Once U2 was the greatest band alive, but these days their attempts to stay current have more to do with following trends than connecting with the people.
U2 is my favorite band of all time, and I think there’s a very compelling argument to be made that they were the best band on the face of the Earth from 1983 to 1993, a decade-long era that began with the release of War and closed with Zooropa. In between they gave us Under a Blood Red Sky, The Unforgettable Fire, The Joshua Tree, Rattle & Hum and Achtung, Baby. If you want to roll back a little earlier and include Boy, 2 Sides Live and October I won’t argue with you. Not one little bit.
Other than The Beatles, I don’t think any band in history has ever had a better decade, and I’m not sure even the Fabs themselves were that much greater.
It hurts to say it, but the truth is U2 hasn’t been great since. Zooropa was what I have come to think of as an ambitious thought experiment, and Pop! was an absolutely brilliant intellectual (and breathtakingly ironic and bewilderingly double-reverse postmodern) treatise on the commodification of art, but not even Bono’s mum would rank them in the same category as Unforgettable Fire and War (both of which, in my estimation, were even greater than Joshua Tree).
Over the last 34 years or so the band has given us some very good work, and I’m liking the new release, Songs of Experience. But it isn’t great. More to the point, it, like everything else U2 has produced since Achtung, Baby, isn’t especially relevant. Many of the band’s old fans – people like me, largely early Gen Xers – are still tagging along, but the latest album won’t earn them a new generation of followers.
We’ve seen this sort of thing any number of times over the course of Rock’s 60-year history: one day a band or an artist is the biggest thing in the world, and the next day the world has moved on. People age, tastes change, times change, fashions change, the industry (which has never cared about much beyond the next easy buck) gets bored and dashes off in search of the next big thing, and so on. Then there was that time Nirvana came along and rendered a whole generation of acts obsolete. Kinda like The Beatles did 30 years before.
A lot of times the artist being shoved aside still has a lot to say, and if you pay attention you notice that periodically you’ll hear something from a band you forgot 20 years ago and, son of a bitch, it’s awesome. In other words, just because you stop paying attention doesn’t mean the artistic fires have gone out.
But is that true of U2? Are they still as great as they ever were? Is it the rest of the world’s fault they matter less now, or is it theirs?
Bono and Edge and Larry and Adam didn’t get dumb overnight. They didn’t forget how to play. They didn’t forget how to craft a tune. But all of a sudden, back in the mid-’90s, things got different. Why?
In a recent Rolling Stone interview, Edge talks about the band’s process, and he does so in a way that emphasizes just how deeply they think about what they’re doing and how well they understand the art of making a record. But there’s this passage:
But I think we’re also wary of the fact that that sound is associated with 20, 30 years ago. We need to make sure, as we always have done, that we are part of a current conversation that’s going in music culture in terms of production, songwriting, melodic structure, all the things that keep the culture moving forward.
What we don’t want to be is caught in what I describe as a cultural oxbow lake where others are moving forward and you’re still faithfully doing what you’ve always done, but now you’re anachronistic and part of a historical form rather than what’s actually pushing the boundaries forward, the flow of where it’s going. We’ll usually try to have our cake and eat it. We want it both: the hallmarks of the classic band, which is becoming more and more rare, but we also don’t want to be perceived, and we don’t want to be, a veteran act out of touch with the culture. [emphasis added]
In other words, U2 dedicates a good bit of energy to listening to other bands of the moment and to the task of staying … well, relevant. They don’t want to get ossified. They don’t want to become a tired old radio warhorse, relegated to the county fair circuit and playing ’80s revival tours every summer. They’ve seen it happen and they have no interest in becoming a nostalgia act.
This is all very smart. On paper. The thing is, I can’t help being cognizant of the fact that the band’s lessening importance has more or less coincided with how hard they’ve worked to remain current. They started listening to more Electronica in the ’90s, for instance, and you can hear, from time to time, how they’ve woven more contemporary influences into their music.
I don’t recall once, ever, during that golden 1983-93 era, thinking U2 was spending an ounce of energy on keeping their sound contemporary. On the contrary, some other bands made a few bucks sounding like them – The Alarm comes to mind, Big Country, maybe, and later on the abomination of Coldplay. AllMusic lists over 40 famous bands as followers, including the likes of Oasis, Radiohead and The Arcade Fire.
In short, it feels like the band that became the greatest in the world by leading has fallen off its perch thanks, in part, to a decision to follow. In 2017 they worry about “the things that keep the culture moving forward.” In 1983 they were the thing that kept the culture moving forward.
And what is relevance, anyway? Rock is built on an amalgamation of factors. The sound. The look and style. Charisma. Chops. Timing. Along these criteria and more, the artist connects with the audience. The music speaks to the lived experience of its listeners. They listen and they think hey, this song could have been written about me. Bands become great when they click with the time. You’d never have heard of The Sex Pistols had they come along in the late ’80s. San Francisco in the mid-’60s seems the only possible time The Grateful Dead could have happened. And thanks to the sewer that is the music and radio industry, if John, Paul, George and Ringo started a band in 2017 they’d be Army Navy.
But 1980s U2 did connect. The sound was groundbreaking, and they had a message. Passionate and earnest in the extreme, they crawled up in the face of the political concerns of the day – in Ireland and beyond. They weren’t afraid of the IRA and they certainly weren’t afraid of Evan Mecham. The people needed a voice and U2 was that voice.
The rise of facism and religious hatred around the world means we need that kind of voice today more than ever. But U2 isn’t it. And perhaps they can’t be anymore.
I will continue to love U2 for all they have been, and I imagine I’ll continue to like the albums they release. But I’m not sure I have any hope they’ll ever blow the lid off again. I doubt there will be another War, or another Unforgettable Fire, or a Joshua Tree or an Achtung, Baby. They changed the world once, and I don’t expect they will again. But hey, how many bands ever do it even once, right?
And how much different might my thinking be right now had they called it quits, as did REM, maybe after Achtung, Baby? It would have driven me mad, no doubt, but I’d never have any memories of U2 as anything but the greatest band in the world.
Still, I always hope they’ll try. I’ll always wonder what might happen if they piled into a panel van, packed only the equipment that would fit in a trailer, and spent a year doing unannounced gigs in small clubs across Donald’s Trump’s America. Maybe call it the “Listening Tour.”
And along the way, maybe they’d write a few songs and rediscover the truth that relevance is about connecting with the lives people lead and not staying in touch with the sound of the flavor of the day.