Wednesday 22 May 2019

U2 relight their unforgettable fire

U2 have, in a sense, gone away and dreamed it up all over again with their new album Songs Of Experience

Dream goes on: Bono said U2 had to go away and dream it all up again
Dream goes on: Bono said U2 had to go away and dream it all up again
Barry Egan

Barry Egan

Bono works in mysterious ways. But you have to admire him, however pompously evangelical and self-rewardingly messianic he gets on occasion, for following his heart most of the time.

In January, 1990 the U2 lead singer was at home in Killiney watching the television: on it, 100,000 Iraq troops went to their deaths as Baghdad lit up like a Christmas tree. Bono could not believe his ears when he heard the first US pilot return from Kuwait to tell the waiting press that "turning Baghdad into a car park was very realistic".

At that moment U2's Zoo TV was brought screaming into the world. "It was beyond being taken seriously," Bono told me in 1992. "I understood, for instance, the humour of Picasso after the Spanish Civil war, Guernica - the humour as well as the fright of it - and how he never painted human beings again," Bono said in reference to Picasso's painting which the artist created in June 1937 in reaction to the bombing of Guernica by Nazi Germany and Fascist Italian bomber-planes at the request of Franco. "You know, they were always going to be caricatures. They were always going to be bloodless people. Surrealism," Bono added, "made sense to me as a response."

Twenty-five years on, Bono and his little band from the northside of Dublin appear to have taken on a form of personal surrealism as their response to the world and their place in it in 2017. Everything is a caricature after Trump got elected and the UK voted to withdraw from the European Union. Everything changed, too, when Bono nearly died. (In the liner notes of the new U2 album Songs Of Experience, Bono writes: "Last winter I was on the receiving end of a shock to the system, a shock that left me clinging on to my own life.")

Songs Of Experience is another U2 reawakening, though not remotely as radical as 1987's The Joshua Tree and 1991's Achtung! Baby. To me, this, the band's 14th studio album, is their best set of recordings since the aforesaid Achtung! Baby all those years ago. What was supposed to be the companion to 2014's Songs of Innocence album is far better for having the creative gestation period of almost four years. Where Songs Of Innocence was an album about childhood, Songs Of Experience is a more grown-up record: about death and the power of love. Indeed the opening track Love Is All We Have Left has touches of Frankie Goes To Hollywood's song of that name with Bono reborn as Bono Iver singing about immortality and death:

'Now you're at the other end of the telescope/

Seven billion stars in her eyes/

So many stars/

So many ways of seeing/

Hey, this is no time not to be alive.' This album is U2 surveying America much differently to The Joshua Tree. "For refugees like you and me/a country to receive us/Will you be my sanctuary/Refu-Jesus!" he sings on American Soul. "Statues fall, democracy is flat on its back, Jack," Bono raps on The Blackout.

To their detractors, contributors like Kendrick Lamar on American Soul and Haim on Lights of Home (to say nothing of the Arcade Fire-improv of Get Out of Your Own Way, or as Classic Rock said in its review, "dreary sub-Coldplay trundlers like Summer Of Love and Bryan Adams-style soft-rockers like You're The Best Thing About Me) are, to quote Pitchfork, "the shameless effort of four men in their late 50s to muster a contemporary, youthful sound". That is a bit over the top, frankly, and even more frankly, plain wrong.

Bono once declared on stage that the band had to "go away and dream it all up again". I think, in a sense, U2 have done that on Songs Of Experience. "When you think you're done," Bono sings on Love is Bigger Than Anything in its Way, "you've just begun." You wonder have U2 just begun and, if so, where they can take it next. In any event, U2 have relit their (unforgettable) fire.

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