With the subtraction of Steve Lillywhite and the addition of producers Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois, U2 moved in a new direction by exploring a more lushly layered and evocative sound. Far removed from their punk rock influenced earlier records, The Unforgettable Fire is a much more mature, adult oriented album. The band sounds relaxed and assured throughout as they explore such serious topics as drug abuse (“Wired,” “Bad”) and the horrors of nuclear warfare (the title track), while also taking the time to pay tribute to a couple of deceased American icons, Martin Luther King (“Pride,” “MLK”) and Elvis Presley (“Elvis Presley and America”). “A Sort Of Homecoming” immediately showcases the “new” U2 with a memorably atmospheric melody and a passionate performance, while “Pride” became the band’s biggest hit to date on the back of great ringing guitar riffs and touching lyrics about the enduring legacy of a true American hero. Elsewhere, “Wired” and “Indian Summer Sky” are propulsive tracks with an exotic Eastern flavor, and it is overlooked album tracks such as these that make this album so special (and yes, I’m aware that almost nobody else thinks this album is as great as I do). “The Unforgettable Fire” is another terrific album track, led by its lush Eno-ized keyboard melody and Bono’s fabulous falsetto vocals, while “Promenade” is perhaps the single biggest reason why I love this album (and band) so much. Often dismissed as a forgettable album track, this short song has a simple, uncomplicated melody, but it’s what they do with that melody that counts! Simply put, Bono’s gorgeous vocal is simply beyond compare, always managing to get the ol’ tear ducts to well up simply by virtue of its stunning perfection. Truth is, for all the criticism this guy gets for his big ego (though, with a truckload of humanitarian awards to his credit, I think much of it is misplaced), very few of the band’s contemporaries had a singer in this guy’s league.
Anyway, “4th of July” is a short, mysterious instrumental that works as little more than a mood enhancing filler, but “Bad” is another indisputable high point that would become a much played radio and concert favorite (for the definitive version of the song, read the next review). “Elvis Presley and America” is another song that’s often dismissed, but I enjoy this one as well, despite (because of?) Bono’s largely improvised and often mumbled monologue. Fact is, this epic song has a nice groove; I dig the drum patterns and the overall atmosphere, and the song builds to a powerful climax before “MLK” ends the album on a gorgeously laid-back note, similar to how “40” had ended the previous album. Now that I’ve gone into a song-by-song analysis, I’d like to add that this entrancing album should be listened to in its entirety, for it is the album’s surreal, spiritual overall quality that most attracts me to it. Of course, the sound is first-rate (as it is on any Eno or Lanois production), as are the performances, from the seasoned rhythm section of Adam Clayton and Larry Mullen Jr. to the Edge’s distinct, echoey guitar signature and onto Bono’s confident, charismatic vocals.
Long story short: this is a desert island disc that I’ve cherished for many years, and though it’s rarely mentioned as a classic album, or even among the band’s very best albums, there aren’t too many albums that I’d rather listen to on a daily basis.