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U2’s Zooropa at 30: New Hope for the Old World?

In July 1993, U2 released its eighth studio album, Zooropa, an experimental follow-up to its universally-acclaimed Achtung Baby, whose “Zoo Station” was the starting point for an expedition into post-Cold War European culture. Zooropa journeys further, with a new sound produced by longtime U2 collaborator Brian Eno and guitarist Edge, in collaboration with Flood, the English house and industrial engineer. Perhaps most significantly, Zooropa was recorded on a break during the band’s nearly two-year-long Zoo TV tour, which was a spectacle unlike anything the band had ever done.

During the Zoo TV tour, front man Bono adopted two personae: the devilish MacPhisto and the narcissistic Fly. The stage setup evolved over 157 concert dates to include enormous video screens on which the band projected scenes of dramatic world events, and they also beamed in messages from activists and leaders – including famously showing broadcasts from war-torn, media-isolated Sarajevo. Zooropa was born of chaos, and speaks to us from a time and a place full of both hope and grave concern. The Berlin Wall was down and the Soviet Union was no more…now what?

For me, Zooropa was an essential record for two reasons: First, when it appeared in my life as a thirteen-year-old, I was almost at the peak of my MTV-watching, Rolling Stone-reading music nerddom, and U2 was my very favorite band. Even then I knew Zooropa was not really a classic album, but it had a lot to offer, and the timing was right. Zooropa was also important because of where I was, or better yet, was not, in my family life. When the record appeared in the summer of 1993, I was meant to have just arrived in Europe, the land of my dreams even as a kid. My father, who had always told me stories about his childhood in France, had just taken up a new post in Italy that February, and my mother and sisters and I were due to uproot and join him as soon as school let out. Instead, my mother filed for divorce and we stayed in Florida.

So it goes. Perhaps not moving to Europe while simultaneously listening to Zooropa non-stop for the rest of the year made me long to see the continent even more. My dreams of Europe grew. Around this time, I began studying French and German, and in 1994, my sister and I spent the summer driving around the continent with our dad. These experiences were the seeds that sprouted the Europhile I am now. Thus, Zooropa is one small element in my background that brought me ultimately to the project we are pursuing here at the Spe Salvi Institute.

Anyway, let’s consider Zooropa together.

Whereas 1987’s The Joshua Tree was a love letter to what America had been, Zooropa’s background is what Europe might become. The 90’s were Europe’s moment to re-imagine its old glory, if only it could avoid divisions that Communism papered over (e.g., the Balkans), as well as the materialist utopianism of Capitalism’s victory (e.g.,Gorbachev’s Pizza Hut commercial). Although at the time, reviewers of Zooropa noted the band’s concerns about the return of fascism to Europe, there is only minimal evidence in the lyrics. The album art, however, alludes to a wider concern about various strains of totalitarianism, but also consumerism. We therefore begin our retrospective look at the record with its packaging.

Designed by Shaughn McGrath, the album art features a variation on the graffiti drawing of a child’s head from artwork associated with the Achtung Baby album, this time wearing a space helmet and surrounded by the EU circle of stars. The picture represents an urban legend that gained prominence immediately after the collapse of the Soviet Union, as people falsely believed a cosmonaut had been forgotten in space amid the political turmoil on earth. On the back of the record are blurry pictures of Lenin, Mussolini, and Ceaușescu, along with a bodybuilder, a naked woman, and an atomic energy symbol, among other things. Collectively, the images signal an uncertain new era, marked for the foreseeable future by the trauma of the recent past.

Following an ethereal two-minute instrumental build, Bono begins the title track ironically, singing the slogan of the German car manufacturer Audi: “Europa, Vorsprung durch Technik.” He then conjures the image of a flattened out technocratic world: “No particular place names, no particular song.” And most alarming for fans who appreciated the Christian lyrics of the band’s earlier records, Bono declares, “I have no religion, and I don’t know what’s what.” It’s a long step beyond “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For,” and a sad statement about the continent at the center of the album’s themes. Nonetheless, Bono tells us he is going to “dream out loud,” and Christian hope is not completely absent. Good thing too, because thirty years later, it is clearer every day there is no possibility of Europe without it.

“Numb” was the first single off the record. It was not well received, it is easily parodied, and it remains unique among everything else in U2’s catalog to this day. Again, exploration rather than commercial success was exactly what the band was after, if only for this one brief period. Written and sung by Edge, the video consists of a close-up of Edge being manipulated over the course of four minutes by various pleasures and pains. The robotic litany of don’ts prepares the way for Radiohead’s 1997 “Fitter Happier.” The fourth track, “Lemon,” was the second single, and it remains a particular favorite of mine. With an almost caricature falsetto from Bono, an electronic dance beat, and another weird music video, “Lemon” is a “skip” for some listeners; but the bridge is one of the most beautiful pieces of music the band ever recorded, and the song develops over its 6:58 original album length into a soaring exploration of memory and grief. “These are the days,” Bono sings, “when our work has come asunder.” He continues, “these are the days when we look for something other.”

The album’s third single, “Stay (Faraway, So Close!)” stands out as one of U2’s very best songs even to people who have little use for Zooropa otherwise. The song is about an American domestic abuse victim who enjoys being violated as an escape from her dead-end life. But through “satellite television,” she finally sees herself unbound: “Miami, New Orleans, London, Belfast, and Berlin.” She imagines becoming what Roger Scruton called an “anywhere,” with no fetters, but also no roots – a blessing and a curse. Originally conceived in the Achtung Baby sessions as a dark Frank Sinatra-style song, “Stay” made it to tape as a more mature but no less intense follow-up to “Surrender” from the War album. The band also gave the song to their friend, German filmmaker Wim Wenders, to use in his sequel to Wings of Desire.

Because of the quality and lasting power of “Stay,” I was surprised Bono did not include it in his recent autobiographical tour of U2 songs, Surrender: 40 Songs, One Story. Indeed, no songs from Zooropa made the cut for Bono’s book. But two other songs might have been considered: “The First Time,” a tale of rejecting faith, and “The Wanderer,” the musings of a man who roams around an apocalyptic wasteland looking for Jesus.

“The First Time” is a personal anti-Christian testimony, but also an expression of the strange state of Christianity in the West today. Bono describes new loves that have come between him and his merciful father, “a rich man,” who “gave me the keys to his kingdom (coming).” He concludes, “I left by the back door, and I threw away the key.” Obviously, Bono wrote the song from a particular stage in his still-developing spiritual journey; but it is also the sound of various creatures in the spiritual “zoo” of declining Western Civilization. Everything Europe was founded on remains true and lovelier than ever for those with eyes to see; but the temptation to reject one’s birthright is great. Apparent in 1993 and much more so thirty years later, God must defend his existence to us even as he continues to offer the free gift of his grace. The foundation of Christian society is crumbling as a result. Devastating.

“The Wanderer,” sung by Johnny Cash, is a continuation of Bono’s Augustinian struggle “to taste and to touch and to feel as much as a man can before he repents.” But “The Wanderer” is also a curious and strangely hopeful conclusion to Zooropa. For an album focused on Europe, it seems at first blush discordant to feature Cash, a giant of Americana. But on second thought, maybe the presence of a foreigner from the same spiritual lineage is precisely the point. Maybe it takes an old, deep-voiced southerner who toured with Billy Graham to put the doubts of an Irishman into perspective, but also to challenge what was once Christendom to be itself again. Perhaps U2 knew that it might take an American to see Europe’s past with clear eyes, loving what was most loveable, and hoping for a future anchored in eternity.

This stanza from “The Wanderer” haunts me:

I went drifting through the capitals of tin

Where men can’t walk

Or freely talk

And sons turn their fathers in

I stopped outside a church house

Where the citizens like to sit

They say they want the kingdom

But they don’t want God in it.


When I listen to Zooropatoday, I hear Bono’s “dream out loud,” but echoing faintly after thirty years of secularization. Indeed, I fear U2 are is now poster boys for the misenchanted world that is coming into being in Christendom’s stead. But there are always more places to wander, sources of truth to discover, and plans for rebuilding to be hatched. “The Wanderer” concludes, “Jesus, I’ll be home soon.” In this way, Zooropamay still speak of deep hope for Europe and the West today. Give it a listen for lessons from a strange, special time.


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