Anyone who follows the zigzagging world of pop knows it, and with ZOOROPA (Island/PLG), U2 seem to know it too: The landscape is no longer ruled by White Guys With Guitars. Pop at the end of the millennium is instead a world of clanky noises, bumps and grinds, hip-hop rhythms, electronic clatter, and, somewhere in the stew, a traditional rock instrument or two. It can be a scary and unsettling world, but it can also be ripe with sonic possibilities-even for a bunch of white guys who essentially play guitars. Zooropa opens with a jumble of bristling radio static and disembodied voices, one of them repeatedly asking, ”What do you want?” Then it swoops into the title song, which glides on a whooshing jet stream of techno-throb and the metallic six-string shards of the band’s guitarist, the Edge. ”And I have no compass, and I have no map,” exhorts front man and mouthpiece Bono, ”and I have no reasons, no reasons to get back.” It’s ”Where the Streets Have No Name” transplanted to the land of cyberpunk. That is just the beginning of a harried, spontaneous-sounding, and ultimately exhilarating album on which the world’s greatest arena guitar band rarely sounds like itself. Certain constants remain, like Larry Mullen Jr.’s drumming, which has stayed as solid as an old pub; on songs like ”Some Days Are Better Than Others,” U2 can still burst at the seams in best Joshua Tree fashion. Yet many of the tracks are drenched in reverb, blips, bell-like sounds, and the clanking grind of a metal-shop class run amok; at times, the Edge sounds as if he’s trying to blast out of a video game with his guitar. Bono lets out his patented Cliffs-of-Dover bellow, but he also keeps it low- key, often adopting a falsetto reminiscent of Fine Young Cannibals’ Roland Gift. We should have heard it coming. U2 first dipped a toe back into bumpy, vaguely avant-garde rock with 1991’s Achtung Baby, which scaled down the anthems and arena-rock moves in favor of darker, moodier, and more emotional music. Then came the still-going Zoo TV tour, in which the band is surrounded by massive television screens blaring political images and banal slogans-a heavy-handed, but effective, comment on keeping one’s humanity amid media oversaturation. Unless you listen closely-and maybe not even then-Zooropa doesn’t seem even as coherent as that stage set; it sounds messy, disconnected. (In a sense, that’s no surprise: It was originally planned as an EP with a few new songs, then quickly turned into a full-length album when the band recorded too much.) Yet that sense of incoherence is the point, since many of the songs touch on some form of emotional fracturing in the techno-tronic age. Bono sings, however obliquely, of interactive video sex (”Babyface”) and a friend’s heroin abuse (”Daddy’s Gonna Pay for Your Crashed Car”). In ”The First Time,” with a murky, snail’s-crawl mood recalling the Velvet Underground’s ”Heroin,” he admits to being finally in love, yet the words of his departed father-”I left by the back door/And I threw away the key”-continue to haunt him. Zooropa ends oddly, with Johnny Cash singing a U2 original, ”The Wanderer,” over a lumpy synthesizer arrangement that sounds like the musical equivalent of dragging one’s feet. But unlike the elder-statesmen cameos that studded the band’s botched 1988 album, Rattle and Hum, this one feels completely natural. Coming at the end of an album about identity and new beginnings, it makes sense to have the weathered, noble, seen-it-all-but- lived-to-tell-it voice of Cash dispensing a parable about looking for salvation ”under an atomic sky/ where the ground won’t turn/and the rain it burns.” U2 are themselves wandering and searching; they’ve clearly reached that point in their career when, having become successful at something, they’ve had to choose between growing contemptuous of their work or trying to make it fresh again. With Zooropa, they’ve opted for the latter. For an album that wasn’t meant to be an album, it’s quite an album. A

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