A new line on the horizon: how a slimmed-down U2 tour has wowed cynics and critics
Just over a year ago, U2 agreed to answer written questions on video for a live Facebook session. The first few were about as soft focus as it gets, then one landed that addressed the controversy surrounding their deal with Apple which meant all iTunes users had a copy of their Songs of Innocence album automatically uploaded into their music library.
"Can you please never release an album on iTunes that automatically downloads to people's playlists ever again?," the questioner wrote. "It's really rude."
Bono, looking ever-so- slightly wounded, replied: "I had this beautiful idea and we got carried away with ourselves. Artists are prone to that kind of thing. A drop of megalomania, a touch of generosity, a dash of self-promotion and deep fear that these songs that we poured our life into over the last few years mightn't be heard."
Few bands have achieved the sort of opprobrium U2 brought upon themselves when they made their latest album freely available, yet amid howls of 'PR disaster' the band received a huge pay cheque from Apple, rumoured by some to be in the region of $100m, and more than 80 million people chose to download the album.
While their previous album, No Line on the Horizon was their weakest seller since October in 1981, the latest one reached an enormous number of people, and while their action may have irritated the haters, it's likely to have interested a cohort who had no previous knowledge of the band.
In retrospect, Songs of Innocence and No Line on the Horizon couldn't be more different. The former is unquestionably their - or certainly Bono's - most personal album to date, while No Line wasn't nearly as rooted in a place or time. Its title was apparently inspired by the view out to the Irish Sea that Bono could enjoy from the vantage of his hillside Dalkey mansion - hardly something that the ordinary man on the street could relate to in the Ireland of 2009 when the recession was hitting hardest. Some also found it difficult to stomach the thanks the band gave in the liner notes to a series of high-profile developers, especially in the wake of their decision to save tax by moving business interests to Holland - a move, incidentally, that is perfectly legal. Yet, hobnobbing with developers and acting like a well-oiled corporation all appeared very far removed from the "four boys from the Northside of Dublin" line so often spouted by Bono.
And while Bono found inspiration in the Dublin of his childhood for a comparatively intimate album, their Innocence + Experience Tour also brings the U2 experience to a more human level than we have seen in decades. The last time they played Ireland was for the highest grossing tour in rock history - 360-Degree - which featured an enormous 'claw' plonked down in the centre of the Croke Park pitch. This time they will pitch up for four dates at the 3Arena (where 56,000 people will get to see the spectacle in all, as opposed to 80,000 for just one of those Croker shows.)
And yet, U2's version of 'intimate' is different than most. Despite the 3Arena's 14,000 capacity, the band have had to reconfigure their stage design in order to accommodate a venue that's smaller than the ones they have played in the US and Europe.
And it appears the critics are liking what they're seeing in the scaled back U2 experience too. The Guardian, a newspaper not noted for its fondness for the band, rhapsodised about their six-night stand at London's O2: "Even in minimalist (for them), stripped-down mode, U2's defiantly ambitious, meticulously choreographed live productions put virtually every other rock band to shame."