Wide range of reactions
The Unforgettable Fire reached the stores in the first week of October 1984, six weeks into the band’s latest world tour.
Gigs sold out weeks in advance of the shows, let alone the album, and the single was already nestled high in the Top 20 as the main attraction came crashing in, topping the chart in the U.K., hitting the Top 10 again in the United States.
The title, of course, came from the art exhibition they’d seen at the Chicago Peace Museum. But Bono also saw it as a reference to the drug heroin, something which had destroyed two of his closest friends, and which “ ... informs the LP a lot more than people realize. When your friend becomes a junkie he ceases to be your friend. He’ll steal from you, he’ll fight you. That had a great effect on me.” The song “Wire” in particular reflected this imagery. “That’s its subconscious value to me … an image of a hypodermic needle.”
The song “The Unforgettable Fire” meanwhile was written during the band’s last visit to Tokyo, “ ... high up in the Keio Plaza hotel … as I was looking out of the window to the silver and gold of the city and the skyline, because Tokyo really is like a Christmas tree. In the reflection of the window I could see myself and the room, and I had been going through a very depressed, down period and the room was just in a mess and everything in it was turned over. I wasn’t up to much. So that whole song is a record of a broken place. I mean ‘record’ in the sense of a document. Its images are fragments.”
Critical reaction to the album was generally good, with reservations.
“It’s foxing half the USA even as we speak,” Bono laughed when the subject of reviews was raised. “A record totally devoid of the tracks and techniques of rock ’n’ roll.”
Even the sympathetic reviews were uncertain — celebrating the fact that The Unforgettable Fire sounded exactly like you’d hope a collaboration between U2 and Eno would sound, Melody Maker’s Adam Sweeting warned, “The Unforgettable Fire is the other side of the coin from War. Where the latter opened with the shattering paramilitary drumbeat of ‘Sunday Bloody Sunday’, ... Fire launches into the long shimmer of ‘A Sort Of Homecoming,’ whose sort-of-mystical lyric adorns the romantic maroon-and-gold sleeve. The fact is, if you bring your established conception of U2 to this record, you’ll be disappointed.”
For other critics, the album’s greatest crimes were that the material was weak; there was a lot more style than substance going on, and so on. There was also a distinct impression that all U2 and Eno had really done was march into the same kind of territory that Simple Minds had been playing with across their last couple of albums, Sons and Fascination and, even more potently, New Gold Dream. Which was ironic because Simple Minds at that time were desperately trying to move into the territory that U2 had just left behind them — their most recent album, Sparkle In The Rain, was even produced by Steve Lilywhite!
“There was such a backlash,” Bono reflected. “People thought we were the future of rock ’n’ roll, and they went, ‘What are you doing’ with this doggone hippie Eno album?’ We owe Eno and Lanois so much for seeing through to the heart of U2.”
And, of course, since that time, all the sins of The Unforgettable Fire have been forgiven, as Eno and Lanois have remained by the band&r