U2 haven't yet quite found what they're looking for
Band suffered a crisis of confidence but new album shows it has almost got its songwriting mojo back
A lack of confidence is not something you would ever associate with Bono but in fact, behind it all, it is a crisis of confidence that explains everything about U2 right now. Even the fact of releasing their new album Songs of Innocence to half a billion people, whether that half a billion people, want it or not, of avoiding the charts, because in Bono's opinion the charts don't work anymore, says something.
U2 are obsessed with being the biggest band in the world, and even if the charts won't register them as such anymore, well then they will find another way to prove it.
The album itself speaks of a crisis of confidence too. No more than their last album, the relatively poorly received and underrated No Line on the Horizon, Songs of Innocence has taken years to get right and has been through the hands of a number of producers along the way. And the producers who got it across the line in the end, after several false starts, were not ones who would create a U2 sound; they were producers who would put a gloss of currency on U2's music, producers who would take the band's songs and make them sound less like U2 and more like pop.
Which brings us to another obsession of U2's. To be a pop band. Nearly 30 years on from The Joshua Tree, U2 still seem to smart from having the piss taken out of them for being too earnest in their mid 20s and they still go overboard to show a lightness of touch, a pop sensibility. Even though, when they try too hard to be pop, they are generally not very good at it, the album Pop being the best example of this.
And then there is relevance. Another obsession. This is the thing Bono has seemed to wrestle with over the last few years. Are U2 still relevant? And if not, should they give up? And so, this time out, instead of Eno and Co at the bridge, we get several producers thrown in after even hip producer du jour Danger Mouse was seemingly not able to make them sound relevant enough. And all the time different ideas for what the album should be, different tasters, were put out. But there was no real confidence in 'this is what we are now. Like it or lump it'. It was more like a band trying to figure out what they should be to appeal to the masses, because somehow, if U2 don't appeal to the masses, they have no reason to exist.
What this lack of confidence means for the new album is that the production is timid. This album is produced by modern producers who possibly don't understand what U2 are and what U2 need to sound like. So these are muted anthems. The power of U2 was always about the structure of the songs, the build, the crescendo. But pop music isn't so much about that any more. Nowadays things are more glossy and samey all the way through.
There are two classic U2 song structures. There is the slow one that starts with a spare acoustic guitar strum or soft piano motif that builds to an epic heartfelt crescendo. And then there is the tautly tense one that goes on fire at some stage. The Joshua Tree perhaps provides the archetypal examples of the latter style. Exit, Where The Streets Have No Name, even With Or Without You. They all start with either a tense, clenched feel that then breaks out, or else with a calm acoustic or bass-driven start that gradually and then suddenly explodes into joyous abandon or passionate pleading.
There are songs like that on the new album. Iris (Hold Me Close), a song about Bono's mother, has that feel of Exit, that infinite guitar garlanding solid bass line of Where The Streets Have No Name. And you keep expecting it to explode. But it never does. You keep waiting it for it to open up into stadium bombast, but the chorus just has that sheen of modern pop, where there is no dynamic, just the same level throughout.
The funny thing is that this album sounds at times like U2's pale imitators Coldplay and The Killers. The chorus of Every Breaking Wave calls to mind The Killers's Read My Mind. But then it's no surprise really. Because The Killers and Coldplay are both watered-down versions of U2 with slick production that never allows the music to get its hands dirty, and this album falls into that trap occasionally. U2 sometimes make the mistake
US DIARY, PAGE 19 rock, living
of trying to be the new U2. And who can blame them for wanting to take back what is theirs and reimagine it for the new century?
But the point about all this is that U2 should be more confident than they are. Bruised as they may be by trying to forge a way forward for men in their fifties without falling into the heritage trap that most men their age succumb to, and bruised by the poor sales of their last album and by writers' block, the most important thing about U2 right now is that they actually have the tunes again.
Songs of innocence has the mojo everyone was in such a panic about finding, when the producers don't strangle it. California is vintage U2, and gets back to the essence of it, which is about singing about there being no end to love and giving love five syllables, set to a gorgeous melody that feels like it's always been there but that also surprises you. In California is the joy that U2 strive to bring. But without the timidity of the production, you wonder if the Thin Lizzy-like guitar solo in California would have been allowed to sing a bit more and a bit longer.
Songs like Volcano and The Miracle (Of Joey Ramone) are the kind of sleazy but earnest disco punk U2 can knock out in their sleep, easy cheap shots that always work. And while Every Breaking Wave and The Troubles are probably not destined to become anthems for the world like One, if anyone else released them they'd be hailed as almost classics. But that's the problem with being U2. It's hard to top U2.
The other critical thing about where U2 are at now is that this album is a homecoming of a sort, make-up sex with a city they have felt disconnected with and which was, after all, the source of their power. Bono has worked on making up with Ireland in non-musical terms over the past few years. While the tax issue still hangs there like a bad smell, even U2's harshest critics accept he has been acting like a one-man IDA for the last few years.
And musically this album brings it all back home literally. Cedarwood Road goes back, in what Bono seems to admit is a slightly cringey way, to the friendships forged with the likes of Gavin Friday and Guggi, friendships that have endured and that gave birth to U2, the Virgin Prunes and Guggi's art. Unlike so many of their UK counterparts, U2 never went to art school. This bubble, along with Mannix at the Project, and Brian Eno, from quintessential art school band Roxy, was U2's art college.
You will cringe elsewhere too at the literal directness of these songs of innocence, but as Bono says, if U2 can't do that, who can? There is art school promise buried in the modern production too. Now and then the modern sheen tips into a krautrock Kraftwerk atonality as in the instrumental last minute or two of Sleep Like A Baby Tonight or Clash tribute This Is Where You Can Reach Me Now that suggests the experimentalism of Zooropa is still in there somewhere.
So for now the ship is steadied. This sort of homecoming, these songs of redemption have worked. And hopefully now the positive reception for this album will give U2 their confidence back. And hopefully next time out there'll be less of a focus group mentality, less of U2 wondering who they should be in order to be loved the way they need to be loved.
And hopefully now they look to songs like California, which is them at their most effortless, and stop trying so hard, and hopefully having lived with the experimental spiky side of this album on tour for a few years, U2 will have the confidence to let that side of themselves out to play more too, whether it sells phones or not.
And by the way, that tour, if they are smart, will be indoors. Huge arenas, but ones with roofs. Maybe they can't afford that. But the upside of this album not tipping over into stadium bluster is an intimacy, and that intimacy will be best served by there being a roof for U2 to blow off at gigs.
Things just got interesting again for U2 fans. Songs of Innocence will do for now, but the really interesting bit is what happens next.