3. Zooropa (1993)
“Don’t take it on board, don’t fall on your sword / Just play another chord if you feel you’re getting bored / Too much is not enough.”
Sometimes it seems like U2 have absorbed all of Professor Eno’s dictates except the most critical one: Don’t overthink. It can’t be a coincidence that U2′s most playful and adventurous album of the last 20 years is the one they made the fastest.
Nobody gives the criminally underrated Zooropa its due — not even U2, who with the exception of the odd acoustic version of “Stay” or “The First Time” (both lovely, but they’re the two most conventional songs on a very unorthodox album) have ignored this album in concert, particularly in the U.S. Recorded in three frantic months between the American and European legs of the 1992-3 ZOO TV Tour — the funniest, most subversive stadium show in rock history — Zooropa was U2′s existentially jet-lagged meditation on a world that in the immediate aftermath of the Cold War felt more chaotic and impersonal than ever.
Mercifully, the lyrics don’t address war or politics at all. Half its 10 songs rank among U2′s riskiest and strongest: Edge’s monotone rap “Numb,” “Dirty Day,” the aforementioned ballads “Stay” and “The First Time” — a gorgeous gospel number that U2 thought too on the nose, but that made the cut at Eno’s insistence. Best of all is the effervescent “Lemon,” which sounds like Beck imitating Prince covering the Talking Heads. (“Numb,” “Stay,” and “Lemon” were the three best videos U2 ever made, too. But that’s a different list.)
The’re surely a Bono vocal version of the disc’s apocalyptic finale, “The Wanderer,” in the vaults somewhere, but the one on the album is sung by the Voice of God himself, Johnny Cash. Genius. Yes, it’s extremely irritating when U2 proclaim themselves the biggest band in the world, but in 1991-3, they really did seem like a group whose creative ambitions and abilities dwarfed those of any rival. They’d never be this good again.