Watching 80-year-old Paul McCartney command a massive crowd at Glastonbury over the weekend offers a reminder that, nowadays, live music is no longer the preserve of the young.
Bono will likely have been tuning in too – U2, famously, headlined the great English music festival in 2011 – and he will have been heartened to see a man 18 years his senior rolling the years back so impressively.
The Dubliner is surely thinking about when his band go on the road again. It’s been three years since they completed the final leg of their Joshua Tree anniversary tour and four years since U2 last toured a new album, Songs of Experience, which itself was released in 2017.
The pandemic didn’t disrupt any scheduled shows. U2 – to paraphrase one of Bono’s most celebrated quotes from years ago – were in the ‘dream it all up again’ phase. But unless they have been working on new material under the cover of great secrecy it will be 2023, at the earliest, before an album is released and a potential tour happens.
And that’s significant because it will mark the longest period that U2 have ever gone without releasing a new album. There was a time, early on, when they released four albums in such a span.
But that was then. Each of the quartet is in his early 60s now. They’ve been on the go for 45 years. It’s been quite an innings and one in which the band redefined the art of the stadium show.
So, what next?
For Bono, there is an eagerly awaited memoir, Surrender, which Penguin is bringing out in the autumn. It’s one of the big publishing stories of 2022 and expectations are high that it will be a revealing autobiography. There is a verifiable library of U2 books, but this could be the first to really get to the heart of the matter.
Bono has already whetted appetites thanks to the weekend’s compelling interview with musician-turned-broadcaster Lauren Laverne on that BBC radio institution, Desert Island Discs. The revelation that he became aware of a half-brother as recently as 2000 is intriguing.
His father, Bob, died the following year, just before a pair of emotional shows at Slane, and he would write directly about his dad on Sometimes You Can’t Make It On Your Own in 2004.
Originally titled ‘Tough’, the song documents a loving but difficult father-son relationship, and now, the knowledge that Bob fathered another child adds an extra layer to an already complex and emotive composition.
As he has got older, the songs have become more personal. U2’s second most recent album, Songs of Innocence, is fuelled by Bono’s family life and childhood. Its most affecting song, Iris (Hold Me Close), is a veritable howl of anguish about losing his mother to a brain haemorrhage when he was just 14. And, yet, by writing closely about the deeply personal, the songs have even greater universal resonance. Many of us know just how painful it is to lose a parent at a young age.
Surrender will occupy Bono for the remainder of the year – a huge publicity drive will soon be set in train – but he will be anxious for U2 to deliver quality music again.
He has long railed against the idea of the heritage rock band that simply regurgitates the hits and lets the cash rake in. He has always wanted U2 to be part of the zeitgeist – which is why the band invited the likes of Kendrick Lamar and Lykke Li to appear on their last couple of albums.
But even avowed fans would struggle to be enthusiastic about their last single, Your Song Saved My Life, which was written for the soundtrack of the animated feature Sing 2.
We Are the People, which was recorded in tandem with DJ Martin Garrix for the delayed Euro 2020, is perhaps the blandest single they have ever released. Has inspiration run dry of late?
U2 have been written off before, but have come back strong — most thrillingly in the early 1990s when Achtung Baby, to quote Bono once more, was “the sound of four men chopping down The Joshua Tree". But they were fired-up artists in their early 30s then, fizzing with a desire to dominate a new decade just as they had done the one before. Can the four find it within themselves to deliver something really special soon? Only a fool would suggest they won’t.
What is much more likely is the end of the monster stadium tours that became their stock in trade. Bono has talked openly about health issues – post-surgery recovery and losing his voice among them – and the prospect of undertaking marathon tours at the scale they did for years no longer seems likely. The 2018 Experience and Innocence Tour, remember, was an arena spectacular and for many U2 fans it was the first time they had seen them play indoors in years.
Expect more of that, but perhaps on an even smaller scale.
There is something thrilling about seeing a stripped-back U2 play somewhere like the Olympia or Vicar Street. For a band who have advanced the visual and pyrotechnics aspects of the live show, it would be refreshing to see them eschew all of that, and really get back to basics.
Best of luck getting tickets, though.