The Wanderer: U2’s Zooropa at 30

Looking back on the band’s weirdest album

Zooropa promo poster (Image: eBay)

Happy 30th birthday to Zooropa, the little U2 album that couldn’t, quite, but sort of did, ultimately. 

It’s mostly electronic (still), futuristic (back then) and often as nakedly fun as anything the band ever cut. It’s both tossed-off and dense. It bombed at the time (if you’re U2 in 1993, selling two million copies in America is a bomb), but U2 fans have never stopped arguing over it. It’s the sound of U2 dreaming out loud, named after a fantasy nu Europe. It further explores the dance music Edge increasingly adored, engages the giant mood swings a game-changing tour juggled night to night, and tried to process the felt experience in the studio.

Or, as one wag on Twitter put it this week, “Happy 30th birthday you little fucking weirdo.”

The band, on the other hand, is a different story. It’s been decades since any of the songs, save the excellent “Stay”) have been played live. It’s barely mentioned in Bono’s sprawling memoir, Surrender, and it’s the one U2 album from which he doesn’t pull a chapter title. They haven’t disowned it but they’d probably rather talk about something else.

Zooropa remains a strange knot U2 fans can never completely untie, though in the U2 religion, there’s a small sect that thinks it’s the band’s finest hour, like a Christian cult that decided to worship one of the apostles nobody can remember… say,  Barnabas, the guy who traveled a lot with St. Paul (who in this allegory is clearly Achtung Baby). 

The album was initially conceived as a ZOO TV tour-promoting EP, a format which has precedence in the U2 canon. Indeed, the band often parked revelations into those between-big-album records. 

U2 Zooropa, Island Records 1993

Between War and The Unforgettable Fire came the eight-song live set Under the Blood Red Sky with a thunderous, definitive “Sunday Bloody Sunday.” Between TUF and The Joshua Tree came the petite-yet-epic Wide Awake in America with a live, eight-miunute “Bad” that reminded everyone that “Bad” was their greatest jam, their “Sister Ray” or “Black to Comm.” Between The Joshua Tree and Achtung Baby came Rattle and Hum, which was essentially an EP’s worth of solid studio recordings paired with an album’s worth of live greatness, satisfying fans of neither gesture. There’s an alternate, better universe where they released in 1988 an eight-song stop-gap studio record, or a traditional double live album, but it ain’t ours. 

Hell, it might be that most of them can’t really remember making the thing — they were pretty busy at the time, writing and recording during and between legs of the groundbreaking ZOO TV tour. The band kept both writing new material inspired by their increasingly technophilic live show  (itself moving through the US and Euorpe as war raged in the Balkans) and adding Achtung Baby leftovers, making for one of their most ductile-sounding albums, a groove record from a band known more for songs, filled with new textures of drum loops and samples rather than guitar echo. Fans on streaming services love making their own definitive Zooropas, whether it involves adding Paul Okenfold remixes of “Lemon” or taking on leftovers from the same sessions (the famous one, “Hold Me Thrill Me Kiss Me Kill Me,” ended up on a Batman movie soundtrack). 

Fading in on a mix of enigmatic piano, weird fuzz, Edge’s by-now-familiar wah, the title track amps up Bono’s increasingly arch vibe. “I have no compass / And I have no map,” he croons —  do tell, louche man of Europe. “Babyface,” a toss-off about being a short Irish guy with greasy hair who suddenly gets to hang out with supermodels, follows in a similar vein.


VIDEO: U2 “Numb”

The album’s bangers are lumped together, as striking a sequence as on any of their albums. “Numb,” famous for a genuinely funny video and the Edge’s monotone please-don’t-call-it-rapping, managed to jam multiple hooks, any one or two of which could power its own song, into its 4:20. The ascending and descending guitar scrape, the martial drum loop, the synthy laser-stabs, the childlike keyboard melody, the ghost-in-the-machine background mumbles, Bono’s choral wail, the Arabic sample…it stills hang together brilliantly. To hear Edge and Larry intone “I feel numb” while Bono sings “too much is not enough” is to think ZOO TV must have had some fun backstage.

Like “Numb,” the shuddering “Lemon,” a strikingly moving song about Bono’s mother, who died when he was 14, takes advantage of something U2 never played with enough in the studio: Bono’s falsetto. While he loved busting it out live, it’s too bad there isn’t more of it on wax; he (and they) never really mined the emotional verities in his “Fat Lady” voice.

Five songs in, one is so used to the dense electronic churn at this point, the guitar-heavy “Stay (Faraway, So Close!)” seems ported over from another time, an analog interloper in a digital realm. It ended up on the soundtrack to Wim Wenders’ Faraway, So Close, a sequel to the classic Wings of Desire. Band and auteur had a relationship for a while — “Until the End of the World,” one of U2’s finest hours, was on the stellar Wenders’ soundtrack to the film of the same name. (Like Zooropa, the movie Faraway, So Close ended up underperforming.) 


VIDEO: U2 “Stay (Faraway, So Close!)”

Like a lot of records with a cult, the back half separates the casual fans from the devout, and works better if you think of it as a separate five-song EP. “Daddy’s Gonna Pay for Your Crashed Car,” (terrible title, that) confronts various addiction issues over a muzzy dance groove, “Some Days Are Better than Others” feels like another half-finished one (“Your skin is white, but you think you’re a brother/ Some days are better than others” — nah, son). The acoustic (!) guitar chordings, subtle drums and ambient keys on “The First Time” recall a less melodramatic “All I Want is You,” and feels like a classic U2 ballad they never toned up; it’s genuinely surprising that this ode to a loss of faith didn’t end up on Songs of Surrender, last year’s acoustic rethinking of their catalog. 

“Dirty Day” is another frictionless, fuzzy groover (that quotes Bukowski in its outro!) and then comes “The Wanderer,” perhaps the weirdest moment on an album full of “fuck it, let’s try this” ones. With lead vocals from an immediate pre-Rick Rubin-ized Johnny Cash, it’s always felt mildly tacked on, if impressive in its oddness. Would it have been a cool one-off single under the billing Johnny Cash with U2? Absolutely. Here, especially with the aggressive alarm tone at the end, it reduces Cash to yet another element in the thrum, clearly not the band’s intention. They had their heart in the right place.

Then again, U2 always have their heart in the right place, even when their at-bat results in a solid two-bagger or a strange triple rather than an obvious home run. A friend recently remarked that Gen X always used irony, distance and black humor in the service of expressing genuine emotion without sentimentality, something that younger folks misread as coldness (or use as coldness). This is exactly what is happening in Zooropa: like Achtung Baby, it slides down the surface of things, and the surfaces are even slipperier, even if the feelings are just as real as they’d always been.


Joe Gross
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Joe Gross

Joe Gross has written about culture, popular and un-, since 1996. His work has appeared in the New York Times, Rolling Stone, Spin when it was still a print magazine, the Village Voice when it existed, and many more. He was a critic and reporter for the Austin American-Statesman from 2002 to 2020. He wrote a 33 1/3 about Fugazi's In On the Killtaker. Look for his Substack, Artificial Air, launching in August 2023.

One thought on “The Wanderer: U2’s Zooropa at 30

  • July 7, 2023 at 8:38 pm

    “and then comes “The Wanderer,” perhaps the weirdest moment on an album”

    I have heard it multiple times in drug & grocery stores.
    In rotation for whatever the “Muzak” company is called now.
    Great tune in the context of what you usually hear at the CVS.


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