Are U2 on the run with no album on the horizon?
The way we listen to music has changed drastically since U2's last album in 2009
Published 16/03/2014 | 02:30
I could see that Bono was a little hurt. His bewilderment was almost childlike. I almost felt bad. It's five years ago and we are sitting in the bowels of the Nou Camp stadium in Barcelona where U2 are about to begin touring their last album No Line on the Horizon and we have touched on the prevailing notion that maybe Get On Your Boots wasn't a great lead-off single for the album. We are talking about the view that maybe the second single, the more ecstatic, chiming , classically U2 Magnificent would have been a better first taster for the album.
It's clear that Bono was stung by the criticism of Get On Your Boots and the fact that it didn't top the charts worldwide. It's clear, too, he has thought about it a lot, both as an artist and a businessman. The businessman tells me the territories where it did do well and the artist asks me in that almost childlike fashion why people wouldn't like this little love song about a man and his wife and a war starting.
But they didn't. And it must have seemed like a bad omen for No Line On the Horizon. Despite being hailed initially as a welcome return to a more experimental, more European U2, the album did not do well, selling "only" five million copies – which is not enough for U2.
By the time the 360 tour came into America most of the tracks from the new album had been dropped from the live show with Bono telling Rolling Stone that the band had to accept that a lot of people at the concerts simply did not know the new music.
I thought of Get On Your Boots again this past week as rumours swirled about U2 putting off again the release date of their new album. The album, which was supposed to come out at the end of last year, and then next month, now seems to be postponed again. Billboard even suggested that the album was put off for a whole year, with the band planning to go back into he studio with new producers. This has been denied and apparently the album will come out sometime this year.
Also, the record company points out that there was never a release date scheduled.
So, while the delay and split stories seem to be just hype, U2 fans have already waited five years for a new album and the vibes, on fan sites and chat rooms, is that U2's core following is getting sick of the wait.
You will recall that fans had been led to expect another album hot on the heels of 2009's No Line On the Horizon. An album, putatively called Songs of Ascent and which was billed as kind of companion piece to No Line, was supposed to come out within a year. Indeed, at the point when I spoke to U2 at the start of the last tour, The Edge suggested that there was potentially a third album also and that the band planned a return to sessions they had done with producer Rick Rubin.
But, since then, nothing.
There have been various reasons given for the lack of new U2 material. In the bigger picture there have been suggestions that U2 simply don't have it anymore. They've got old and they've lost their edge and haven't been able to come up with the kind of music that would be worthy of release by the one-time biggest band in the world, and worthy of the huge tour that would come with it.
On the more prosaic level, the decision to work on the single Ordinary Love for the soundtrack to the Nelson Mandela biopic, and the subsequent media campaign to win that song an Oscar, definitely seems to have delayed work on the album. Winning the Oscar was something U2 would have liked. Bono thought it would give "a whole other imprimatur to U2's audience". Larry Mullen Jr says that the band was "on a roll" with the album and that they had to "abandon ship" to do the Mandela song.
But given what The Edge calls the "history we have with the man and the cause", U2 couldn't not do Ordinary Love. The song also seems to have taken a bit of time to get right, with Bono saying they had to go at it three or four times. Indeed, the song wasn't even ready for the movie's screening at the Toronto Film Festival late last year.
In February, Bono told the Hollywood Reporter that the album would be ready when it was ready but he did suggest they were now "running to the finish line", though there were "a couple of songs that are part of the finished story" that weren't quite finished. In mid-February, when U2 played on Jimmy Fallon's first Tonight Show, The Edge said afterwards that the band were still in the studio, with 30 songs recorded and six or seven of those mixed and ready to go.
You have to admit that doesn't sound like an album that was going to be released this side of the summer.
There were other suggestions too about the delay.
There were claims that Mullen was not happy with the album. While the drummer not being happy with the album might not sound like a reason not to release it in any other band, in terms of U2, Mullen's unhappiness would be a perfectly credible reason for a delay. Mullen was the founder of U2, is probably the band member who is closest personally to Bono and is, according to former manager Paul McGuinness, the "squeaky wheel" of the band.
Mullen is like the talisman, the moral authority at the heart of the relationships that make up the band. He is the one who will call Bono out when he thinks Bono is making an asshole of himself or damaging the band by running around with George Bush. He is the keeper of the flame of what U2 should be about. Larry is the one who objects to things like the "Passengers" side project. Larry Mullen Jr is possibly the only drummer in the world who calls the shots.
There has also been a suggestion that U2 have gone back to the studio because they were disappointed at the reaction to the recent single Invisible, which seems to have been a taster for the new album. While the song was downloaded three million times for free as part of collaboration between Bono's Red Charity and Bank Of America, it did not sell well outside of this. For some bands three million downloads, free or not, might have been good enough. But Ordinary Love hadn't troubled the charts either. And maybe U2 panicked. Maybe Bono panicked.
Bono seems to be well aware that this is U2's last throw of the dice in terms of relevance.
He has agonised over this matter since before the last album came out. Where do U2 fit in a world where kids don't buy albums anymore, where kids don't even understand the concept of an album?
Where do U2 fit in a world of listening to music on YouTube or Spotify without even needing to own it, where you stream it like water from a tap, a service instead of a product?
Where do U2 fit in a world where fewer and fewer people sit down with headphones and listen to a dozen songs in a row, following a narrative or a vibe. In that world, how does a juggernaut like U2 survive and continue to thrive?
While U2 had enormous success with singles, they are an albums band primarily, and those albums are not just a collection of individual tracks.
U2 are also old and they've been around a long time. They are probably the only band of their vintage who still produce new music that is the event in itself and not just as an excuse for a tour. The Rolling Stones, admittedly much older than U2, but perhaps the only precedent for where U2 go from here, didn't even bother doing an album for their last tour. They stuck two new tracks on another greatest hits collection and off they went around the world playing the hits.
Indeed, in ways, U2, like The Stones, should be the perfect economic model for the music industry as it is now. Bands make their money from playing live now and most acts essentially only put out albums so people will know their music for the concerts. U2 has a huge back catalogue of music people know and they could easily tour it every five years. But clearly ego or fulfilment requires that they also make albums that still matter.
And this album is their most important test yet. With this one they either enter a stunning late period of creativity or they become the heritage band that The Edge says they will be dragged kicking and screaming into being.
With all that pressure you can see how the reaction to the recent two singles might have worried Bono. Bono is a details person. As much as he will keep at the music until it is absolutely right, trashing songs, going back to old riffs, re-recording things in different ways until everyone feels good about it, he also understands marketing, and presumably the ghost of Get On Your Boots still haunts him. I think his hurt that day in Barcelona was as much that of a marketing man as it was of a musician. It wasn't just that he couldn't understand that Get On Your Boots wasn't universally loved, he was clearly bothered too about getting the market wrong. 'PT Barnum' had picked the wrong song, and in doing so had possibly denied the last album the vital initial momentum it required. So Bono's attention to detail musically and marketing-wise could well mean that U2 at this point ignore the expectations of an album this summer, and go back and record a new album or half a new album, or re-record an album, or focus on different songs from the 30. Because they only get one shot at this now. This album can't afford to fail.
Bear in mind, too, that this album is more than about a new U2 album.
Bono also seems to have taken it upon himself to save the album as a form. As a major tech investor Bono is a very firm believer in the future and he has been grappling for the last decade with the notion of how you recreate the album experience for a generation who never saved their money to go into town and buy 12 inches of vinyl, possibly the only album they would buy that month or year.
Bono wants to recreate that immersion his generation experienced. He wants to give music that extra dimension again. He has spoken recently of wanting to get that experience he got as a kid when he opened up The Clash's triple album Sandinista and got lost in it and in the lyrics.
So Bono, in typical form, is not just trying to save U2, he is trying to save a whole industry.
One other factor worth noting is this: U2 are uncomfortable when they go away from the trinity of producers they have mainly used for the last three decades – Brian Eno, Daniel Lanois and Steve Lillywhite. Having tried to work with others for the last album they came back to the troika eventually to make the album.
As much as they may wish to update their sound this time out by using producer du jour Brian Burton aka Danger Mouse, who worked on a lot of the new album, they may be having a wobble now after the reception to the quasi electronic, slightly New Orderish Invisible.
Bear in mind though that while Danger Mouse is primarily known for the urban tinged pop of Gnarls Barkley, the melancholy trip hop of Gorillaz or the indie electronica of his Broken Bells project, this is also the man who made The Black Keys' El Camino, and also, most pertinently the Rome album with Italian composer Daniele Luppi and the remnants of Sergio Leone's orchestra.
It was an album that blended blues, soul, opera and Spaghetti Western, and it suggest that Danger Mouse has more to his palate than pop, rock and electronica.
I have always liked to think that it was the Rome album, an album that had the textures and the patina of time on it, an album that has soul. that drew U2 to Burton rather than Gnarls Barkley's Crazy.
I might be on my own here but I liked Invisible. It has that great U2 dynamic of an opening restraint that bursts into fully flowered joyous ecstasy. And remember U2 never put out their most complex tracks as lead singles. Think Discotheque, The Fly, Vertigo, and Desire.
U2's first singles are often almost throwaway ditties, derivative, classic three-minute pop songs. In terms of Invisible, they have referenced The Ramones a lot; behind the song's gloss, you can bet there is an album of different shades.
Whether we see the album this year or not, and I suspect we will see it sooner than we think, it will give us a much clearer view than two singles of whether U2 still have it.
U2 albums are always more than the sum of their parts, and sometimes you would almost think it's not fair to listen to single songs in isolation.
Whether the album will sell like the juggernauts of old, and have a string of hit singles is another matter.
But maybe U2, and the rest of us, just have to accept those days are gone.
And it's not U2's fault. It's just that how we consume music has changed.
And maybe Bono needs to accept that he will no longer be top of the pops, but that an album that gets listened to by U2's millions of fans around the world, an album that they will find two or three new favourite U2 songs on, needs to be enough now.
Maybe at the concerts it would be enough of a triumph if people don't wander off to the jacks or the bar when U2 play a new song. U2's success has been, in many ways, our greatest export over the last three decades.
It truly redefined and modernised how the world saw Ireland, and it is nearly as hard for the rest of us to let go of that as it is for the band themselves. But it's a new world out there now and maybe rather than having the biggest band in the world, maybe Ireland might have to be content now with having one of the best.