Reviewed by John Cheek
I remember my sister telling me how 'The Unforgettable Fire' was the soundtrack to her painting for her Art degree at Aberystwyth, around the turn of 1984/5. The ambient textures, the lush, sweeping soundscapes, the occasional broad-stroke such as "Pride (In The Name Of Love)" perfectly matching - if not her muse, then her mood - as she endeavoured artistically, in a remote coastal resort by the Irish Sea. Many miles away on the other side, just a few months earlier, the men behind the music were purchasing their first, modest homes in County Dublin besides the same sea. Having established themselves as Christians in one of the most vital new bands to come out of the post-punk era, U2 now broke fresh ground and formed a production partnership which would come to characterise their future sound(s) and influence nearly every decision they were to make; artistically, commercially, politically and spiritually. Brian Eno was an atheist listening only to black gospel when this young Irish band first approached him. In fact, he'd listened to nothing else for three years, so disillusioned was the Roxy Music keyboardist with conventional rock and its rituals. He suggested that the French-Canadian catholic musician, Daniel Lanois, join him, initially to pass the gig over to him. Realising that the band wanted to play on to his own tune, Eno stayed and the result was something which, a quarter-century on, hasn't dated at all; despite criticism at the time that it was merely a "transitional album". Titles like "Elvis Presley And America" and "4th July" alluded to their growing obsession with the States; the title-track along with "A Sort Of Homecoming" even now are remarkable feats of songwriting and arranging; the band members clearly competent by now, to pull them off. Two Martin Luther King tributes (the other being the meditative "MLK") weren't enough at the time to prevent the feeling that this was a less-overtly Christian album than its three predecessors. But closer inspection of "Bad" - which Bono recently admitted he wished he'd developed more - reveals a piece of art notable for its spiritual yearnings for the sake and state of the souls of others. Indeed, this was a group moving away from religious sloganeering towards artistic engagement, highlighted by subtle use of Biblical metaphors: red wine puncturing skins, mountains disappearing into the sea and so on. Reaching a quiet crescendo midway, with "Promenade", we're in a living room on the Irish coast, with its sentiment of moving "up the spiral staircase/To the higher ground". Van Morrison couldn't have put it better. 'The Unforgettable Fire' was a song and an album inspired by paintings from Hiroshima and Nagasaki survivors, which Bono associated with his impressions of the account of Sodom and Gomorrah. Indeed, he quotes the line from Genesis: ".and don't look back," Spiritually and artistically, they never did.
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