Friday 28 October 2016

Can U2's rebirth continue to excite?

Published 14/08/2016 | 02:30

Scaled back: U2 are promising to go on tour again next March
Scaled back: U2 are promising to go on tour again next March

U2 released four albums between 1980 and 1984. There was nothing unusual about that sort of prolificacy at the time: the record industry expected their signings to have a prodigious work rate and Bono and friends certainly did.

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Then, as they got older and very, very successful, the time between new U2 album releases widened and when the 2000s came around, there was a lengthy, close to half-decade gap between their relentlessly hyped albums. Mammoth world tours put paid to all the studio time they had required and they didn't appear to want to do another Zooropa - essentially write and record an album of new material while on the road.

When they finally got around to dropping Songs of Innocence in September 2014, some five years and seven months had elapsed since their last album - the longest in their career. But now, it looks as though they've managed to do a globe-trotting tour and get a batch of new songs written and recorded. A companion album, Songs of Experience, looks like it will get an autumn release - and they're promising to go on tour again from March of next year. It remains unclear whether this will be another leg of a tour that concluded in Paris last December or something completely new.

We've heard such talk before - only for the band to backtrack. U2 observers lost count of the number of mooted release dates for Songs of Innocence before it was finally - and suddenly - released. But, this time, I suspect it may be true because a great deal of material was recorded for that album's sessions - much of it always destined for a follow-up album - and because they managed to successfully reboot the live experience by scaling down and taking their show indoors for the first time in a quarter of a century.

One of the most remarkable things about their Dublin gigs from late last year was how the most compelling songs - the ones that truly grabbed you by the throat - were new. 'Raised by Wolves' and 'Cedarwood Road', in particular, really hit home, not least because both were so rooted in Dublin, the former being a powerful look-back to the Dublin and Monaghan bombings of May 1974 and the latter referring to Bono's childhood street in Glasnevin.

They seemed emboldened by the change from stadia to arenas and hugely personal and heartfelt songs such as 'Iris (Hold Me Close)', which Bono wrote for his mother who died when he was 14, really translated in the scaled-back setting.

Of course, it would be stretching things to call the 14,000-capacity 3Arena intimate, but there was that feeling of connection on those nights that wasn't there for everyone who attended the gigantic 360 Tour in Croke Park or, to go back to 2001, the pair of headline Elevation shows at Slane.

It certainly helped that Songs of Innocence marked something of a return to form after the comparatively rudderless No Line on the Horizon, although, like several others, I wasn't overly enamoured when I first heard it. Still, the quality of songs like 'Every Breaking Wave' soon washed up on me - and the plaintive version they played on concert - was the highlight for many.

It says something for the scale that U2 were operating at for so long that the simple act of doing an arena tour felt like a risk-taking departure. But it was one that certainly paid off and perhaps allowed them a degree of nimbleness they haven't managed for years.

Yet, like most big-budget, audio-visual tours that are choreographed to the second, there was precious little room for spontaneity and perhaps the great test for U2 would be to throw the rule book out completely and maybe play a fully acoustic show in small theatres, or one that avoids the bells and whistles of video walls and other glitzy paraphernalia. And even if it turns out to be a second leg of the Innocence + Experience tour, there's no reason why it can't be a completely different show.

But first, the album has to surface and various band members have been suitably vague about what's in store with Bono making noises that "in term of lyrics, it's stronger than [1983 album] War - it has more clarity". Earlier this month, the frontman suggested they had no fewer than 50 new songs written but said the album still wasn't finished.

U2 are somewhat notorious for tinkering with songs and an album's worth of material that had been recorded with Rick Rubin for what became No Line On the Horizon was apparently thrown away. In the end, long-term collaborators Brian Eno, Daniel Lanois and Steve Lillywhite produced the album.

They tried different producers on Songs of Innocence and the gamble paid off. Brian 'Danger Mouse' Burton was executive producer - with input from Paul Epworth and Ryan Tedder among others - and his fingerprints were all over the resulting songs.

With the new album birthed in those sessions, one can only imagine that Burton's influence will live on in another batch of U2 anthems. That's assuming, of course, they don't have another change of heart and rip it all up to start again.

* Formed in Modesto, California in 1992, Grandaddy were one of the comparatively unsung heroes of the US indie landscape of the 1990s and early 2000s. Their second album, The Sophtware Slump, sounds as vital today as it did when released 16 years ago. A veritable concept album about how technology can play havoc with society, it offered something of a prescient look at how depended most of us are on being 'connected all the time' - and all this years before the birth of social media and smartphones.

The Jason Lytle-led band split after four albums in 2006, but have since reformed, and will play what could be one of the gigs of the summer at Vicar Street, Dublin on Thursday night.

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