Wide Awake in an Unforgettable Fire – U2 in 1984

Since it’s a rainy, wet day here as I’m writing this, I thought it would be the perfect time to share some thoughts on one of my favorite albums from 1984, or any year for that matter, U2’s “The Unforgettable Fire”.

To me this album is U2 at its peak – passionate, mysterious and a bit edgy.

I saw the group perform in 1985 at the Cow Palace in San Francisco in support of this album and that show and the “Unforgettable Fire” album itself cemented U2 in my mind as one of the truly great bands to rise out of the ashes of the 60s generation.

This is the first of many posts where I’m going to compare and contrast different pressings I own of a particular favorite album of mine and share not only a bit of what was in the air at the time I bought it originally but also give a sense of which version sounds best.

So, let me take you back to 1984 for a minute.

This album was released in the fall of 1984 and I had just graduated high school the previous spring. I was in a major flux as to what to do with my life and when this album hit the store shelves it was a refuge of sorts for me.

That fall I was attending a local trade college trying to decide where my life was going. I eventually went to a four-year college but the 1984-85 time frame was a bit murky and filled with turmoil.

Not to mention the mythic vibe that the year 1984 was given due to the book of the same name by George Orwell. Seems we’re actually closer to his vision of Big Brother in 2017 but back then things in that year seemed to be going in a bad direction.

Nonetheless, U2’s “The Unforgettable Fire” was the perfect soundtrack for the times, at least for me.

“The Unforgettable Fire” album was dark and murky with spots of hopefulness among a group of songs that spoke about loss and being lost.

The album had an overall feeling of imminent danger approaching and the passion that Bono, the group’s lead singer, put into his vocals and the musical textures the group wove into the music was (and is) mesmerizing.

I can put this album on, as I frequently have over the decades, and it still feels out of time or timeless to me.

It doesn’t sound like 1984; it isn’t full of drum machines and slick production. It feels now, as it did then, like an impressionist painting come to life through audio.

Now on to the CD pressings I own (I don’t own this on vinyl … yet!)

I own the first U.S. CD pressing on Island Records that was made in Japan that came out around the time the album was released, a gold CD pressing by Mobile Fidelity Sounds Labs (a audiophile reissue label) released in 1995 and a Super Deluxe Box Set with 2 CDs, DVD, hard back booklet and pack of photos that U2 released in 2009.

In comparing the three issues of this CD, the first issue is very dark and murky sounding much like I remember it. The bass is a bit thin and the instruments seem to lack clear highs like they’re under a bit of a blanket but in my mind this is how I remember the album sounding.

The Mobile Fidelity Sound Labs (MFSL) pressing is a step up for sure. The bass is fuller, the guitars and production shine through the haze more and the album’s sound is crisp and clear and a bit louder than the first U.S. CD pressing.

The MFSL pressing also has a few longer or maybe alternate mixes on some songs so it is a bit of a different sounding pressing but overall is an excellent representation of the album sound wise.

The cream of the crop is the Super Deluxe Edition issue. The album sounds excellent though maybe a bit too loud. It’s got the best bass and clarity of all the issues but one point down for a bit too much compression, for me anyway.

BUT you get a disc full of b-sides and outtakes from the album and a great DVD that includes the terrific documentary of U2 making the album which they recorded in a castle in Ireland.

You also get a great booklet and photos which make this set a must for fans of this album.

Overall, I feel the best audio version of the album by itself would have to go to the MFSL issue but any of the three would make a nice choice.

I still pull out my first CD issue of this album from time to time as its murkiness in sound appeals to my memory of the the times in which it was released.

If I just want to listen to the main album I more often reach for the MFSL pressing just because it sounds so good.

I do enjoy the DVD from the Super Deluxe set as well so really I’m glad I have all three.

See why I love physical media so much?!! Different pressing are like wine, they each have their own merit and have different flavors and hues lol!

For those strictly going by sound grab the MFSL issue if you can find it cheap. It’s a bit expensive now as it’s out of print.

The box set, which represents the best issue of this album for fans, is kind of pricey now too so it’s your call as to how much you like this album.

If you can’t find the MFSL, grab the most recent CD issue which is the same as the box set pressing. The original CD issue is dirt cheap and plentiful in used bins though so that might be a good choice if you just want to dip your toes in so to speak just to experience this terrific album.

Happy hunting!

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