Music Features

Happy Anniversary... The Unforgettable Fire

Last month, U2's released their latest album, Songs of Innocence. The record saw the band looking back towards their early days and the experiences that shaped them. Now, just a few weeks later , we mark the 30th anniversary of U2's first push forward with The Unforgettable Fire.
After the post-punk trilogy of Boy, October and War, U2 felt that it had to move forward and explore new ideas, lest they get stuck in a rut. To help them find their way forward with innovative sounds and textures, the band hired Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois as co-producers. Arguably their most successful collaborators, Eno and Lanois brought a careful balance of experimentation and craftsmanship to the Irish four-piece. And the results definitely paid off. 
It only takes a minute or two into the opening track, A Sort of Homecoming, to see how the band had stepped up its game. Larry Mullen Jr.'s intricate drum pattern gives way to The Edge's sharp, expansive tone, the famous echo effect made widescreen. Bono's in full command of his vocals for the first time in his career, moving from sing-speaking to a full-blown scream as the song progresses. Any worries about U2's commercial success was also put to rest with Pride (In The Name Of Love), one of their all-time classics with an instantly memorable riff and one of Bono's most passionate vocal performances.
The Unforgettable Fire also finds U2 learning how to slow down and give songs space to breathe. While they had a couple of successful ballads before this record (Drowning Man, Tomorrow), this is where they truly start to excel. Bad is one of, if not the, most exhilarating things the band ever recorded. Tackling the topic of drug abuse, the song slowly, subtly grows, with Bono in the driver's seat, sounding possessed, desperate, inflamed and finally ecstatic, with the shout of someone breaking free of their own addiction. Lyrically, it's magnificent, as Bono gets the song's message across without beating you over the head. "True colours fly in blue and black / Blue silken sky and burning flag / Colours crash, collide in blood shot eyes," he sings, conjuring vivid, creative imagery.
The title track is another highlight, lyrically and musically. A spacious guitar in the verses giving away to pounding piano keys, mixing The Edge's two instrumental talents even better than in New Year's Day. "And if the mountains should crumble / Or disappear into the sea / Not a tear, no not I," Bono passionately sings, before belting out the chorus.
Although U2 was readily exploring new soundscapes, they were still able to write some incredible rockers, taking their early sound and enhancing it. Wire moves from guitar pinpricks to scratches, while Adam Clayton bursts forward with a funky, frantic bass line. Indian Summer Sky is similar, though more grounded than Wire, which is so chaotic that it threatens to veer off the track. It's a lack of control that U2 has rarely allowed itself to experience in recent years.
By the time the record ends, with the synth hymn of MLK, U2 had completed its first major transformation. The post-punk days were firmly in the band's rearview mirror and they were ready to see what was next. Of course, what came after this album was The Joshua Tree. But that masterpiece, along with other future classics, would not have been reached without this first step into the unknown. The Unforgettable Fire is exactly that; a gorgeous, invigorating record that showed, better than any before it, why U2 would become a band for the ages.