No album on the horizon
The release of their latest album has been delayed to 2015. What's going on with U2?
Are U2 in crisis? That's one possible reading of the announcement that their greatly heralded next album has been pushed back to 2015, just the latest delay for a project originally slated to see daylight last year.
Following what looked suspiciously like a pre-release publicity campaign – that Oscar performance, their Superbowl single, a roof-top turn on Jimmy Fallon's new Tonight Show – it was revealed at the weekend that Bono and company are shelving plans to put the record out over the next few months. Instead, they are returning to the studio – with a new team of producers (including Adele collaborator Paul Epworth), although Danger Mouse will still be credited as producer for the bulk of the LP.
Sources say U2 simply aren't 100pc happy with the songs they've recorded thus far for the LP (provisionally titled Songs of Ascent at one point). "That magic that the band always seems to capture... they have yet to capture it," a confidante told Billboard magazine.
Others suspect there may be more straightforward motives. "Coldplay have announced their new album will be out in May and I think that might be something to do with it," says Mick Kearns, who performs as 'Edge' in U2 tribute act The Joshua Tree. "Also in my circles of U2 geeks, I've heard Larry is not happy with [the new record]."
Of course, you don't have to be in the inner circle to sense the northside foursome is experiencing a creative wobble. Underwhelming new single 'Invisible', unveiled with deafening hoo-hah at the Superbowl, was a straight-up flop – selling a pitiful 64,000 copies in America (traditionally the group's bread-basket). It couldn't even breach the top 10 at home, stalling at 31 in the charts.
Appropriately given its title, 'Invisible' vanished without grace. Of course, its chart performance must be seen in the context of the three million free downloads it received in its first 24 hours.
Just as unsuccessful – the approval of the Golden Globe judges notwithstanding – was 'Ordinary Love' from the soundtrack to Nelson Mandela biopic Long Walk To Freedom. Granted, it did reach number one in Italy – a country that has always had a weak-spot for Bono's bombast. However, it stiffed at 99 on the Billboard Hot 100 and at 82 in the UK.
A further complication, surely, was the departure of manager Paul McGuinness last year. While the parting was amicable, the band have surely felt the loss of their unofficial fifth wheel.
Nearly 40 years into their career, you might imagine that U2 would be sanguine about such disappointments. What else have they to prove? Surely, they are at a point where they have complete creative freedom and can make whatever sort of music they fancy, unencumbered by the need to prove their commercial virility?
However, those with first-hand knowledge of the band say that this isn't how U2 think at all. By every account their flirtation with experimental music through the mid-'90s – including the deeply odd, Brian Eno-assisted Passengers album – was a scarring experience.
It culminated with the closest to a setback in that stage of their career, when 1997's bizarre, and occasionally brilliant, Pop LP performed mediocrely in the US and arguably sucked momentum from the follow-up PopMart tour (remembered today for the concert where The Edge was trapped, Spinal Tap-style, inside a giant hydraulic lemon).
According to this version of events, U2 were blindsided by the experience and doubled down on their ambition to remain the biggest band in the world – and, more than that, a vital creative entity who did not fall into the Rolling Stones trap of turning into a karaoke version of their younger selves.
Everything they have done since must be read in the context of those reversals. Their 'comeback' 2000 album All That You Can't Leave Behind was a heartfelt restatement of U2 first principles – never be afraid to be obvious and earnest – as were 2005's How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb and 2009's No Line On The Horizon (the only difference is that the songs were increasingly less compelling).
That final album was the biggest disaster of U2's career – leaving a far sourer taste than any of their wobbly spells through the '90s. Though earning the group their first five-star Rolling Stone review and serving as a spring-board for their record-breaking 360 Tour (the highest grossing ever), the consensus is that it was U2's weakest release to date – yielding no hit singles and standing several pegs below other achievements in the estimation of fans.
Acutely sensitive to their place on the totem pole, U2 were by every account eager to make up for the album. So it was that they have been working with fashionable producer Danger Mouse (best known for his hit 'Crazy', with the Gnarls Barkley side project). The idea was that Danger Mouse (aka Brian Burton) would give their tunes a jolt of contemporary freshness – the 21st-Century groove their post-2000 releases have palpably lacked. But the disappointing performances of 'Invisible' and 'Ordinary Love' suggest the plan may not be proceeding as smoothly as expected.
"Since the '90s, U2 have been mainly interested in coming up with a bigger show than their last one – and with an album pertinent to music today," says Dave Griffith, a U2 expert who conducts a popular tour of the band's haunts around Dublin. "They see themselves as in competition with the bands of today rather as than the 'slightly hip uncles' of music."
He worries that this pressure to always be on top may be counter-productive. At this stage, surely U2 have found what they are looking for? They possess something most artists would kill for – ultimate artistic freedom. Instead of worrying how their new songs go down in Latvia, Louisiana and in between, they should just leave their muses off the leash and see what happens, he suggests.
"Rather than feeling that their music need to be relevant to your average 15-year-old today," says Griffith, "they should just rip the 'framework' down and build afresh."
Then, perhaps they have begun to do that. Griffith recalls a recent encounter with a member of the U2 organisation.
"I met Edge's roadie last September and asked if the album was in post- production yet. 'Edge apparently is coming up with new riffs all the time. He seems not to be under pressure.'"
Not everyone is as optimistic about the group's chances of pulling their career out of the fire.
"It is very difficult for a band that has written the material they have over the years to keep doing it at such a large scale," says Ian Donnelly of U2 tribute act Rattle and Hum.
"It must also be difficult to keep relevant when we are in such an era of throwaway pop songs. I am sure U2 will surprise their fans yet again. But they need to pull off a Rattle and Hum-to-Achtung Baby shift with this album if they are going to avoid going down the Rolling Stones route of greatest hit tours and fans not wanting to hear the new material."