I WANT TO BE THE SONG, be the song that you hear in your head," Bono sings on "Discotheque," the opening track of U2's new album, "Pop," and that's the band's furious ambition in a nutshell. It would be enough for most bands to want their new record to take over the charts. U2 wants "Pop" to take over the moment, to exist at the center of pop consciousness, the way "Thriller" or "Murmur" did. It's impossible to imagine a record like "Pop" being attempted by any musicians who didn't think of themselves as rock stars, who didn't have complete faith in their ability to realize their huge ambition. Its impact depends on our being able to hear a familiar group talking to us in an unfamiliar way.
U2 is still preoccupied with salvation and redemption, though now the lyrics make room for irony and ambiguity, humor and doubt. The pretension is gone from Bono's voice. But the meaning of "Pop" is inseparable from its sound. U2 hasn't abandoned guitar rock, as the buzz on the album would have you believe. But Bono wasn't kidding when he told "Spin" that U2 is "trying to make a kind of music that doesn't exist yet." Putting themselves in the hands of producer Flood and the British ambient D.J. Howie B., they've made an album that suggests how the new electronic dance music might break with a mass audience. I think that in a few years their embrace of electronic music may feel something like Neil Young's embrace of punk, and to some older fans it may be just as alienating.
How could U2 not be attracted to dance music? Dance is the most messianic of all pop music, aiming at transcendence through the relentlessness of the beat, abandonment of the self in ecstatic communion. If "Achtung Baby" and "Zooropa" were frontal assaults, a band toying with a new style, "Pop" is a total immersion, encrusted with rhythm tracks and electronica, razor-blade guitars and pure fuzz-toned noise, like the doodads that cover every available space of Latino religious art.
U2 has joined its infatuation with the new dance music to end-of-the-millennium hopes and fears that bring out its naturally apocalyptic sense of drama. What they've heard in house and ambient and techno is the ticky, nervous rush of urban life and the exciting uncertainties of a world making connections via technology. Roving over a large landscape encompassing Europe and America, "Pop" is U2's attempt to keep a step ahead, an album that aims to sound like the day after tomorrow. If skepticism creeps in about the state of things, so does a conviction about the necessity (and the thrill) of living in the moment. "She feels the ground is giving way," Bono sings about the young woman who's the subject of "Last Night on Earth," "but she thinks we're better off that way." He even manages to take a detail another singer would use against her -- her love of tabloids -- and turn it into an image that quotes one of the Beatles' loveliest songs: "She's at the bus stop with the 'News of the World' and the 'Sun,' sun, here it comes." As befits an album named "Pop," U2 is both acknowledging the discontents of a disposable culture and rushing headfirst into its pleasures.
They don't pretend adults are immune to those pleasures. "Miami" moves like the sleek, elliptical marriage of an action movie and a tourist brochure. Elsewhere, Bono asks, "Have I got the gifts to get me through the gates of that mansion?" Which is exactly the sort of question you'd expect him to ask, except that it comes in a song called "The Playboy Mansion." The song happily draws a mustache on the longing for salvation of numbers like "Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For." In that number, Bono was Jesus in the desert. Here, he's Jesus in the Ritz.
Opening with the Edge playing a sort of corrupted blues riff (the blues reduced to a series of electronic blips), "The Playboy Mansion" proceeds through a list of temptations -- Big Macs, Cokes, lotto tickets, talk shows that function like confessionals -- to break a modern pilgrim's will. There's a dry wit to the number but nothing is clear-cut, and the beautiful gospel chorus that brings it to a close confuses things even further. If capitalism can sound so good, who could ask for anything more?
"Pop" is U2's attempt to "take this tangle of a conversation" (as Bono sings on "Do You Feel Loved") and get at the beauty of the way the threads twist around each other. It's not so experimental that it loses sight of its desire to be a huge global hit, but it wouldn't be so thrilling if it did. U2 is trying to sum up what rock 'n' roll feels like at this moment, when the grumblings that electronica isn't rock 'n' roll are starting to echo the same things that were said about disco, punk, rap. On "Pop," U2 moves like kings of the dance floor throwing down flashy moves and a challenge: Open your ears or get left in the dust.