ROCK / Albums: Take the Cash and run: Andy Gill on the latest from U2: is it their most adventurous recording yet? Plus a single Sugarcube

U2

Zooropa

(Island CIDU 29)

'I HAVE no compass / I have no map / And I have no reason to get back,' sings Bono on the title track of Zooropa, a sprawling multi-sectioned piece that drifts from two minutes of gentle radio babble into a more familiar reverb-rock structure. The lines themselves, paradoxically, offer a signpost to the group's direction on their most adventurous album yet: into the unknown, catching riffs on the run, surfing the waves of inspiration that rolled as they were on their ZOO TV tour, trying things out at soundchecks then banging them down on tape whenever they got a chance.

The album is produced by Flood, Eno and Edge: one capable studio anchor, one oblique strategist, and the man from who, significantly, collaborated many years ago with short-wave prankster Holger Czukay from Can. More so even than its predecessor Achtung Baby], this is a distinctly German album, its harsh contrasts and snapshots of a confused and alienating world sharply reminiscent of Bowie's Berlin-period work, which of course also featured Eno: there's even a track called 'Daddy's Gonna Pay for Your Crashed Car', echoing Low's 'Always Crashing in the Same Car'.

Fortunately, the album stands in similar relation to the rest of their work as Low does to the rest of Bowie's: it may well be their best, as their willingness to take chances is rewarded with 10 songs that could each be the stylistic touchstone for an entire album. Some of those possible albums have already been made, either by themselves - 'Stay' is a fairly typical band ballad, for instance - or other artists: 'The First Time' surges with the gentle soulfulness of Peter Gabriel, while the voyeur's love song 'Babyface' could be straight off the last INXS album.

There are, however, few parallels or precedents for some of the album's best tracks, which profit from their use of contrasts. 'Numb', which apparently dates from the Achtung Baby] sessions, features The Edge's monotone murmur reeling off a list of over 100 proscriptions - 'Don't grab / Don't clutch / Don't hope for too much' etc - over a techno collage, whilst Bono and Larry Mullen work up an impassioned soul backing vocal as counterpoint. 'Lemon', which follows, is, if anything, even weirder, Bono unveiling a bizarre, imperious falsetto which is this time counterpointed by more sober-sided, analytical verses from Eno and The Edge. It's a compelling use of techniques more familiar in criticism than artistic production.

To close the album, guest vocalist Johnny Cash brings the full portent of his voice and position to bear on 'The Wanderer', which has the mythic tread of an early Leonard Cohen song: 'I went out there / In search of experience / To taste and to touch / And to feel as much / As a man can / Before he repents'. It serves to root the band's experimental work here into the restlessness of that troubadour tradition, a bold linkage which lends what is ostensibly a very synthetic album a tough shell of authenticity. With Zooropa, are out riding the range, all channels open.

BJORK

Debut

(One Little Indian TPLP31 CD)

THE COVER to the Sugarcube singer's solo debut, a simply beautiful sepia snap by stylist Jean-Baptiste Mondino, signals this album's attempt to transform Bjork from cult status to more widespread acceptance as a Nineties style object. And about time too: there is just too much talent contained within this elfin sprite's slight frame to be bottled up in a band apparently trapped inextricably on the margins.

Produced mainly by former Soul II Soul backroom boy Nellee Hooper, the album ranges from the relatively commercial disco stylings of 'There's More to Love than This' and 'Big Time Sensuality' through the gentler ambient and techno pulses of 'One Day' and 'Violently Happy' to the outer fringes of avant-garde jazz, courtesy of World Saxophone Quartet's Oliver Lake, who applies minimalist horn harmonies to Bjork's naked phrasing on 'The Anchor Song', and a more complex orchestral-jazz arrangement to 'Aeroplane'.

If the intention is to showcase Bjork's range and imagination, it succeeds in spades: the only shortfall occurs on 'Like Someone In Love', a cafe-au-lait torch-song with a prissy harp arrangement; it's merely delightful, whereas the rest of the album is invigorating and refreshing. Throughout, Bjork brings a joyous sense of wonder to the songs, a naive exultatory spirit made all the more piquant by the sophistication of her melodies and the inventiveness of Hooper's arrangements. And what a relief it is to be able to hear her unhindered by that berk Einar prattling away over the top.

LOUDON WAINWRIGHT III

Career Moves

(Virgin CDV 2718)

IN their desire to captivate, to dangle an audience upon their every whim with the simplest of tools, the solo folkie and the stand-up comic have much in common, which is why some successful comics (Connolly, Carrott, etc) started as folkies. Loudon Wainwright has retained his guitar, but his wry wit has, through the years, become honed to the point of mordancy, enabling him to find the succour of humour even amidst the slings and arrows of most outrageous torment.

For the most part, this set recorded at the Bottom Line in New York is a fairly light-hearted affair, with chucklesome ditties like 'He Said, She Said' and 'Suddenly It's Christmas' reminding us how at one time he almost became an all-round entertainer on British TV, as a minstrel-commentator in the Jake Thackeray mould.

It's fully 25 years since Wainwright started making a living with just a guitar, and much of his catalogue consists of itinerant observations, cries de coeur from motel rooms, and even complaints about his name being constantly misspelt: 'My parents should shoulder some blame/ For giving their kid a strange name'. On the opening 'Road Ode', he contrasts his own low-level troubadour experience with Willie Nelson's legendarily salubrious travelling arrangements - ' . . . but I'm not Willie Nelson, I'm Tom Joad'. This Steinbeck reference is the first taste of sardonic bitterness to creep into the set; later, the knife cuts deeper with 'Five Years Old' and 'Your Mother And I', parental epistles from a life of separation: 'Your folks fell in love / Love's a deep hole.' A funny business, music.

(Photograph omitted)

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