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In the beginning was the image. It was “the word,” of course, in the original, but then originals don’t matter anymore, haven’t for decades. Walter Benjamin knew that in the ’30s, Andy Warhol around 1960, Godard and the situationists soon after. And U2 too, those guys figured it out. In, oh, what was it? 1991?

Except that U2 hasn’t figured it out. About all that can be said, post-Achtung, about these musically adept but never cutting-edge pomp-punkers-turned-techno bricolagists is that they used to be earnest and now they’re ironic. It’s not clear that they know, however, just what they’re being ironic about.

The band’s second album since abandoning roots-rock and the true cross for electropop and a Luciferian Bono stage persona dubbed Macfisto, Zooropa opens with a six-minute dance-noise jingle that’s not shy about the brand name: “Zooropa…a bluer kind of white/Zooropa…it could be yours tonight/Zooropa…better by design/Zooropa…fly the friendly skies.” Yes, some 40 years after Mad magazine, Bono and the boys have determined that TV commercials are cryptically inane. Having unlocked this hidden door, what targets could be next? Materialism? Hypocrisy? Richard Nixon?

No, next up is “Babyface,” in which Bono discovers the false intimacy of unrequited video lust: “Catching your bright blue eyes/In the freeze-frame/I’ve seen them so many times/I feel like I must be your best friend,” he sings, taken with a “cover girl with natural grace” who exists only on a cathode-ray tube. (Images, nothing more than images.) “A man makes a picture/A moving picture/Through light projected/He can see himself up close,” adds “Lemon,” a hymn to “imagination” that sounds barren.

“You could lip-sync to the talk shows,” sings Bono in “Stay (Faraway, So Close!)” the song that explains that “with satellite television/You can go anywhere.” U2’s faithful may accept such expressions of couch-potato anomie as a critique, but mostly the band just zaps the remote control, hoping the gibberish will flow so fast that it will pass for profound. The same song opens with the lines, “Green light, 7-Eleven/You stop in for a pack of cigarettes/You don’t smoke, don’t even want to,” which means about as much as the inane chatter that forestalls dead air on all those talk shows.

So many of Bono’s Zooropa pronouncements are hollow blather, in fact, that Gibranisms like “you can hold onto something so tight/You’ve already lost it” (from “Dirty Day”) almost seem meaningful. “If you need someone to blame…/Throw a rock in the air/You’re bound to hit someone guilty,” he announces later in the song, and if that’s a respite from the self-righteousness of the band’s earlier work, it’s also about as deep as “Coke adds life.”

Like the perhaps even more banal Achtung, Baby, Zooropa includes a lyric sheet, which contributes to the notion that U2 has something to say. Yet it doesn’t take much scriptural analysis to reveal that the quartet came down empty-handed from the windy mountaintop of “New Year’s Day” and “With or Without You.” Onstage, where the band is inevitably the focus, the “Zoo TV” show may seem as heroic as any arena-rock performance; on record, though, the muddle is the message.

It’s not just its dense, industrial disco-dirge sound that makes “Numb” Zooropa‘s central song. This litany of terse commands—“Don’t project/Don’t connect/Protect/Don’t expect/Suggest”—seems to come from within the swamp of alienation, not The Joshua Tree‘s rostrum. That’s partially because it’s sung by guitarist The Edge, whose monotone avoids Bono’s melodrama, but mostly because it sounds stuck in psychic murk. It’s numb, not a lecture on numbness.

Elsewhere, however, Zooropa has the sound but not the vision. The jam-groove and found-sound ideas of co-producer Brian Eno are all over it, and “Daddy’s Gonna Pay for Your Crashed Car” adapts both the clanging metallic beat of mid-period Depeche Mode and the title of “Always Crashing in the Same Car,” a song from the late-’70s Bowie/Eno Berlin sessions that presaged just about everybody’s Teutonic-alienation post-disco experiments.

If nearly all of the album plods fashionably, though, the band just can’t surrender the grandeur. Employing falsetto like never before, Bono swoops all over the place, adding Al Green (and Martha Wash) to his repertoire of epic, from-a-mountaintop effects. Neither lust nor estrangement are conveyed by the high drama of the choruses to “Stay (Faraway, So Close!)” and “Dirty Day” or the swelling climax of “The First Time.” All that junk-culture noise clanking away in the heavily treated backing tracks, yet Bono sounds heroic despite himself.

Maybe that’s why he hands off lead vocals not only to The Edge but also to Johnny Cash, who sings the anomalous closing track, “The Wanderer,” the sort of pseudo-American spiritual-quest ballad Bono think he simulates so well. It’s a hoot, not just for Cash’s hammy vocal but for verses like “I went out walking with a Bible and a gun/The word of God lay heavy on my heart/I was sure I was the one/Now Jesus, don’t you wait up.”

Neither “The Wanderer” nor “Numb” are that much of the Zooropa experience, though; they’re just station breaks in the flow of Bono’s armchair-semiotician lyrics and the music’s Eno-ized sweep. It shouldn’t be forgotten that Eno also co-produced The Joshua Tree; the godfather of art-funk and ambient-house has conscientiously served U2’s bombast in the past, and he does so again here: A guitar riff sputters bravely from the sampled clamor of the opening “Zooropa,” a piano figure propels “Lemon” heavenward, the clang of “Crashed Car” brushes aside a moldy fanfare copped from Lenin’s Favourite Songs. The Wall came down and the struggle is over, but amid its cut-up sounds and self-conscious sentiments, Zooropa can’t resist the epic moment. Even with 50 different channels babbling at once, U2 remains a David Lean movie.

As if to prove that earnestness and techno don’t go together, Peace Together grafts a brittle electrobeat to various folkie songs and pledges the proceeds “to benefit the youth of Northern Ireland.” The proceeds are likely to be minimal, for this is a most unappealing effort. U2’s contribution, a live version of Lou Reed’s “Satellite of Love” with Reed on guest vocals, is the sort of throwaway that frequently fills out such compilations, but by the standards of this package it’s a highlight. Most of the disc is so dreary and awkward that literal-minded covers from Therapy? (Sting’s “Invisible Sun”) and Blur (Elvis Costello’s “Oliver’s Army”) come as a relief.

The album includes versions of such righteous-rocker tunes as Peter Gabriel’s “Games Without Frontiers” (treated with unseemly reverence by Pop Will Eat Itself), and Costello is the only songwriter who gets covered twice—a bad sign right there—but the album’s basic strategy is to add a mechanical thump to the protest songs of underexposed folkies like Andy White and Sandy Denny. The results resemble the mortifying encore to Billy Bragg’s most recent D.C. show, where he clumsily attempted to bridge the gap between his folkie-rock and Hiphop Nation in a protracted boogie-down production number.

He tries this again with a version of White’s “Religious Persuasion” that features the songwriter and Sinead O’Connor joining Bragg and a code-blue electropulse, and it’s the worst thing on the album. It’s only marginally more maladroit, though, than Rolf Harris and Liam O’Maonlai’s music-hall “When We Were Two Little Boys” or the bland title song, which enlistsO’Connor, Gabriel, Feargal Sharkey, and Nanci Griffiths. (The latter is slightly improved by a Cocteaued mix that features Elizabeth Fraser—or, as it says here, Frazer.)

My Bloody Valentine’s MOR version of the MOR “We Have All the Time in the World” certainly qualifies as a curiosity, but only Fatima Mansions’ rendition of Denny’s “John the Gun,” which proves that cold fury is far more potent than a cold beat, makes the concept jump. In this matchup of the music of the past and the music of the future, it’s the latter that comes up quaint.