Key Points:

(3/5)

So one day all these little spaceman posters go up around town and the next thing you know there's a new U2 album out.

So soon? In big division rock band terms, it seems like only yesterday since their last, Achtung Baby.

That album was a mite unnerving. What with all the talk about reinventing themselves to get away from the one-dimensional, heroic, uplifting, serious stadium-eating monster band that they had become, at their most overwrought on the double live set and film Rattle and Hum.

There was Achtung's general darkly funky Euro-centricities and the harsh grooves of songs like The Fly - which irony and wraparound shades-stricken Bono pronounced was: "The sound of U2 cutting down the Joshua Tree."

But Achtung still had plenty of those heroic, uplifting, light-waving U2 moments - One, Who's Going to Ride Your Wild Horses, Even Better Than the Real Thing - but all sounding less straitjacketed by what a U2 record should sound like.

Zooropa, which started off as an EP and just got longer but not necessarily better, undoes those buckles even further. U2 moments are definitely out.

And the lunatic who sounds like he's taken over this particular asylum is Brian Eno, who co-produced the band's three previous studio albums with Daniel Lanois.

He's at the controls of this, alongside Achtung's mixer Flood and guitarist The Edge.

There's plenty of shades of Eno's past work on tracks like the linear Lemon with Bono's falsetto vocals making it sound like Fine Young Cannibals covering something off Eno's Before and After Science, and Some Days are Better Than Others recalling Eno's deadpan lyrical humour. There's the synthesiser washes and growls of the title track and Daddy's Going to Pay for Your Crashed Car - this album's The Fly - similar to the textures of Eno-produced Bowie albums Heroes and Low.

Elsewhere The Edge takes the microphone for some Eno-like word association mumbling on Numb over a deeply dubby beat, his guitar makes a rare and quiet appearance on the apparently Wim Wenders-inspired Stay Away (So Far So Close).

The First Time finds Bono in Lou Reed-as-Christian kind of mood, over a Velvets-like dirge on probably the most memorable tune among many that just aren't.

Second to last Dirty Day ignited briefly to kick the album out of its overall dreamy ambience. But as a very strange punchline to it all - undoubtedly it was a very cool idea at the time - Johnny Cash comes in to sing the Leonard Cohen-like country 'n' techno The Wanderer closing track.

If The Joshua Tree was cut down on Achtung Baby, here's its been whittled into all sorts of odd shapes.

It's interesting enough in its mood and sound, if not song-wise. But it's more perplexing than challenging, and sounds like the biggest band in the world having one of the biggest, strangest mid-life crises.

Though considering its EP origins, as well as being a byproduct of the Zoo TV multimedia concert format they're rumoured to be bringing here later in the year, it's possible it shouldn't be taken too seriously.

Perhaps something resembling normal transmission will resume as soon as possible.