The music blips and burps, nudged along by slothlike synthesizers, and resembling musically inclined robots jamming on a day off. The smooth pulses are occasionally interrupted by jarring sounds like a stylus skipping across an LP, or a swooshing electronic train. And every so often, a familiar deep-voiced croon drifts into the sonic goo. Bono, is that you?
The album is called Original Soundtracks 1 (Island), and if it doesn't sound like a standard U2 album, that's because it isn't. Credited to Passengers, the record is a collection of songs written by the four bandmembers and producer/sonic egghead Brian Eno for various independently released international films. So while it's not an actual, 100 percent U2 rock album, it is their first new batch of studio recordings since Zooropa came out more than two years ago, and hence worth investigating as an indication of what these ever-ambitious, ever-soul-searching stadium warriors are up to.
For one thing, they're delving even deeper into ambient techno grooves. On Zooropa, U2 shed their arena-rock guitars and metamorphosed into computer-age mutants. The 14 songs on Original Soundtracks 1 push that approach further. Flashes of the band's arena beats pop up, mostly in the metronomic jabs of drummer Larry Mullen Jr. and the occasional piercing wail of the Edge's guitar. But there isn't a stadium-designed rocker in the bunch. The songs are mostly meditations and lost-in-space electronic bleats that envelop and massage the melodies. It's easy to imagine predominantly instrumental numbers like ''Always Forever Now'' and ''United Colours'' (from movies made in Hong Kong and Japan, respectively) accompanying scenes in avant-garde foreign films; it's also easy to imagine yourself cleaning the bathroom to them.
That's merely the beginning of the aural weirdness. ''A Different Kind of Blue'' highlights Eno's synthesizer-distorted voice over a gentle, air-conditioner-like hum. ''Elvis Ate America,'' from a like-named documentary about Presley in the '70s, is a grunting, groaning piece of industrial noise, with Bono free-associating on the King: ''Vanilla ice cream/Girls at 14/Shooting TVs/Reading Corinthians 13.'' The performance conjures all sorts of images, like a drive through the deepest, swampiest rural South. Other songs, like ''One Minute Warning'' and ''Plot 180,'' are little more than effects-dotted sonic collages.
There are a few full-fledged songs on the album: Bono lowers his voice into a deep lounge croon for the brooding, mysterioso ''Your Blue Room,'' written for the Michelangelo Antonioni-Wim Wenders film Beyond the Clouds. And he sings the album's most straightforward lyrics in ''Miss Sarajevo,'' the band's contribution to a documentary about an actual beauty pageant in civil-war-devastated Bosnia: ''Is there a time for keeping your head down/For getting on with your day?'' Bono croons beautifully. As an oddball bonus, Luciano Pavarotti swoops in to sing a bridge; set against the song's serpentine synthesizers, the purity and power of Pavarotti's voice become a metaphor for finding a ''Miss Sarajevo'' amid the constant barrage of mortar shells.
Despite its hodgepodge nature, Original Soundtracks 1 is a cohesive project, thanks no doubt to ambient pioneer Eno. But it's also a fairly slight album, mostly for U2 diehards. To their credit, the band isn't passing it off as a flat-out new work it's just another side trip on one of the most intriguing musical journeys of the past decade. As to how this figures in whatever U2 are transmuting into next, we'll have to wait another year. B