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Sunday 31 August 2014

U2: a line on the horizon

Up for an Oscar this weekend and with an overdue 13th studio album in the offing, U2 seem to be as much in demand as ever. But is the band really relevant any more or are Bono, Edge, Adam and Larry just doing a lap of honour?

John Meagher

Published 02/03/2014 | 02:30

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Bono performing live onstage on the PopMart tour. Photo: Paul Bergen/Redferns
U2 with their Golden Globe for Best Original Song – ‘Ordinary Love’ from ‘Mandela: Long Walk To Freedom’ – in January.
Bono on stage at Páirc Uí Chaoimh during the Joshua Tree tour in 1987.

On the face of it, these are good times for U2. The band is tipped to win its first Oscar tomorrow night and will get to perform their Best Song nomination, 'Ordinary Love', in front of a global TV audience of several hundred million.

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A fortnight ago, the Dubliners were guests of honour on Jimmy Fallon's maiden night as host of long-running The Tonight Show, and delivered a vertigo-inducing performance of their latest single, 'Invisible', from the 71st storey rooftop of NBC's Manhattan headquarters.

And a couple of weeks before that, the quartet debuted 'Invisible' in a high-profile, Bank of America-sponsored commercial during the Super Bowl, with the financial giant pledging to donate $1 for each download to Bono's AIDS awareness (RED) Campaign. Three million people snapped up the song in 24 hours.

Yet, even as Bono, The Edge, Adam Clayton and Larry Mullen Jr, strut down the red carpet at the Dolby Theatre in Los Angeles tomorrow, many will wonder if this sonic superpower can ever again hit the creative highs that characterised their career in the 1980s and 1990s. Bono himself questioned the band's relevancy when interviewed by BBC Radio 1 last month, and even devoted fans are likely to wonder if Ireland's biggest music exports are capable of recapturing the magic of old. Can they attract a whole new generation to their brand of heart-on-sleeve anthemic rock?

Their most recent 360° tour – which reached 7.2 million people between 2009 and 2011 – may have been the highest grossing in rock history, but it came on the back of their weakest selling album in more than two decades. And No Line on the Horizon didn't just stiff at the shops and online, the critical consensus was decidedly mixed.

This week marked the fifth anniversary since that album was released – making it by far the longest period between U2 albums. There has been much talk about a new, as-yet-untitled album, their 13th studio offering, but a release date has yet to be confirmed.

The album's release has been delayed time and again. During promotional rounds for No Line on the Horizon, Bono was adamant that a companion album would be released by the end of 2009, but that never appeared. Then there was talk of an album called Songs of Ascent that was due to be in the offing in 2010, and then, 2011, but it never saw the light of day either.

Now, after initial talk that the new album would be out shortly after the Super Bowl, and then April, it looks more likely to be a late summer or autumn release. The band are reportedly still finessing the record with the US musician and producer Brian 'Danger Mouse' Burton with Bono telling the Los Angeles Times this week that it will be markedly different to its "esoteric" predecessor.

For TV producer Colm O'Callaghan, who devised RTE's music series No Disco and worked with the seminal Irish label, Setanta, U2's best days creatively are well behind them. "I hope I'm wrong and they pull something really special out of the hat on the next album, but they haven't released a truly special album in a long time. No Line on the Horizon and How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb were weak efforts, and the second half of All that You Can't Leave Behind is very forgettable.

"I wasn't impressed by either of the two latest songs, either. 'Ordinary Love' was pretty ordinary and 'Invisible' was little more than a slick production job. I think songwriting just doesn't come as easily to U2 as it does to someone like Neil Finn (of Crowded House-fame) and you would have to be concerned by the fact that the album's release has been pushed back time and again."

Something Happens frontman and Newstalk presenter Tom Dunne is similarly unmoved by comeback single 'Invisible'. "The first time I heard it I thought it was fine, but I haven't been inspired to go back to it since. When it comes to my show and if there's a choice between playing the new St Vincent, the new Beck or the new U2 I'm going to go with St Vincent and Beck.

"When you look back on U2's career, they have had some extraordinary moments and I think How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb was a real return to form. But that was almost 10 years ago and in the meantime they released a weak album (No Line on the Horizon) even if it wasn't for lack of trying and haven't exactly been quick in getting a new one out.

"It's interesting that they had been working with Rick Rubin for that album, but those sessions were canned. What they need is a producer to stand up to them and say 'no' – I remember reading about how when they first asked Brian Eno to work with them on the album that would become The Unforgettable Fire and he said 'But, I don't like your music' and the band went 'neither do we'. Maybe Danger Mouse has challenged them in a way that will deliver exciting music."

Hot Press deputy editor Stuart Clarke believes U2 still have a lot to offer, especially on the live front. "They have shown what's possible on the stadium tour and they have the ambition to keep thinking bigger and bigger. And you have to remember that when they go on tour and play new material there isn't a mass exodus to the bars: they're always capable of delivering several songs on each new album that can sit alongside the old favourites. That's not exactly something The Rolling Stones can do, is it?"

Clarke believes U2's long-established status as one of the world's biggest bands is something of a millstone, especially as it stymies their ability to be fleet-footed when it comes to album releases. "It would be really interesting to see them do a Bowie or a My Bloody Valentine and release an album that nobody had expected," he says, "but as the global tour is such a big part of the U2 DNA and has to be planned so meticulously in advance, I'm not sure that's possible.

"People wonder if they can hit the creative highs of The Joshua Tree and Achtung Baby and it's a big ask. Try as they might, no band can replicate the circumstances of being in your 20s and hungry and experimental and something of an underdog. Yet, when I think of U2's more recent albums I don't see anything contrived there – they're a band who seem comfortable in their own skins unlike, say, Green Day who are three millionaires playing at being punk rockers."

A figure comparatively close to the U2 machine, but unwilling to be named, believes the demands caused by Bono's philanthropic and business interests over the past decade or so have had a detrimental impact on the band's music. "They just don't get to spend the sort of sustained periods together as much as they used to and that's led to a piecemeal approach to making albums.

"And as Bono said recently, they were really thrown by the demands of writing 'Ordinary Love' for the Mandela movie – it was completely different to what they had been doing for the album and hampered with their flow, so to speak. U2 have been written off many times in their career, but have surprised people and come back stronger than ever and there's every chance that will happen again.

"With another band of their scale, they could just phone in a bunch of songs and then take them on the road, but there is a genuine desire among the four to do the very best work they can. Every time they set out to make a new album they aim to make the very finest album of the year and that's the way it should be."

Yet, for younger music lovers like Richie McCormack, a DJ on the rock station, Phantom, the U2 of 2014 just aren't relevant.

"Not to me they're not," he says, "although they're obviously relevant to a lot of people around the world when you consider how many saw their last tour. But I wonder how much of that is down to the fact that they released so many strong songs in the 1980s and 1990s?

"Right now, I think they're past it, creatively – and have been, for a long time. Their last two albums were shockingly poor and you have to go back to Pop (released in 1997) for the last time they truly took a risk with their music. And surely being in a band is all about taking risks creatively and not reverting to a safe formula?"

Despite his misgivings about their current output, Tom Dunne is unwilling to write off U2 just yet. "I remember not liking 'The Fly' when it was released (in 1991) and thinking that perhaps we (Something Happens) were going to close the gap on them," he says, chuckling. "After all, they had gone away to dream it all up again so nobody knew what to expect. But then, I remember this moment when we were putting the finishing touches to our album in the (now defunct) Factory (studio) and U2 were rehearsing in the next room and I heard The Edge play the riff of 'Mysterious Ways' and I was rooted to the spot because it was so striking. The song blew me away. I went into them and held my hands up and said we weren't going to be closing the gap anytime soon.

"And, who knows, I might listen to the new album and feel exactly the same way."

 

U2... FOLLOW THE MONEY

150,000,000: The estimated total album sales, putting them on par with The Eagles and Frank Sinatra.

25,000,000: The sales achieved by their best selling album, The Joshua Tree (1987).

5,000,000: The disappointing (by their standards) sales across all formats of their most recent album, No Line on the Horizon (2009).

12: The number of studio albums released to date.

4: The highest position achieved by U2 on the all-time sales list in the Irish charts – for their 1998 compilation album, The Best of 1980 – 1990. David Gray's White Ladder is the best selling ever in this country.

7: The number of U2 albums that topped the US charts.

22: U2's position on Rolling Stone's '100 Greatest Artists' list.

€538,753,880; The ticket revenue for the U2 360° Tour, the highest grossing in rock history. They played 110 shows and were seen by more than 7,200,000 people.

4: The number of decades in which U2 have appeared in the top 10 grossing tours lists: 1980s - Joshua Tree Tour; 1990s - Zoo TV Tour and Popmart Tour; 2000s – Vertigo Tour; 2010s – U2 360° Tour.

6: The number of U2 songs that topped the UK singles charts: Desire (1988); The Fly (1991); Discotheque (1997); Beautiful Day (2000); Vertigo (2004); Sometimes You Can't Make It On Your Own (2005). None stayed at number one for longer than a week.

5 years: The longest period of time between U2 albums. Their last album, No Line on the Horizon, was released on February 25, 2009 and no date has yet been confirmed for their next, as-yet-untitled, album.

58: The total number of singles released by U2, from Another Day in 1980 to Invisible, released last month.

€632,535,925: U2's collective wealth, as estimated in the Sunday Times Rich List 2013.

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