I’ve had a lot of conversations about U2 throughout the years, and I’ve always found it sad and odd that, of all of the albums in the band’s oeuvre, 1984’s The Unforgettable Fire seems to be the most overlooked. And this despite being absolutely critical to the band’s development as an artistic outfit.
I suspect this neglect is due, in large part, to the album’s murky, mercurial sound (due, no doubt, to the influence of Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois, now some of the band’s most constant collaborators). Compared to the earlier albums, especially the blitzkrieg that is War, The Unforgettable Fire sinks in the background, seemingly content to wrap the listener within shimmering layers of the Edge’s guitars and Bono’s impressionistic, stream of consciousness lyrics.
And yet, I find it impossible to conceive of The Joshua Tree, Achtung Baby, or any of U2’s other forays — however successful or unsuccessful — without The Unforgettable Fire. Within this album’s 10 songs, you hear a band seeking to shake things up, to break out of well-defined styles while remaining true to their spiritual and aesthetic ideals.
But ultimately, it has to come back to the songs. Many, including some of U2’s members, have criticized the album as being pretentious, but I find it consistently haunting and involving. There are the obvious numbers, such as “A Sort of Homecoming” (which I count among my favorite worship songs) and “Pride (In the Name of Love),” one of U2’s signature anthems. But it’s the other tracks that I always go back to, be it the titular track with its haunting imagery and gorgeous, understated guitar and orchestral arrangements, the dreamlike “Promenade,” or the hazy mirage that is “4th of July.”
U2 had never made music like this before, and its refrains continue to echo throughout their catalog. Who knows what would’ve happened if U2 had given in to anxious label execs and not taken the gambit represented by this album. But I doubt they would’ve become the biggest band in the world if they’d played it safe.
This article was originally published on The Hurst Review on February 24, 2009 as part of a collection of articles celebrating the music of U2.