Kicking off side 2 with this took some balls. This is one of two tracks on this album for which, although I enjoy them, I think better substitutions could have been made. I mean, this isn't even really a "song"; it's just a bridge onto the latter half of the record. As such, it's fine.
Maybe the all-time epic U2 masterpiece. This isn't a proper song as much as it's a stunning work of performance art, with Bono the star. And does he deliver! While some of the lyrics maybe could have been better (but then again, who would want to interfere with his spontaneous ad-libbing that is the essence of performance?), the voice is just mind-blowing. Words and notes can't describe this. It's an experience. (And yes, the live versions, especially from 1984-85, are often stellar and stretch the track out. That said, I don't prefer any of them to this studio performance, which is tighter and more perfect, but still on the edge.) Larry does good work with percussion here, too, and is heard prominently.
Elvis Presley And America
This is the second track that's good but maybe something better was available? (I'll get to that in a minute.) While I enjoy this kind of very Eno-ish approach, I do think 6:23 of the track was a little excessive. Maybe they could have whittled a bit off the front of it or something...? But in context of the album as a whole, it certainly works and they are to be commended for agreeing to put out something very spontaneous and in the raw. (Bloody horrible song title, though.)
Indian Summer Sky
This is the oft-forgotten, "sleeper" track on the LP. It's a fairly conventional song structure, but shimmers (that word again) like the other tracks given the Eno/Lanois treatment. The bridge ("To lose, along the way, the spark that set the flame to flicker and to fade") gives me chills; it's so lovely.
Bono's voice again! Boy, it sounds good. And it's a beautiful, simple song, akin to a hymn. I really like the production touch at the end, when his vocal ends and a vague hum grows up in volume behind him.
So, that's the album proper. But what about the B-sides and the tracks from "The Unforgettable Fire" EP, released in April, 1985?
The thing that strikes me is how confident and fully-formed it sounds, unlike previous B-side stuff from the Lillywhite years, which usually sounded rushed and tentative. This is good – a nice piece of work, though hardly essential.
Okay, I'm about to go overboard for most of you, but for me, this is one of the five or ten greatest U2 tracks... ever! I cannot express how much I love this track. Let me just say that I probably consider it the single most beautiful piece of music I've ever heard in my life. (I once used this as the soundtrack to a "performance poetry video" assignment I had to do at university. It went over well. A bunch of people asked me about the music, and the typical reaction was, "What? That's U2??") I have no idea if this was ready by August of 1984 or not, but if so it's a crime that they included "4th of July" on the album instead of this stunning work of genius. This track is heavenly, and if you haven't experienced it yet, do yourself a favor....
Love Comes Tumbling
Very, very good! I love how raw and clean the mix is. There's more instrumental separation than on most of the album tracks. Likewise, the lyrical content here (and Bono's lower-register vocals) leans more towards The Joshua Tree than the Unforgettable Fire themes, but still a pity this wasn't on the actual album. Just so evocative. I love how this track "breathes", too. It goes on a bit at the end, which is nice.
The Three Sunrises
Well, you can see them working on this one (and it sounds almost done) in The Unforgettable Fire video made mostly at Slane, so I'm pretty sure this could have been on the album. Should it have been? I'm not sure. It has a beautiful chorus and the mood of it would certainly fit in. Hell, yeah, it should have been there!
So, although I said off the top that this album is sort-of beyond criticism, I have to share how I personally would sequence it. That would be something like this:
A Sort of Homecoming
The Three Sunrises
The Unforgettable Fire
Indian Summer Sky
Love Comes Tumbling
So, yeah, I've dropped "4th of July" and "Elvis Presley and America", not because I dislike them (I like both!) but because I think they simply aren't nearly as strong as the three I've replaced them with. They're more than welcome in the canon, but preferably as B-sides.
In any case, a wonderful, staggeringly-great, timeless album. The Unforgettable Fire is the kind of LP that give the mid-1980s a good name (if that's possible).