Irish rock band’s first album in four years has sonic sound

Los Angeles Times by Robert Hilburn (1996-12-02)

DUBLIN, Ireland — For most of its celebrated career, U2 has preached the gospel of rock ‘n’ roll tradition, toasting at every turn such personal heroes as Elvis Presley, the Beatles and Bob Dylan.

So, why is Adam Clayton, the group’s bassist, talking about such ’90s techno-dance favorites as the Prodigy, Massive Attack, Tricky and the Chemical Brothers as he drives to U2’s recording studio on the banks of the Grand Canal Basis?

“See what you think of this,” says Clayton, who has just flown in from London, where he and drummer Larry Mullen represented the band at the MTV Europe Music Awards. He slips a cassette into the car’s tape player, and music suddenly explodes from the speakers.

It’s a burst of the sonic color you’d expect from a prized dance-floor entry — not the light audio confections associated with mainstream dance music in the United States during the last two decades but the hard-edged British dance music that bristles with attitude and bite.

Though the style is hugely popular in England, it has not secured much of a commercial foothold in America. For one thing, most of the British dance stars have tended to be relatively faceless, and the emphasis in the music is on textures, rather than conventional pop songwriting techniques.

Just when you begin to wonder which of those hot British acts’ music is playing in the car, you hear a voice through the speakers that sounds suspiciously like that of U2’s Bono and some sharp, vibrating guitar lines that seem awfully similar to those of the band’s the Edge.

Some dance outfit imitating U2?

Clayton smiles.

“It’s our new single — ‘Discotheque,’” he says “What do you think?”

That’s a question that many U2 fans will ask each other next month, when the single hits the airwaves and offers the first public clue to the musical direction of the Irish band’s first album in nearly four years.

“Discotheque” is in some ways as radical a shift from the icy sweep of 1991’s “Achtung Baby” and 1993’s “Zooropa” as those albums were from the graceful eloquence of 1987’s “The Joshua Tree.” Not everything in the new album, titled “Pop” and due in March, reflects the dynamics of the electronic dance world as fully as the single, but most of the tracks will likely have at least a touch of those sonic influences.

It’s a direction that the four members of the band were all equally enthusiastic about, they discovered, after nearly a yearlong break that followed their grueling 1992-93 world stadium tour.

“It was our first real time off in, what, 15 years?” Clayton says as he pulls up to the studio, which is housed in a building that’s undistinguishable from the other warehouse spaces in the waterfront district.

Bono and Edge are already at work when Clayton arrives. The group has been recording in this studio, with its lovely view of the water, for much of the year.

The atmosphere in the studio is relaxed, even though the band’s latest deadline is only a week away.

Unlike most recording acts, which finish one track before moving on to the next, U2 listens repeatedly to various tracks recorded over recent months to see what extra touches might be applied, be it a new vocal line or instrumental shading.

Bono at times will decide to change a word or even a whole line. It’s a time-consuming approach because a new lyric or instrumental sequence could mean other adjustments in the track to make it all seem whole.

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