Though it may be hard to remember, there once was a time when U2 wasn’t the omnipotent group of superstars that they are today. They once were just a band that, while certainly bearing a certain mark of greatness, was much like any other. That is until The Unforgettable Fire. For those of us around 25 years ago, the album marked a seismic shift for the band, going from poignant rearrangements of their post-punk influences to something much grander to create an album with an almost mythical quality to it. With this record, U2 sought something greater than just the sound the four of them could make in their chosen roles together, a sound much bigger than themselves.
With the band bringing in Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois to produce for the first time and hunkering down in Slane Castle, it was obvious U2 set their sights high for the album. The end result was a rich and gilded tapestry of sound unlike anything they had produced previously. With the help of Eno and Lanois, the band indulged a wide range of ideas, taking labyrinthian paths to sort out each notion. The title track is darker and more brooding than the band had ever been, lit with an incandescence worthy of its name. “Bad” churns with multiple layers of strings and looped guitars repeatedly folding in upon one another, while leadoff track “A Sort of Homecoming” is a slow build of mood and texture, half Native American mantra and half rock anthem.
U2 may have been shooting for the stars in the middle of the Irish countryside, but Bono’s mind was on America and its contradictions of grandeur and tragedy. Martin Luther King, Jr. is the subject of two songs: the elegiac hit “Pride (In the Name of Love)” and the closing, hymn-like “MLK.” Titles like “4th of July,” “Indian Summer Sky” and “Elvis Presley and America” are further evidence of this fascination with the USA, even while the band moved away from the political commentary of its past records (though the group itself was engaging in more social activism).
The Unforgettable Fire is, in many ways, U2 at its creative peak. Here they replaced much of the aggression of their earlier work with a feeling of hope that’s reinforced musically. When Bono sings “up toward the sky” on “Indian Summer Sky,” the song lurches with him heavenward. Elsewhere, the album is hopelessly moody, but for the last time, Bono and his gang effortlessly manifest their cerebral intent in a fitting landscape. The Joshua Tree, which followed three years later (an eternity in those days), may have made them the mega-stars they are today, but with The Unforgettable Fire, they became artists and not merely musicians.
With the record’s 25-year anniversary, The Unforgettable Fire has been given the reissue treatment. Also available as just the original album remastered on CD and vinyl, there are two deluxe editions, both including a second CD of bonus cuts, and one also including a DVD. The bonus CD contains little that most ardent fans won’t have heard, most perplexing being the Wide Awake in America EP in its entirety. Best, though, are unreleased cuts “Disappearing Act” and “Yoshini Blossom.” The latter, which features Eno and Lanois playing on the track, is an instrumental cut vaguely resembling “New Year’s Day,” while the former is a crackling pop song reminiscent of contemporaries Simple Minds (circa Sister Feelings Call). The DVD too reintroduces familiar content, essentially the same footage that was released on VHS as The Unforgettable Fire Collection oh so long ago.