After 40 years, 14 albums and one Simpsons cameo does the final curtain beckon for U2? That’s the speculation following Bono’s cryptic sign-off on the closing date of the Dubliners’ Experience and Innocence tour in Berlin.
“We've been on the road for quite some time…We're going away now,” Bono told the Mercedes-Benz Arena, sounding a bit like Bilbo Baggins before he slipped on the ring and fled his birthday party.
The remarks duly set the internet ablaze with speculation the group were calling time on a project that has catapulted them from the northside of Dublin to the very pinnacle of popular music.
Some U2 watchers have pointed out that Bono has delivered similar bombshells at the end of previous tours – and that the band are expected to embark on a 2021 run marking the anniversary of Achtung Baby (much as they did on the 30th anniversary of The Joshua Tree). He may, moreover, been in a pensive frame of mind, given that U2 were required to cut short the original Berlin date when the singer’s voice went in September.
But it is also undeniable that U2 are at a crossroads. It’s over a decade since they put out a truly essential album – the causal fan will go back to 2004’s How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb, the purist 1993’s Zooropa.
Stretched ahead of them, if they want it, is a lucrative second career as a Celtic Rolling Stones. They would live off their catalogue and grow old with their audience, quitting their mansions every few years and heading out to reprise the hits .
Is that what U2 really wish for, however? Such a living death would surely be contrary to everything they believe their music to stand for. They aren’t the first band to find themselves in this position and it’s telling that when REM, as with U2 products of the early Eighties post-punk scene, lost their passion, they packed it in.
"One of the reasons we dissolved REM is that we just looked at each other and said, 'if we do the next tour and all that other stuff, it's going to be like a job'," REM’s Peter Buck told me several years ago. "And I don't want to have a job.” Are U2 having that very same conversation right now?
An extra complication was the sharp reminder of his mortality Bono reportedly received late in 2016. He’s been vague about the incident – but it’s clear it has caused him to reassess his priorities. Maybe fronting the world’s biggest rock band isn’t what he wants any more.
There is, of course, a third way – though you wonder if it’s one U2 are interested in pursuing. Twenty-one years ago they almost surrendered their position as stadium kingpins with their undercooked and often deeply eccentric Pop LP. It was the last time they took risks and it brought to a close one the most productive phases of their career, which had begun in 1991 with Achtung Baby and carried on with perhaps their most intriguing release, 1993’s Zooropa.
Perhaps the way for U2 to find what they are looking for is to forget about the mega-tours and the platinum records and to instead get back in touch with their experimental side while relegating the demands of their huge global fanbase to an afterthought. It would be a risk – but if there is a choice between a leap into the unknown and a future as Rolling Stones-style living fossils is that really any choice at all?
When the unthinkable happened at U2’s recent Berlin concert and Bono lost his voice, it could have been the end. Bono tells Brendan O’Connor about that emasculating moment, about the crisis of faith sparked by a near-death experience, the reliving of his mother’s death on stage every night, and the gift of an olive tree from the Pope