May 30, 2009
U2 | “Numb”
HATE TO ADMIT IT, BUT…
1993 | Island Records
I have long suspected that every one of U2’s moves has been calculated. Think about it: can you remember any point in your life where the band’s members were not either has-beens or at the top of their game? If you came of age in the 80s, like me, then no, you can’t. If you’re any younger than I am, you haven’t even been alive for long enough to have seen a time when U2 wasn’t in the public eye.
But here’s a weird time in the long, expansive career of U2: 1993. Still flying high off the success of 1987’s The Joshua Tree, but at risk of becoming old 80s rock news in a post-grunge market, Bono, The Edge and Co. had to come up with a new sound that embraced the current trend without sounding like copyists. In other words, U2 had to keep abreast of the competition. So the boys made an expensive gamble with possibly their most underrated album (and their only truly great one, in my opinion), 1993’s Zooropa.
Zooropa is a weird, dance-y mess that ends up being a teensy bit country and not nearly as anthemic as its predecessors, trading earnest ballads for tongue-in-cheek irony. Lead single, “Numb,” found guitarist The Edge taking lead vocals for the first time (at least on a single). Over a backing track of heavily-processed synth drums, eerie keyboards and Bono’s annoying/endearing falsetto lilting across the whole mess, The Edge sleepily mumbles his way through a list of innocuous instructions: “Don’t move, don’t talk out of time, don’t think, don’t worry, everything’s just fine. Just fine.” It’s a clever Irish take on rap, and a fairly obvious predecessor to Beck’s smash debut single, “Loser,” mere months later. It’s fucking awesome. Nothing like what they’d sounded like before, and the prototype for the boring techno mess they’ve become, “Numb” isn’t just a single – it’s a crossroads.
With the exception of Zooropa’s other two singles, “Lemon,” and “Stay (Faraway, So Close),” and the Johnny Cash-led “The Wanderer,” U2 hasn’t done much of anything worth a shit since 1993 (possible exceptions go to the lead singles off each of their subsequent albums). But what a glorious pile of weird “Numb” and Zooropa were. And they were right there, smack in the public eye.
by Brook Pridemore