Sunday 15 September 2019

Out of the humbling comes a triumph

After three years of bad luck and missteps, U2 are poised for greatness again with their best work in maybe 20 years

RETURN TO FORM: U2 perform during their ‘U2: The Joshua Tree Tour’ at Croke Park in Dublin last July. Photo: Clodagh Kilcoyne
RETURN TO FORM: U2 perform during their ‘U2: The Joshua Tree Tour’ at Croke Park in Dublin last July. Photo: Clodagh Kilcoyne
Brendan O'Connor

Brendan O'Connor

U2 released three versions of their recent single You're The Best Thing About Me. The real clue was, weirdly enough, in the acoustic version. Acoustic versions of songs can either feel like an incredibly intimate view into the heart of a song and a singer, or like bad busking. But this was different. And a few listens confirmed it. There was no doubt about it. It might not have been their greatest song ever, but there was a certain swagger to this version. It had some echoes of those acoustic B-sides U2 used to do around the time of The Joshua Tree. And it made you realise what had possibly been missing from U2 for a while: that swagger. It used to be that U2 led and we would follow. But in recent years, while U2 were making good music and putting on good shows, it could feel at times like they were trying too hard, like they were a little bit needy, a little bit forced.

But there was no doubt a certain swing to this version of this new song. It was notable too that the Edge was given the best bit of the song, the celestial, climactic bit. While the Edge is always there, singing backing vocals, he has previously only really come to the fore in low-key stuff like the folky dirge Van Diemen's Land from Rattle and Hum, and the muttering Numb. But here, the Edge was joyously singing out, sounding not unlike Bono. It spoke of a confidence from Bono too, to give the Edge the best bit and to almost let the Edge out-sing him.

There was something going on here.

I've been living with the new U2 album Songs of Experience for the past week and while I am precluded from going into detail, and I could be going out on a limb here, but for consistency, joy, swagger, confidence and moments of transcendence and beauty, this is U2's best work in 15, possibly 20 years. There is an effortlessness, a timelessness. As always, there are better songs on there than the singles; U2 always tending to release the poppier numbers to lead off albums. Most of all, it's got soul. There are more songs there that are a punch in the gut, rather than feeling over-thought and overwrought. It also goes back in various ways to U2's tumultuous love affair with America. But that's enough skirting close to the embargo.

It's felt like a weird few years for U2. It probably started in October 2014 when Bono publicly apologised for giving away the band's last album Songs of Innocence to all Apple customers, whether they wanted it or not. In advance, it must have seemed like an audacious act of generosity and a new way to create a buzz around an album at a time when big acts were outdoing each other to find ways to surprise people with album releases and circumvent the fact that streaming and pirating had taken the buzz and the event out of album releases.

The reality was that while there were no doubt many fans delighted with the surprise, it backfired badly with many people, who seemed to feel it was some kind of intrusion or invasion of privacy to see a U2 album pop up in their iTunes. This was despite the fact that you did have a choice whether to download it or not.

The following month Bono had a bike crash in New York. It was revealed in Rolling Stone that he "suffered numerous serious injuries, including a 'facial fracture involving the orbit of his eye', three separate fractures of his left shoulder blade and a fracture of his left humerus bone in his upper arm. The latter injury was particularly damaging, with the bone shattering in six different places and tearing through his skin". No joke for a guy of 54. I know to my own cost that the humerus is one of the bigger bones in the body and not one you want to break. It's a tricky one to operate on, and if the shoulder is involved as well, it can be fairly catastrophic. For this to happen just as you're about to get into the grind of promoting a new album is serious bad luck.

Bono had had similar bad luck while preparing for the US leg of U2's 360 Tour when he suffered a herniated disc and severe compression of the sciatic nerve and had to be rushed to a hospital in Munich for emergency back surgery.

Anyone who's had an accident like Bono's 2014 bike fall will tell you that it can hit you in all kinds of weird ways. There's a frustration that can almost give way to depression, probably not helped by lots of medication and general anaesthetics. You can tend to rage against the bad luck too, with too much time to sit around thinking about how everything changed in just one avoidable instant.

You couldn't help but think Bono looked slightly diminished since. He seemed suddenly older, and sometimes he seemed to lack the confidence he had never been short of. When the Innocence + Experience Tour did begin though, it was a triumph. Fans in Europe especially hadn't seen U2 indoors for a long time, and if the gig in Dublin was anything to go by, the concerts were pretty special, with the new material being well received, although not as well received as the older material.

But the tour never made it outdoors, and instead, when U2 did hit stadia again, it was with a legacy tour, replaying The Joshua Tree in full, sandwiched with a greatest hits set. While the band talked a good talk around the rationale for reviving The Joshua Tree 20 years on, in the Trump era, there was obviously a lot of suspicion that U2 were finally accepting that they were primarily a legacy act, that they were going down the Rolling Stones route of dusting off their back catalogue for a massive tour every few years, and accepting that their new material did not sell tours anymore and specifically that Songs of Innocence would not have sold a bigger stadium tour.

Playing The Joshua Tree at Croke Park, especially during side two, Bono and the band seemed muted at times. In some moments, for probably the first time ever, this band, who have always been so deeply committed in their shows, seemed to be going through the motions. The stadium had been bouncing for the first part of the show, but the crowd too seemed to lose energy as the routine of playing the album right through went on. It didn't help that you couldn't see the band much on the screens for most of the first half of the gig. I went back and watched the film of the Paris gig of the Innocence + Experience Tour after Croke Park and it was like a different band. Indoors, playing the new material along with the old stuff, U2 had seemed more energised and alive. But maybe that's the nature of having a ringside seat when you watch something on TV, and also the nature of the atmosphere being much better when there is roof over a gig. Or perhaps it is connected to mysterious talk by Bono and the Edge in Rolling Stone pre-interviews for the new album about a brush with mortality that Bono had during the making of this album.

But it seemed as if that, whatever it was, was behind him. With the flipside of that tour, the Experience + Innocence Tour ready to kick off in 2018, and a new album coming out on December 1 that U2 must recognise in their bones is the best, most authentic thing they've done in years, it must have seemed to U2 that they were ready to put the bad luck and the perceived missteps of the past three years behind them. At least half the tracks on the new album sound like they'll be killer live songs. The fear seemed to be gone from Bono's eyes and demeanour. Presumably U2 - while knowing they will never again sell albums like they used to, and knowing that their fan base has gotten older, and the music industry has changed beyond recognition - were ready, as they once said, to re-audition for the job of the best band in the world.

And then Bono's pesky bad luck strikes again. The blowing up of the story of the Rohingya people in Myanmar was one of those brand-damaging unknowns that no enterprise could be prepared for. Aung San Suu Kyi was suddenly public enemy number one among a wider public who had previously known little about her or Myanmar. Unfortunately what they did know about her was that she had been somehow elevated to sainthood by people like Bono. And this being Bono, people were only delighted to associate her fall from grace with him. Not for the first time, the haters were saying, "You're not so smart now, are yeh, Bono?"

Three days after U2 announced their new album and tour, the band released a statement:

"In response to queries from U2 fans, who campaigned along with the band and Amnesty International for the release of Aung San Suu Kyi, as regards the situation in Myanmar, we would like you to know that the band are deeply alarmed by the continuing crisis and devastating reports about what is happening to the Rohingya people. Bono has signed the open letter to the UN Security Council calling for urgent action, and has been speaking to Amnesty International, the UN and people close to the ground in Myanmar where 600,000 Rohingya have been displaced. He has a call in with Aung San Suu Kyi this week and next week will report back with more on this catastrophe."

So that was that covered. And then, the Paradise Papers landed last Sunday night and it turned out that Bono was one of the minor players in it. The Paradise Papers didn't actually reveal any wrongdoing by anyone. What it was essentially was a prurient look into how the One Per Cent use offshore companies to avoid tax. Unfortunately for him, it turns out that Bono, who has spoken out for transparency on offshore tax havens, is a passive minority partner in, of all things, a slightly depressing looking Lithuanian shopping centre. There were much bigger stories in the Paradise Papers, but again, this is Bono, who likes to preach to the rest of us, and who lots of people in Ireland love having a go at, so obviously there was a focus on his mall. And, of course, there were calls of hypocrisy. Bono, for his part, seems genuinely appalled, and claims to welcome the reporting. But there's no doubt it's not good for the brand at a time like this, and it has dragged up the story again about U2 moving their publishing to Holland to avoid tax.

While everyone who is carping about Bono probably resents every bit of tax they themselves pay, and would do anything legally possible to get out of paying tax, it seems people expect more from Bono, and expect him to be more on top of the details of his business interests. You can only imagine he will be in future! There is also an element, as Brian Kennedy said to me on Cutting Edge the other night, of people focusing on performers in all this because in some way people feel performers don't really work for their money, that it's more of a hobby. And there's always been that element in this country that Bono is far too big for his boots anyway, and that his involvement in capitalism is somehow a sell-out of rock and roll.

The truth is that for U2 fans, the big news right now is not Bono's rather drab Lithuanian shopping centre. The big news is that our greatest ever artistic success story, and the entity that, more than any, has sold Brand Ireland all over the world for the last four decades, is back on form. It's been odd sometimes, and sad sometimes, to observe U2 over the past few years, as they seemed at times to struggle with ageing and with staying relevant and with the crap - the incidents and accidents - that life throws at you as it goes on, even if you're Bono. The big news right now for U2 fans is that after a few years of trying to please everybody and perhaps losing a bit of their soul in doing so, U2 seem to have dug deep again, remembered why they are in a band, remembered why they still do this and found the joy that has always been their driving force. Judging by Songs of Experience, we could be looking at a stunning second, third or fourth act for U2 right now. Perhaps the humbling of the past few years has been a good thing, and out of all this adversity has come triumph.

Sunday Independent

Today's news headlines, directly to your inbox every morning.

Don't Miss