Bren­dan O’Con­nor on how U2 are poised for great­ness again

Af­ter three years of bad luck and mis­steps, U2 are poised for great­ness again with their best work in maybe 20 years, writes Bren­dan O’Con­nor

Sunday Independent (Ireland) - - NEWS -

U2 re­leased three ver­sions of their re­cent sin­gle You’re The Best Thing About Me. The real clue was, weirdly enough, in the acous­tic ver­sion. Acous­tic ver­sions of songs can ei­ther feel like an in­cred­i­bly in­ti­mate view into the heart of a song and a singer, or like bad busk­ing. But this was dif­fer­ent. And a few lis­tens con­firmed it. There was no doubt about it. It might not have been their great­est song ever, but there was a cer­tain swag­ger to this ver­sion. It had some echoes of those acous­tic B-sides U2 used to do around the time of The Joshua Tree. And it made you re­alise what had pos­si­bly been miss­ing from U2 for a while: that swag­ger. It used to be that U2 led and we would fol­low. But in re­cent years, while U2 were mak­ing good mu­sic and putting on good shows, it could feel at times like they were try­ing too hard, like they were a lit­tle bit needy, a lit­tle bit forced.

But there was no doubt a cer­tain swing to this ver­sion of this new song. It was no­table too that the Edge was given the best bit of the song, the ce­les­tial, cli­mac­tic bit. While the Edge is al­ways there, singing back­ing vo­cals, he has pre­vi­ously only re­ally come to the fore in low-key stuff like the folky dirge Van Diemen’s Land from Rat­tle and Hum, and the mut­ter­ing Numb. But here, the Edge was joy­ously singing out, sound­ing not un­like Bono. It spoke of a con­fi­dence from Bono too, to give the Edge the best bit and to al­most let the Edge out-sing him.

There was some­thing go­ing on here.

I’ve been liv­ing with the new U2 al­bum Songs of Ex­pe­ri­ence for the past week and while I am pre­cluded from go­ing into de­tail, and I could be go­ing out on a limb here, but for con­sis­tency, joy, swag­ger, con­fi­dence and mo­ments of transcendence and beauty, this is U2’s best work in 15, pos­si­bly 20 years. There is an ef­fort­less­ness, a time­less­ness. As al­ways, there are bet­ter songs on there than the sin­gles; U2 al­ways tend­ing to re­lease the pop­pier num­bers to lead off al­bums. Most of all, it’s got soul. There are more songs there that are a punch in the gut, rather than feel­ing over-thought and over­wrought. It also goes back in var­i­ous ways to U2’s tu­mul­tuous love af­fair with Amer­ica. But that’s enough skirt­ing close to the em­bargo.

It’s felt like a weird few years for U2. It prob­a­bly started in Oc­to­ber 2014 when Bono pub­licly apol­o­gised for giv­ing away the band’s last al­bum Songs of In­no­cence to all Ap­ple cus­tomers, whether they wanted it or not. In ad­vance, it must have seemed like an au­da­cious act of gen­eros­ity and a new way to cre­ate a buzz around an al­bum at a time when big acts were out­do­ing each other to find ways to sur­prise peo­ple with al­bum re­leases and cir­cum­vent the fact that stream­ing and pi­rat­ing had taken the buzz and the event out of al­bum re­leases.

The re­al­ity was that while there were no doubt many fans de­lighted with the sur­prise, it back­fired badly with many peo­ple, who seemed to feel it was some kind of in­tru­sion or in­va­sion of pri­vacy to see a U2 al­bum pop up in their iTunes. This was de­spite the fact that you did have a choice whether to down­load it or not.

The fol­low­ing month Bono had a bike crash in New York. It was re­vealed in Rolling Stone that he “suf­fered nu­mer­ous se­ri­ous in­juries, in­clud­ing a ‘fa­cial frac­ture in­volv­ing the or­bit of his eye’, three sep­a­rate frac­tures of his left shoul­der blade and a frac­ture of his left humerus bone in his up­per arm. The lat­ter in­jury was par­tic­u­larly dam­ag­ing, with the bone shat­ter­ing in six dif­fer­ent places and tear­ing through his skin”. No joke for a guy of 54. I know to my own cost that the humerus is one of the big­ger bones in the body and not one you want to break. It’s a tricky one to op­er­ate on, and if the shoul­der is in­volved as well, it can be fairly cat­a­strophic. For this to hap­pen just as you’re about to get into the grind of pro­mot­ing a new al­bum is se­ri­ous bad luck.

Bono had had sim­i­lar bad luck while pre­par­ing for the US leg of U2’s 360 Tour when he suf­fered a herniated disc and se­vere com­pres­sion of the sci­atic nerve and had to be rushed to a hos­pi­tal in Mu­nich for emer­gency back surgery.

Any­one who’s had an ac­ci­dent like Bono’s 2014 bike fall will tell you that it can hit you in all kinds of weird ways. There’s a frus­tra­tion that can al­most give way to de­pres­sion, prob­a­bly not helped by lots of med­i­ca­tion and gen­eral anaes­thet­ics. You can tend to rage against the bad luck too, with too much time to sit around think­ing about how ev­ery­thing changed in just one avoid­able in­stant.

You couldn’t help but think Bono looked slightly di­min­ished since. He seemed sud­denly older, and some­times he seemed to lack the con­fi­dence he had never been short of. When the In­no­cence + Ex­pe­ri­ence Tour did be­gin though, it was a tri­umph. Fans in Europe es­pe­cially hadn’t seen U2 in­doors for a long time, and if the gig in Dublin was any­thing to go by, the con­certs were pretty spe­cial, with the new ma­te­rial be­ing well re­ceived, al­though not as well re­ceived as the older ma­te­rial.

But the tour never made it out­doors, and in­stead, when U2 did hit sta­dia again, it was with a le­gacy tour, re­play­ing The Joshua Tree in full, sand­wiched with a great­est hits set. While the band talked a good talk around the ra­tio­nale for re­viv­ing The Joshua Tree 20 years on, in the Trump era, there was ob­vi­ously a lot of sus­pi­cion that U2 were fi­nally ac­cept­ing that they were pri­mar­ily a le­gacy act, that they were go­ing down the Rolling Stones route of dust­ing off their back cat­a­logue for a mas­sive tour ev­ery few years, and ac­cept­ing that their new ma­te­rial did not sell tours any­more and specif­i­cally that Songs of In­no­cence would not have sold a big­ger sta­dium tour.

Play­ing The Joshua Tree at Croke Park, es­pe­cially dur­ing side two, Bono and the band seemed muted at times. In some mo­ments, for prob­a­bly the first time ever, this band, who have al­ways been so deeply com­mit­ted in their shows, seemed to be go­ing through the mo­tions. The sta­dium had been bounc­ing for the first part of the show, but the crowd too seemed to lose energy as the rou­tine of play­ing the al­bum right through went on. It didn’t help that you couldn’t see the band much on the screens for most of the first half of the gig. I went back and watched the film of the Paris gig of the In­no­cence + Ex­pe­ri­ence Tour af­ter Croke Park and it was like a dif­fer­ent band. In­doors, play­ing the new ma­te­rial along with the old stuff, U2 had seemed more en­er­gised and alive. But maybe that’s the na­ture of hav­ing a ring­side seat when you watch some­thing on TV, and also the na­ture of the at­mos­phere be­ing much bet­ter when there is roof over a gig. Or per­haps it is con­nected to mys­te­ri­ous talk by Bono and the Edge in Rolling Stone pre-in­ter­views for the new al­bum about a brush with mor­tal­ity that Bono had dur­ing the mak­ing of this al­bum.

But it seemed as if that, what­ever it was, was be­hind him. With the flip­side of that tour, the Ex­pe­ri­ence + In­no­cence Tour ready to kick off in 2018, and a new al­bum com­ing out on De­cem­ber 1 that U2 must recog­nise in their bones is the best, most au­then­tic thing they’ve done in years, it must have seemed to U2 that they were ready to put the bad luck and the per­ceived mis­steps of the past three years be­hind them. At least half the tracks on the new al­bum sound like they’ll be killer live songs. The fear seemed to be gone from Bono’s eyes and de­meanour. Pre­sum­ably U2 — while know­ing they will never again sell al­bums like they used to, and know­ing that their fan base has got­ten older, and the mu­sic in­dus­try has changed be­yond recog­ni­tion — were ready, as they once said, to re-au­di­tion for the job of the best band in the world.

And then Bono’s pesky bad luck strikes again. The blow­ing up of the story of the Ro­hingya peo­ple in Myan­mar was one of those brand-dam­ag­ing un­knowns that no en­ter­prise could be pre­pared for. Aung San Suu Kyi was sud­denly pub­lic en­emy num­ber one among a wider pub­lic who had pre­vi­ously known lit­tle about her or Myan­mar. Un­for­tu­nately what they did know about her was that she had been some­how el­e­vated to saint­hood by peo­ple like Bono. And this be­ing Bono, peo­ple were only de­lighted to as­so­ciate her fall from grace with him. Not for the first time, the haters were say­ing, “You’re not so smart now, are yeh, Bono?”

Three days af­ter U2 an­nounced their new al­bum and tour, the band re­leased a state­ment:

“In re­sponse to queries from U2 fans, who cam­paigned along with the band and Amnesty In­ter­na­tional for the re­lease of Aung San Suu Kyi, as re­gards the sit­u­a­tion in Myan­mar, we would like you to know that the band are deeply alarmed by the con­tin­u­ing cri­sis and dev­as­tat­ing re­ports about what is hap­pen­ing to the Ro­hingya peo­ple. Bono has signed the open let­ter to the UN Se­cu­rity Coun­cil call­ing for ur­gent ac­tion, and has been speak­ing to Amnesty In­ter­na­tional, the UN and peo­ple close to the ground in Myan­mar where 600,000 Ro­hingya have been dis­placed. He has a call in with Aung San Suu Kyi this week and next week will re­port back with more on this catas­tro­phe.”

So that was that cov­ered. And then, the Par­adise Pa­pers landed last Sun­day night and it turned out that Bono was one of the mi­nor play­ers in it. The Par­adise Pa­pers didn’t ac­tu­ally re­veal any wrong­do­ing by any­one. What it was es­sen­tially was a pruri­ent look into how the One Per Cent use off­shore com­pa­nies to avoid tax. Un­for­tu­nately for him, it turns out that Bono, who has spo­ken out for trans­parency on off­shore tax havens, is a pas­sive mi­nor­ity part­ner in, of all things, a slightly de­press­ing look­ing Lithua­nian shop­ping cen­tre. There were much big­ger sto­ries in the Par­adise Pa­pers, but again, this is Bono, who likes to preach to the rest of us, and who lots of peo­ple in Ire­land love hav­ing a go at, so ob­vi­ously there was a fo­cus on his mall. And, of course, there were calls of hypocrisy. Bono, for his part, seems gen­uinely ap­palled, and claims to wel­come the re­port­ing. But there’s no doubt it’s not good for the brand at a time like this, and it has dragged up the story again about U2 mov­ing their pub­lish­ing to Hol­land to avoid tax.

While ev­ery­one who is carp­ing about Bono prob­a­bly re­sents ev­ery bit of tax they them­selves pay, and would do any­thing legally pos­si­ble to get out of pay­ing tax, it seems peo­ple ex­pect more from Bono, and ex­pect him to be more on top of the de­tails of his busi­ness in­ter­ests. You can only imag­ine he will be in fu­ture! There is also an el­e­ment, as Brian Kennedy said to me on Cut­ting Edge the other night, of peo­ple fo­cus­ing on per­form­ers in all this be­cause in some way peo­ple feel per­form­ers don’t re­ally work for their money, that it’s more of a hobby. And there’s al­ways been that el­e­ment in this coun­try that Bono is far too big for his boots any­way, and that his in­volve­ment in cap­i­tal­ism is some­how a sell-out of rock and roll.

The truth is that for U2 fans, the big news right now is not Bono’s rather drab Lithua­nian shop­ping cen­tre. The big news is that our great­est ever artis­tic suc­cess story, and the en­tity that, more than any, has sold Brand Ire­land all over the world for the last four decades, is back on form. It’s been odd some­times, and sad some­times, to ob­serve U2 over the past few years, as they seemed at times to strug­gle with age­ing and with stay­ing rel­e­vant and with the crap — the in­ci­dents and ac­ci­dents — that life throws at you as it goes on, even if you’re Bono. The big news right now for U2 fans is that af­ter a few years of try­ing to please ev­ery­body and per­haps los­ing a bit of their soul in do­ing so, U2 seem to have dug deep again, re­mem­bered why they are in a band, re­mem­bered why they still do this and found the joy that has al­ways been their driv­ing force. Judg­ing by Songs of Ex­pe­ri­ence, we could be look­ing at a stun­ning sec­ond, third or fourth act for U2 right now. Per­haps the hum­bling of the past few years has been a good thing, and out of all this ad­ver­sity has come tri­umph.

‘The fear seems to be gone from Bono’s eyes, and from his de­meanour’

Photo: Clodagh Kil­coyne

RE­TURN TO FORM: U2 per­form dur­ing their ‘U2: The Joshua Tree Tour’ at Croke Park in Dublin last July.

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