Empirical science recognizes two forms of testing, only one of which — weighing a pebble, say, or candling an egg — is considered non-destructive. It’s the other investigative process that causes irreparable changes to the object being examined. In human terms, this can be characterized as the how-will-you-know-if-you-don’t-try-it quandary. In the discipline of rock, the great what-if questions — like what happens to a fiery, idealistic young band that becomes unthinkably popular and still wants to respect itself in the morning — can only be answered by living through the experience and extracting whatever data and conclusions might emerge. If the career of U2 is seen as some sort of cosmic sociology project, the results are more confusing than illuminating, and the damage to the subjects is unmistakable. As pivotal collaborator Brian Eno might have observed in one of his oblique strategy sessions, the path between where you mean to go and where you ultimately wind up is rarely a straight line.
All the ironic prophecy anyone need hear regarding U2 is right there in “I Will Follow,” the sweeping declaration that opens Boy: a tiny tape error and a nearly inaudible count-off signifying both the cavalier ignorance of buffed niceties and the commitment to live all-together-now music-making, the distant herald of the Edge’s distinctive two-note riff drama, Larry Mullen Jr.’s firing drum reports, the weird-but-right glockenspiel tinkles, Bono’s titular invocation and finally Adam Clayton’s surprising bass propulsion. And then the lyrics, sung as a passionate teenager’s soulful cry to unmarked heavens: “I was on the outside when you said, you said you needed me / I was looking at myself / I was blind I could not see / A boy tries hard to be a man / His mother takes him by his hand / If he stops to think he starts to cry…If you walk away…I will follow.”
Coming straight from the outside of rock convention, the unprecedented Dublin quartet followed nobody in its procession toward locating and satisfying a vast need among the world’s three-chords-and-the-truth-seeking rock audience. The boys tried hard to be men, and within a few years had lost every bit of their childlike grace, with mounting self-obsession and the concomitant inability to see themselves develop into world-class prats before discovering a measure of graceful maturity. “If he stops to think he starts to cry.”
U2 had released a few praiseworthy singles before Boy introduced them to the world at large, via such songs as “I Will Follow,” “An Cat Dubh” and “Into the Heart.” Powerful and emotional, Bono (Paul Hewson) mixes a blend of rock, Gaelic and operatic styles with the occasional yowl or yodel to lead the band’s attack; guitarist Dave “the Edge” Evans largely shuns chords in favor of brilliant lead or arpeggio figures that propel and color the songs. Mullen and Clayton provide a driving and solid (but sensitive) foundation, completing Boy‘s musical package, delivered to disc with great skill and invention by producer Steve Lillywhite. An unquestionable masterpiece, Boy has a strength, beauty and character that is hard to believe on a debut album made by teenagers. (Note to novice collectors: the US and UK covers are entirely different.)
Although it might have been unreasonable to expect U2 to remain pure and ingenuous indefinitely, October seems a bit overblown and oblique by comparison. Already showing signs of becoming a bit of a sensitive auteur, Bono’s lyrics abandon “Stories for Boys” and adopt “Stranger in a Strange Land.” Lillywhite, meanwhile, embellishes the magnificent and direct rock power with found-sound gimmicks, piano and abundantly atmospheric sensuality. October does have significant virtues: “Gloria,” “I Fall Down” and “Is That All?” rank with the group’s best work, and several others fall just short, mostly the result of incomplete songwriting efforts. But, in totality, not a great record.
War, on the other hand, is tremendous — an emotional, affecting collection of honest love songs (“Two Hearts Beat as One,” “Drowning Man”) and political protest (“Sunday Bloody Sunday,” “Seconds,” “The Refugee”) given complex and varied, but unfailingly powerful, treatments. The mix is uncomfortably skewed — towards the drums and, on “New Year’s Day,” bass — but judicious addition of violin and trumpet supports, rather than detracts from, the band’s fire. (Bizarre casting note: the LP’s backing vocals are by Kid Creole’s Coconuts.)
Taking advantage of U2’s growing rep as a commanding live act, Under a Blood Red Sky presents them on American and German stages, playing eight dynamic numbers drawn from all three albums, with awesome strength and clarity. Although billed as a mini-LP, the running time exceeds 32 minutes.
Abandoning the proven commercial intuition of producer Steve Lillywhite, U2 began a fascinating long-term studio alliance with Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois on The Unforgettable Fire. On this first collaboration, the band benefits immeasurably from its new friends’ extravagant skill at subtle sound-shaping without being overwhelmed by it. The three-dimensional textures stay true to U2’s origins for the most part but expand enthusiastically into new realms, and the album’s smooth shifts — from the tricky shadings of “A Sort of Homecoming” to the direct rock power of “Pride (In the Name of Love),” the wally instrumental “4th of July” to the hypnotically gorgeous “Bad” — are accomplished with the aplomb of a well-tuned machine. The Edge, for one, takes to the richer canvases with abundant imagination, and his contributions to the album, both loudly extroverted and expressively fine, are stupendous. But then there’s Bono. In addition to his overly studied singing — which is mostly fine but occasionally discloses too much obvious stage direction — his artistic pretensions (and a growing obsession with the US: “Pride” and “MLK” are both about Martin Luther King) head him the wrong way down such blinkered cul-de-sacs as “Elvis Presley and America” and “Indian Summer Sky.”
One doesn’t ordinarily expect to encounter an epiphany on a budget-priced disc of outtakes and ephemera, but Wide Awake in America‘s absolutely mesmerizing eight-minute live version of “Bad” is among U2’s finest recordings, and sent me scurrying back to The Unforgettable Fire to hear what else I might have missed. Besides another live track, the EP also contains two worthy-of-release studio cuts: “Three Sunrises” and “Love Comes Tumbling.” Even when these guys don’t put their best forward, what they’ve got is still pretty amazing.
The Joshua Tree (again produced, but with less personality this time, by Eno and Lanois) helped elevate U2 into the commercial stratosphere, making them one of rock’s all-time biggest — and least creatively compromised — money machines. (Whatever the shortcomings of their records, pandering is not one of them.) The LP begins magnificently, with three classic tracks (“Where the Streets Have No Name,” “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” and “With or Without You”) that perfectly crystallize U2’s majestic essence. Each of the songs is filled with atmosphere, power, melody, instrumental invention and rock drive, yet they are all strikingly different. From there, the album turns oddly inconsistent. “Bullet the Blue Sky” shows the danger of listening to too many Doors records; the semi-acoustic “Running to Stand Still” has mood but no presence; “In God’s Country” puts the pieces together just right, with a haunting, countryish refrain; the jaunty “Trip Through Your Wires” is weird but intriguing; “One Tree Hill” sounds like a good track but collapses under Bono’s Daltreyesque bellowing and Edge’s distorto guitar; “Mothers of the Disappeared,” while intellectually commendable, lacks a cogent musical framework. Not as good as it was popular, The Joshua Tree indicates both U2’s strengths and weaknesses.
The delicate balance with which U2 had maintained its artistic equilibrium throughout the group’s dizzying ascent crumbles all over Rattle and Hum, a dismaying tour film shot by director Phil Joanou in 1987. More than anything, the documentary finds the messianic Bono — no longer remotely capable of expressing anything subtle, honest or believable — awash in overwrought self-importance, a superstar painfully conscious of his position and power. From the solipsistic introduction (“This is a song Charles Manson stole from the Beatles — we’re stealing it back”) to a hideous rendition of “Helter Skelter” through his disconcertingly authoritarian delivery of “Pride (In the Name of Love),” the half-live/half-studio soundtrack album’s concert tracks convey more of Bono’s burgeoning demagoguery than the band’s thrilling live power. And after the bracingly direct “Desire,” a catchy horn-charged tribute to Billie Holiday (“Angel of Harlem”) and a bizarre collaboration with B.B. King (“When Love Comes to Town”), the new songs are not very good.
The Edge wrote the score for political kidnapping film Captive, playing and co-producing it with Michael Brook. The instrumental pieces — a variety of understated acoustic guitar/piano excursions and gripping synthesizer/electric guitar adventures — may not be extraordinary (despite the cool guitar work), but the LP earned enduring significance for featuring the album debut of Sinéad O’Connor, who sings “Heroine (Theme from Captive).”
Achtung Baby inverts U2’s usual album design: rather than tuck away its stylistic adventures and fingerpainting behind immediately recognizable pop offerings, the group announces its reinvention with the lead-off hitters: “Zoo Station” metal-plates an unfamiliar construction into a thick, disorienting tunnel of clattery drums and partially distorted vocals, while “Even Better Than the Real Thing” disguises a straightforward structure in skittering dance rhythms and slithery layered-soul vocals. Although there are more sonic shocks (“The Fly,” the shamble-beat and clubbable funk elements of the pretty “Mysterious Ways”), a lot of what follows is more traditional than the arcane approaches of Eno/Lanois’ production at first suggests. “One” is nothing new; the lovely “Who’s Gonna Ride Your Wild Horses” rises and falls on the same elementary two-chord progression the Edge has been recycling productively for years; the reggae-informed “Tryin’ to Throw Your Arms Around the World” is likewise uncomplicated, regardless of its surprising tonal balance.
More significant than the specific musical inventions inaugurated here, U2’s great leap forward into the ’90s is to free itself of the past, saving some treasured old bits but using them in a new context that should, by rights, not be considered the work of the same band. Taking inspiration from both Bowie’s late-’70s Eno era (Low, Heroes and Lodger) and the recent sound of European techno, U2 funnels it into songs that are more consistently personal, intimate (most are unhappily addressed man-to-woman) and downhearted than those on any album in the band’s prior catalogue. Stepping cleanly off the ledge with Achtung Baby, U2 finds itself able to fly into a new era rather than plummet to its destruction.
The One EP, with its royalties donated to AIDS research, contains the wacky/cool “Lady With the Spinning Head (UVI),” a cloying falsetto cover of Lou Reed’s “Satellite of Love” and a seven-minute Youth remix of the already abstruse disco interpretation of “Night and Day,” the Cole Porter song U2 recorded for the first Red Hot + Blue fund-raising album.
Having willed itself into a creative vacuum that could easily have turned into freefall (and very nearly did on the conceptually insane, musically weak Zoo TV tour), U2 made a strong landing on Zooropa. Three production hands — Eno, the Edge and Flood (Depeche Mode, Nine Inch Nails, Erasure) — guide the band out of rock’s forest and into the uncertain world of rhythm-driven ambient soundscapes, challenging Bono to sing his way back to safety. It’s as if the Edge were charging headlong into the future, shrugging off the stipulation of songs as U2’s métier and daring his bandmates to keep up. And they do: Bono’s lyrics and delivery come from an entirely new place. In “Lemon,” he field-tests a hair-raising falsetto and a close simulation of David Bowie; evidently satisfied with the results, he adapts the same techniques elsewhere on the album. Borrowed back from the soundtrack to Wim Wenders’ Faraway, So Close, the lazy “Stay (Faraway, So Close!)” encapsulates the small-scale cinematics that effectively replace the futile grand panoramas of yore: “Green light, 7-Eleven / You stop for a pack of cigarettes / You don’t smoke, don’t even want to / I see you check your change.” The sense of ennui and global discomfort that infects much of the album — dedicated to Charles Bukowski, the nervous “Dirty Day” offers, “If you need somebody to blame / Throw a rock in the air / You’re bound to hit someone guilty” — gives purpose and meaning to the music, an invigorating blend of samples, treatments, dance beats, alluring melodies, inside-out arrangements and an overall approach that disconnects rather than unifies the ten tracks.
Content-wise, the record is all over the place. Bono assesses the state of things in the believably genuine “Some Days Are Better Than Others” and declares his religious faith in “The First Time.” Breaking custom in a big way, the Edge takes the mic to recite the completely unnatural-sounding and forbidding “Numb” in a grippingly sedated voice. Despite long odds, Zooropa makes most such why-not ideas pay off; still, it was a fool’s bet for the band to have Johnny Cash sing “The Wanderer” to close the LP.
Although not commercially released, a CD of celebrity dance remixes (by Massive Attack, David Morales and others) was sent to members of U2’s fan club in 1995. The hour-long Melon: Remixes for Propaganda contains alternate versions of Zooropa‘s “Lemon” and “Numb,” Achtung Baby’s “Mysterious Ways” and “Even Better Than the Real Thing” and two non-LP songs, eviscerating the band’s careful creations for pointless club utility.
But even Melon, for those who heard it, was inadequate preparation for the eccentric orbit on which the group was about to embark. Treating the new world terra firma of Zooropa as if it were an especially springy trampoline, U2 and Eno used it to achieve escape velocity in the guise of Passengers on Original Soundtracks 1. Following the leader’s well-documented expertise in creating music for nonexistent films (Eno’s dryly detailed ersatz annotation underscores his role), the ad hoc quintet entertains itself mucking around in trendy ambient, techno and jungle grooves that are premixed to sound like the end results of a deconstruction process. That these rhythmic nothings have been whisked together by rock’n’roll superstars on a busman’s holiday does nothing to elevate the tracks’ listenability. Dilettantes should leave wordless dance music to more accomplished artisans. The album is, however, seeded with a handful of actual songs which are flimsy Zooropa afterbirths (“Slug”), exotic adventures (“Ito Okashi,” sung by Japan’s Holi) or pure farce. “Miss Sarajevo” trundles Luciano Pavarotti into the bridge of a string-sodden ballad; “Elvis Ate America” isolates an ambivalent figure in Bono’s semiotic sensibilities and, following the riff poetry prototype he unveiled in a 1994 speech inducting Bob Marley into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, sneers at him with condescending contempt. Last laughs can be mighty bitter, and Bono is hardly in a position to be pointing fingers at little rock gods who’ve lost their way.
In the context of the larger alternative rock universe, Zooropa was no great shakes — there was nothing on it that lesser-known bands hadn’t been doing for years. However, for U2, it was a radical reinvention, Nashville Skyline for the ’90s. It also foreshadowed the later artistic arc of Radiohead — there’s a straight line from Zooropa to OK Computer and Kid A — as well as playing a pivotal role in the triumphant last decade in the life of Johnny Cash. But the bothersome thing was, especially for a band as devoted to the grand gesture as U2, it was all an accident. U2 had never intended Zooropa to be a full-length album, let alone the most radical reinvention of their sound to date. And that would just never do.
So they set out to make their next album even further out. At the time, electronica had been tagged as music’s brave new world, an inevitable future state, and U2 promised to join the vanguard. The not-so-ironically named Pop proved to be a major miscalculation. While consciously trying to make a dramatic change, U2’s inner control freak came out and the album ended up more traditional than either Zooropa or Achtung Baby. Rather than go out on a limb, with the exception of the synth-crazed “Mofo,” Pop is typical U2 with some electronic flourishes. The Edge squeezes harsher sounds out of his guitar than usual, and Mullen and Clayton are appropriately mechanical when called upon to be, but Aphex Twin this ain’t. The curiously inert album is no ways bad — certain songs are excellent — but it feels as if all spontaneity and fun had been squeezed out. There’s no sound of the transcendent joy which powers most of the band’s best work. The singles “Discotheque” and “Staring at the Sun” stand out, but most of Pop could be leftovers from Achtung Baby.
The Best of 1980 – 1990 collection sums up U2’s first decade of existence. The single disc configuration is a serviceable summary (and includes the CD debut of “The Sweetest Thing”), but leans way too heavily on material from the dreadful Rattle and Hum (still U2’s worst album by far, no matter what Pop-haters think) to the exclusion of anything from October. The two-disc version adds rarities and B-sides, including the outstanding “Three Sunrises” and covers of “Everlasting Love,” “Unchained Melody” and Patti Smith’s “Dancing Barefoot.”
Chastened by Pop‘s commercial shortfall, U2 laid low for the next few years. They resurfaced in 2000 on the soundtrack to a Bono-scripted film flop, The Million Dollar Hotel. The band is all over the album in varying configurations, but the most notable full group effort is “The Ground Beneath Her Feet,” a mellow groove with lyrics by author Salman Rushdie.
U2 scaled back their ambitions on their next full-length album. With Lanois and Eno back at the production helm, All That You Can’t Leave Behind is a clear retreat from the more challenging course the band had plotted with their ’90s producer of choice, Flood, but it’s not a return to the anthemic rock of their mid-’80s glory. (A few electronic touches do remain, such as the skeletal synthesizer riff that powers the soaring “Beautiful Day,” but the intention to keep things simple is unmistakable.) Track for track, it’s easily the band’s strongest album since War, with such highlights as “Wild Honey” (quite probably the simplest, catchiest pop song U2 has ever recorded) and “New York” (which gained currency and poignancy from events that occurred a few months after the album’s release). Faced with a backlash against their ’90s adventures, U2 met the challenge head-on and came out on top without having to compromise themselves.
A revisionist effort of sorts, Best of 1990 – 2000 takes the majority of its tracks from Achtung Baby and All That You Can’t Leave Behind. The songs from Zooropa and Pop are remixed and not necessarily improved. There are a couple of soundtrack cuts, a Passengers tune and the previously unreleased “Electrical Storm” in a remix by William Orbit. The two-disc deluxe edition, which also contains a bonus DVD of live performances and videos, adds more mostly ignorable remixes, a few B-sides and, oddly enough, the original mix of “Electrical Storm.”
With U2’s commercial clout again established, Bono used his recharged mojo to set off on a new crusade. Rather than attempt to save the entire world singlehandedly, he chose to concentrate on the continent of Africa. While he can be a glib, pretentious pain in the ass with a messiah complex, his efforts are clearly more informed and substantial than typical celebrity grandstanding. As he gained the respect of people who would normally write star activists off as publicity-seeking nuisances, he grew versed enough on the issues that his name was seriously floated as a potential head of the World Bank.
Back in the mundane world of Bono’s night job of making pop music, U2 evidently decided to celebrate their quarter-century mark with a stripped-down, punked-up, back-to-basics album. They brought back Steve Lillywhite to try and recapture the power of their earliest albums. For all its purported rock thunder, though, How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb is a bit on the timid side. Mindful of the boundaries of audience tolerance, U2 behaves like a dog that has been jolted by the invisible fence a few times too often. Still, they do try to leave the porch now and again, and it’s obvious they want to shake things up as much as their fans will allow, a creditable impulse for a band of U2’s stature and endurance. But in much the same way as Pop‘s electronic explorations didn’t actually explore electronics that much, the harder U2 tries to rock out with wild abandon here, the less spontaneous they end up sounding, making How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb more like an incredible simulation of a punk-influenced album rather than an actual punk-influenced album. Still, “Vertigo” is a pretty good single, though it gets old really fast, and “Sometimes You Can’t Make It on Your Own,” “City of Blinding Lights,” “All Because of You” and “Yahweh” all have their moments.
If How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb seemed to be U2’s attempt to please their fans, No Line on the Horizon feels more like an effort to please themselves. Working again predominantly with Eno and Lanois (who receive songwriting credit with the band on most of the material), U2 return to the impressionistic, exploratory tone of The Unforgettable Fire. Like that album, No Line on the Horizon is not entirely successful, but the highs more than atone for its lows. On the lead-off title cut, the quartet makes belated peace with shoegazing, an overlay of droning keyboard atop roiling guitars. The flow remains powerful flow until the album’s midpoint, which delivers three consecutive duds. Steve Lillywhite produced “I’ll Go Crazy if I Don’t Go Crazy Tonight,” which mixes one of the most saccharinely uplifting riffs the Edge has ever conjured with such wince-inducing Bono sentiments as “She’s a rainbow and she loves the simple life” and “Every generation gets a chance to change the world.” If this is a knowing self-parody, it deftly hits the mark. They dig the hole deeper with “Get On Your Boots,” a single that starts between “Discotheque” and “Subterranean Homesick Blues” but winds up cloning the Escape Club’s “Wild Wild West.” If it isn’t the worst song U2 has ever recorded, that’s not for a lack of effort. “Stand Up Comedy,” another straight-up rocker that’s every bit as lackluster as “Get On Your Boots” (but lacks that song’s gumption to be truly terrible), completes the three-song skid. Fortunately, the rest of the album is far better, relying on mood and atmosphere more than muscle. Even the upbeat “Magnificent” is laced with the sense of purpose and mystery that has always colored the band’s best work. No Line on the Horizon is an encouraging show of strength from a band entering its fourth decade.
It’s impossible to pinpoint the exact moment when a superstar band loses its footing and tumbles toward public indifference (if not disdain), but the choice of “Get On Your Boots” as the lead single from No Line on the Horizon is as good as any place to stick the thumbtack for U2. Four and a half years after the culturally and commercially dominant How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb, Horizon basically dismantled itself. Sure, it was released during a worldwide economic meltdown and in the early stages of what may be a permanent abandonment of anything resembling rock by the part of the public that actually spends money on recorded music. But it doesn’t make sense to preview a moody, introspective album with a song atypical of it. (They should’ve gone with the better, more representative “Magnificent.”)
A planned companion album titled Songs of Ascent was scrapped as U2 attempted to come to terms with the tepid response to Horizon. (To be fair, Horizon has sold more than three million copies worldwide and spawned the successful 360 tour.) That became something of a pattern for the rest of the decade, as unreleased U2 albums — a back to basics rock album! An ‘80s-inspired electronic-leaning album! — reportedly piled up. They had dozens of songs finished, they swore, for multiple projects, most of which failed to materialize. U2 had weathered a commercial swoon before with the release of Pop but had re-established their popular relevance with All That You Can’t Leave Behind and Atomic Bomb. The reaction to Horizon, however, seemed to take the wind out of the band’s sails. Before U2 as a band could deliver their next self-inflicted injury, though, Bono and the Edge had to put the finishing touches on a clusterfuck that had ensnared them since 2002.
Marvel’s dominance in the world entertainment market was still a decade away in the early 2000s: movies of Blade, the X-Men and Spider-Man had only established the brand’s viability beyond comic books in the previous three years. The massive commercial success of Sam Raimi’s first Spider-Man movie coincided with the smash Broadway musicals of The Producers and Disney’s The Lion King. Their popularity sent Broadway producers scrambling for more pop culture properties to turn into lavish stage musicals; the movies Hairspray, Monty Python and the Holy Grail and Young Frankenstein all became juggernauts on the Great White Way. Meanwhile, the ABBA jukebox musical Mamma Mia had proven the theatrical potential of pop stars. With all of that, the dominance of Spider-Man and U2’s commercial resurgence with All That You Can’t Leave Behind sparked an idea.
As inadvisable as it sounds, Bono and the Edge were hired to score a Broadway musical about Spider-Man. For such an undertaking to be artistically successful would require composers equipped with a talent for nimble wit, wordplay and melody along the lines of a Stephin Merritt. Bono and the Edge, conversely, excel at bombast and drama. A superhero beloved by his fans because he’s humble and down-to-earth and relies on verbal wit as much as muscle was ill-suited to the chest-beating foofaraw Bono was likely to deliver. Julie Taymor, who’d helmed the hugely successful Broadway version of The Lion King, was hired to direct. By the time Spiderman: Turn Off the Dark finally made its inauspicious Broadway debut nearly a decade after labor on it began, all three were in “the audience is rooting for you to fail” stage of their careers.
In direct contrast to the approach Marvel Studios would take to become the planet’s dominant movie studio — translating what comics fans loved about their comics as faithfully as possible to movies — Taymor chose the approach favored by people embarrassed to be working on something so lowbrow as a funnybook adaptation. She sought to class things up by injecting elements from more “reputable” sources: the romance of Peter Parker and Mary Jane Watson and his secret life as a costumed crimefighter somehow became enmeshed with the Greek myth of Arachne. General incoherence on the story side of things ensued.
Adding to the problems, Taymor devised dangerous stunts for the cast: they were just shy of firing actors out of a cannon through a wall of knives into a vat of acid. The budget ballooned to historic levels, and reports of the show’s troubled previews grew with reports of injuries and malfunctions. Taymor was sacked; script doctors were brought in to attempt to streamline the gobbledygook and prevent calamitous accidents. The show limped through a few months of 2011 before ending as one of the most notorious boondoggles in Broadway history.
The music Bono and the Edge crafted for the show was released as a soundtrack album which was widely ignored. The majority of it plays like middling deep cuts from middling U2 albums. As Peter Parker, Reeve Carney delivers a reasonable approximation of Bono, while Jennifer Damiano does good work as Mary Jane. Whatever their merits as stage music, as an aural experience, few of the songs stick. The Bono-sung “Picture This” has a nice relaxed groove that wouldn’t have sounded out of place buried in the back half of All That You Can’t Leave Behind, while the villain’s showcase, “Pull the Trigger,” plays like a less spaced-out version of “Numb.” The would-be anthem “Rise Above 1” aims for stirring and maybe could’ve worked as a U2 single, but it would’ve been a pretty generic and bland U2 single. Bono and the Edge may not have suffered as much outrage for their role as Taymor, but after the underperforming No Line on the Horizon, Music From Spider-Man Turn Off the Dark was another blow to the foundation of U2’s popular esteem.
Perhaps concerned about choosing its next step carefully, U2 filled the next few years with false starts. At some point, label head Jimmy Iovine challenged the band to make an album that even non-U2 fans would like. U2 accepted the challenge and planned a sequence of interconnected albums that would reflect on the band’s history and what wisdom had been acquired along the way. Taking a cue from William Blake, the albums would be titled Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience (with the possibility that the maybe-not-entirely-dead Songs of Ascent would round out a trilogy.) It seemed like a reasonable and, for U2, an admirably modest plan. But since U2 can’t do modesty unless it’s on a grandiose scale, that grandiosity would reveal the extent to which U2 had lost its audience.
The retail music landscape had changed on a monumental scale since the turn of the 21st century, the last time U2 had wandered so close to the edge of the wilderness. During the 1990s, the major labels had waged a mostly successful war on the concept of singles, often refusing to release popular songs as standalone singles, resulting in massively inflated album sales. (Did you know that Lou Bega sold three-million copies of his A Little Bit of Mambo album?) The introduction of iTunes, which allowed fans to buy individual songs, and of file-sharing services like Napster and Limewire, which allowed fans to build music libraries without buying any music at all, undermined the money-printing machine major labels had built. The iPod and other personal music players eliminated the need to acquire music in physical form at all. The people who had been pissed about having to buy a whole damn Lou Bega album just to get “Mambo No. 5” enthusiastically exercised their newfound option of not only not buying an entire Lou Bega album, but not even buying the one Lou Bega song they did want. The record industry plunged into what seemed to be a fatal freefall. The advent of YouTube, Spotify and other streaming services further hastened the collapse of recorded music sales. By the early 2010s, an album that managed to eke out 100,000 sales was considered a huge success.
Whether U2 understood how radically the musical landscape had changed is unknown. They definitely did not grasp how toxic naked commercial ambition on the part of bands had become for serious rock fans. Radiohead had had success with their humble online roll-outs of In Rainbows and The King of Limbs; Beyoncé had created a huge buzz with the surprise release of an album. U2 needed to create that sort of forward-looking buzz. Then Apple came calling. The tech giant wanted to make a big splash with some new product and U2 wanted to make a big splash with their new album. Yay, synergy!
Unfortunately, they had all badly misread the public mood. At Apple’s introduction event, U2 emerged to perform a new single, “The Miracle (of Joey Ramone),” after which it was announced that Apple was making the new U2 album, Songs of Innocence, available for free to all iTunes subscribers, automatically added to the purchased music folders of most subscribers.
Apple and U2 fully expected an outpouring of excited gratitude. That was not what they got. In a twist on the no-good-deed-goes-unpunished, the scheme blew up in their faces. A generation that saw no problem with sharing their whereabouts and the food on their plates with the surveillance state decreed that being given an album by an aging rock band was an Orwellian outrage. In an era when ambition by a rock band was viewed with suspicion (and U2 was not just a rock band, but a long-lived one with a reputation for self-importance), this was less a generous gift than an unpardonable intrusion.
Apart from its botched release, Songs of Innocence was underwhelming on its own merits. While the thought of a veteran band reminiscing about its early days seems sound in theory, it becomes problematic for a band like U2: what insights about their youth did they have to share in 2014 that they hadn’t candidly blurted out in the early ‘80s? Bono struggles to describe the exhilarating, life-changing impact of seeing the Ramones as a teenager on the turgid, earthbound “The Miracle (of Joey Ramone),” but it’s a pointless exercise: simply listening to “Out of Control” (or pretty much any track on Boy) communicates that message far more powerfully. “Iris (Hold Me Close)” demonstrates that the pain of losing a parent never goes away even after decades, but it adds nothing to the raw pain Bono expressed on October, which has lost none of its sorrowful impact. What new understanding of growing up in a country at war with itself do “Raised by Wolves” or “The Troubles” add to the insights of War? U2 very publicly declared its love for America on the unofficial trilogy of The Unforgettable Fire, The Joshua Tree and Rattle and Hum, so the “can you believe we’re here?” narrative of “California (There Is No End to Love)” is a belated footnote (although the Beach Boys influence is a novelty).
Musically, the album is reasonably likable, nowhere near deserving of the scorn heaped on it. Lykke Li’s guest vocals on the moody “The Troubles” are lovely, even if they do rather strongly recall Duran Duran’s “Come Undone,” and Ali Hewson probably welcomed Bono’s first (and long overdue) love song explicitly dedicated to her, “Song for Someone.” Overall, the only strong contender for a permanent spot in the U2 canon is “Every Breaking Wave,” which manages to be anthemic without being obnoxious or bombastic. The production, split almost halfway down the middle by OneRepublic’s Ryan Tedder and Danger Mouse, is unobtrusive and low-key; listeners might not notice much of a difference between the two. Had U2 kept their ambition and ego in check, Songs of Innocence would likely have been a refreshingly modest exercise in nostalgia.
In the past, U2 had changed course in the face of strong public headwinds. Deeper forays into the world of electronic music were abandoned after Pop stumbled. Songs of Ascent was scrapped as a companion album for No Line on the Horizon. However, as they were locked into the Innocence/Experience diptych, they plowed ahead with Songs of Experience regardless. But then the Brexit vote, the political rise of Donald Trump and sundry other calamities of 2016 convinced U2 that releasing the album as it was would reveal that it should actually be titled Songs of Naïveté, so they set about writing some more.
The message they settled on could be boiled down to “When things suck, hunker down, try to stay positive and maybe we’ll get through this.” It’s not an especially insightful message, but to be fair, it’s probably the wisest one U2 could deliver at that point. After decades of being among pop culture’s biggest cheerleaders for the nobility of the human spirit, anything more would look positively idiotic in the face of overwhelming evidence of the general shittiness of mankind. If all of U2’s experience can be condensed to “do the best you can, watch out for each other and try not to give in to despair,” it is reasonable, if not particularly inspiring, advice. Most of the lyrics tend toward namby-pamby, but that’s forgivable under the circumstances.
Musically, Experience follows the low-key template of Innocence. The wannabe anthemic moments are sparse, which is good when the best Bono has to offer is a bellow of “You are rock and roll!” (on “American Soul”). At worst, it feels like an entire album of filler. “Get Out of Your Own Way” and “American Soul” are by-the-numbers U2. Only “Red Flag Day” comes within spitting distance of being rousing. Instead, decades of experience result in aphorisms like “love is all we have left” and “love is bigger than anything in its way.” U2 can’t be blamed for world events undercutting whatever message they had originally intended to send, but the band is responsible for summing up a great career with uninspired music and undistinguished lyrics. There’s very little fire here, and most of it is forgettable.
In 2008, U2’s first three albums were given the deluxe reissue treatment, with remasters of Boy, October and War, each paired with a disc of bonus material. While the improved sound on all three is welcome, the extras added to October and War is mostly inessential: a few non-LP B-sides and lots of live material, but nothing to get too worked up about. The augmentation to Boy, however, is another matter: the early demos and singles offer a fascinating document of the band in its early days, placing U2 firmly in the context of the post-punk movement and providing glimmers of how they would transcend that, as the Edge refined his synthesis of Tom Verlaine, Keith Levene and Bernard Sumner and Bono strove to inject a sense of spiritual optimism and hope into the mostly dour form. Early versions of “Out of Control” and “Stories for Boys” not only highlight the polish and atmosphere that Lillywhite’s production brought to the final versions, but also that the basic elements and power were already in place. The Martin Hannett-produced “11 O’Clock Tick Tock” shows Joy Division’s influence, but makes it clear how many other elements were in the band’s persona. That the teenaged U2 could have enough material to omit strong tracks like “11 O’Clock,” “Boy/Girl,” “Touch” and “Saturday Night” from a debut album is a testament to how remarkable the material that made the cut was The bonus disc for Boy is a welcome companion piece to and a reminder of the power of one of the most stunning debut albums in rock history.