There isn’t a lot of music in U2’s catalog that sounds like the time at which it was recorded. Even their first record, Boy, has a kind of timeless quality to it that makes it hard for those not in the know to pinpoint exactly when it was recorded (except for “A Day Without Me”, but that’s a topic for another article). I think that that’s true of most of U2’s catalog, but like most rules, there is an exception. To my ears, much of The Unforgettable Fire album sounds exactly like it came out of the mid 80’s. It’s of that time in the same way that most of the rest of U2’s catalog defies time-stamping. One of the main culprits for this dated feeling is the title track, which was released as a single in 1985 but failed to chart in the United States. Coming after the success of “Pride (In the Name of Love)”, which was the band’s first song to reach the top forty in the States, this must have been a particular disappointment. Perhaps the band consoled themselves with the knowledge that “The Unforgettable Fire” did reasonably well in the UK, where it was their third top ten hit.
Despite what may seem like some harsh criticism above, I actually do like “The Unforgettable Fire”. Bono has gone on record in the past by calling The Unforgettable Fire album “beautifully out of focus and impressionistic”, and those descriptors definitely fit the song “The Unforgettable Fire”, with it’s dream-like guitar and breathy backing vocals. One thing that I really enjoy about the song is the juxtaposition between the big, loud drums and the more ethereal sounds that are produced by the rest of the instruments. Even the lyrics are indistinct, with one verse in particular describing viewing a carnival through unsteady, bleary, drunken eyes. The main thrust of the choruses seems to be about asking a lover to stay the night, but the rest of the song seems to be trying to paint an abstract vignette rather than giving concrete facts or well-defined thoughts. The entire package gives the impression of haziness and inexactitude. I believe that much of this is likely due to the presence of Brian Eno as producer, but I also think that the band might have been in a more experimental mood after the straight lines and of the War album.
“The Unforgettable Fire” was played at a vast majority of the gigs that were part of both The Unforgettable Fire and The Joshua Tree Tours, and even made an appearance at a smattering of shows on the Lovetown Tour, but after that tour, the song languished for nearly two decades. It was finally revived for the first couple legs of 2009’s 360 Tour, and I believe that the song’s return was welcomed by fans. It earned enough votes for inclusion on the 2012 fan club album U22, but by the third leg of the tour, the song was dropped. Perhaps, as they look back at the mid-80’s for the Joshua Tree 2017 Tour, the band might find it appropriate to revisit this song once again.
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