Mirror-Ball Madness

NO BEER COMPANY OR CEREAL brand ever flogged a new product and a new image more heartily than U2. Bono, the Edge, Adam Clayton and Larry Mullen are hyping their album "Pop" as if it were sliced bread, satellite TV, runless pantyhose and the Internet all rolled into one. THE NEW U2, blares the March issue of Spin, next to a photo of the band cavorting like refugees from a Euro-trash dance party. Their video "Discotheque" is a glitzy showstopper featuring some unexpected homoerotic mugging, as well as a bizarre parody of the Village People. For a press conference staged at a Manhattan Kmart on Feb. 12, Bono wheeled through the lingerie section dispensing panties and fuzzy animals to slack-jawed spectators. U2 may be older in years, but they're younger in marketing; they've doctored their new album with slick techno production and whizzy dance beats. In Spin, Bono gets a bit misty just thinking about it. "We're actually trying to make a kind of music that doesn't exist yet," he says. "That is a terrifying place to be."

Or, as they say in business school: sell, sell, sell! U2 has actually been the "new" U2 for a while now, ever since Bono traded black jeans and sincerity for plastic pants and irony on the band's 1991 album "Achtung Baby." But what's ironic about the irony--please, try to keep up here--is that it's actually quite sincere. U2 hasn't changed nearly as much as they're pretending. "Pop" is emphatically a U2 album: underneath the trancey drum loops and fat synthesizers the band is still writing big rock songs, and the Edge's guitar sound is as distinctive as ever. Look past intentionally kitschy lyrics like "You know you're chewing bubble gum/You know what that is but you still want some," and you'll find more Jesus references than on "The Joshua Tree." What makes "Pop" a good listen isn't so much the space-age sparkle (courtesy of coproducer-deejay Howie B) as the good old-fashioned hooks in "Do You Feel Loved" and "Staring at the Sun." There's also a sure-shot ballad, "If God Will Send His Angels," in the mold of "With or Without You" and "One." When the band tries to ditch convention in "Miami," a hazy reflection on "print shirts and Southern accents/ Cigars and big hair," they verge not just on silliness but outright condescension.

U2 were innovators once-their garrulous postpunk on early '80s albums like "Boy" and "War" helped shape the course of alternative rock. These days they're just skillful appropriators. "Pop" distills sounds that have been thriving in clubs for years by working them into a mainstream context. It's not futurism so much as a pre-emptive strike against falling out of date. Like a detergent with a NEW AND IMPROVED sticker on it, "Pop" doesn't so much deliver something different as make you think it's delivering something different. That's OK--the stuff inside has been working pretty well for years.