No matter which way you look at it, Pop doesn't have the same shock of the new that Achtung Baby delivered on first listen. Less experimental and more song-oriented than Zooropa, Pop attempts to sell the glitzy rush of techno to an audience weaned on arena rock. And that audience includes U2 themselves. While they never sound like they don't believe in what they're doing, they still remove most of the radical elements of electronic dance, which is evident to anyone with just a passing knowledge of the Chemical Brothers and Underworld. To a new listener, Pop has flashes of surprise -- particularly on the rampaging "Mofo" -- but underneath the surface, U2 rely on anthemic rockers and ballads. "Discotheque" might be a little clumsy, but "Staring at the Sun" shimmers with synthesizers borrowed from Massive Attack and a Noel Gallagher chorus. Similarly, "Do You Feel Loved" and "If You Wear That Velvet Dress" fuse old-fashioned U2 dynamism with a keen sense of the cool eroticism that makes trip-hop so alluring. Problems arise when the group tries to go for conventional rock songs, some of which are symptomatic of the return of U2's crusade for salvation. Pop is inflected with the desire for a higher power to save the world from its jaded spiral of decay and immorality, which is why the group's embrace of dance music never seems joyous -- instead of providing an intoxicating rush of gloss and glamour, it functions as a backdrop for a plea of salvation. Achtung Baby also was a comment on the numbing isolation of modern culture, but it made sweeping statements through personal observations; Pop makes sweeping statements through sweeping observations. The difference is what makes Pop an easy record to admire, but a hard one to love.
by Stephen Thomas Erlewine