U2 first put themselves forward as rock ’n’ roll crusaders of a very particular kind on War (1983), their third studio album. From the beginning, their songs had religious resonances, but now they came forth as Christian pacifists in single-minded pursuit of a more honourable world. Nuclear weapons, the Irish Troubles, the Polish Solidarity movement: U2 fashioned knotty conflicts into songs that were scant on detail but brimming with undeniable vigour. They were a band who sounded urgent, even if it wasn’t clear what they were so urgent about. Bono took to waving a white flag above his head on stage while the band played ‘Sunday Bloody Sunday’, still one of U2’s most famous songs. Constant touring served them well in the US, the largest and most lucrative of rock markets; by the end of 1983, U2 stood on the brink of enormous fame. Then they made The Unforgettable Fire (1984) and, for a brief moment, took a step back. The Unforgettable Fire is one of the best rock albums of the 1980s and it remains an anomaly in the U2 catalogue: impressionistic, partially improvised, the sound of a band wrestling with doubts but unafraid to document them.
The album marked the first time that U2 worked with producer Brian Eno and engineer Daniel Lanois, who would go on to co-produce The Joshua Tree (1987), an album of such world-spanning commercial success that it would propel U2 to the very apex of the music industry and forever shadow their subsequent image. Eno, revered for his own musicianship – first as a member of Roxy Music, then as solo artist – and for his production skills, countered U2’s inclination for hectoring melody lines and martial rhythms. The Unforgettable Fire is an album swathed in the reverberant guitar work of The Edge, whose playing style was, of all U2 members, the closest to Eno’s own ambient aesthetic. The songs are vague, but for once vagueness worked in the band’s favour. Where previously they had sounded gauche, now they sounded mysterious, even mystical.
Bono is U2’s superstar, but The Edge provides their musical signature: a minimal, ringing guitar style conjured from delay pedals, variant tunings and fretboard harmonics. Post-punk musicians like Television’s Richard Lloyd and Siouxsie and the Banshees’ John McGeoch pioneered this kind of playing, and The Cure’s Robert Smith perfected it. The Edge made it stadium size. At its most effective – in ‘Bad’, from The Unforgettable Fire, or ‘Where the Streets Have No Name’, The Joshua Tree’s mammoth opening track – The Edge’s guitar playing has a numinous, expansive beauty. But listening to The Edge can also feel like being beaten about the ears by the world’s loudest wind chime. Even the band’s 1990s reinvention as a rather more “ironic” version of themselves – and the knowing self-parody didn’t last long – could not dampen The Edge’s sound or Bono’s vocal histrionics. When the two men combine, the sense is of a band coercing, rather than inviting, your attention.
The arrogance implied in this absence of invitation was on full display in September, when Songs of Innocence, U2’s 13th studio album, was dropped into the music collections of more than half a billion iTunes users, via Apple’s cloud storage service. Distribution was timed to coincide with the release of Apple’s iPhone 6, and U2 duly performed at the launch; after the band played, Bono went through an awkward scripted patter with Apple’s CEO, Tim Cook, while the rest of U2 stood around looking like their own bodyguards. “With this we wanted to wait until we had … the best we’d ever done,” said Bono of the new record. “You know, we feel the same way about products,” fawned Cook.
This was brand synergy on the largest possible scale, and it backfired. Though the album came free of charge to iTunes account holders, neither Apple nor U2 seemed to have anticipated that their PR stunt would be widely interpreted as a breach of privacy – Apple has since had to create a dedicated information page for customers wishing to rid their accounts of what the Washington Post described as “dystopian junk mail”. Like potentates past, U2 made the mistake of publicly overestimating just how much the common people really cared for them.
U2 have always aimed to dazzle – the question is whether, 30 years after their best work, they have gradually blinded themselves to their own musical weaknesses and emotional pomposity. Songs of Innocence is named after the collection of poetry, published in 1789, by the visionary English artist William Blake, and the band have already promised a companion volume, to be called, as Blake’s was, Songs of Experience. Blake was a radical, a religious dissident, and a trenchant opponent of slavery and exploitation. No doubt U2 would like us to think of them in the same terms. Given their status as one of the very wealthiest bands in history, fronted by a vocalist who campaigns for global debt reduction while simultaneously ensuring that his own earnings are subject to the lowest possible rates of tax, it’s rather a stretch. William Blake would be appalled.
The opening track on Songs of Innocence, which the band performed at Apple’s September launch, is ‘The Miracle (Of Joey Ramone)’ (the song titles are cluttered with these pretentious parentheses, by the way). Joey Ramone was the lead singer of the New York punk group Ramones, and his voice, sings Bono, was “the most beautiful sound I’d ever heard”. Ramone died of lymphoma in early 2001, and on his deathbed he was, reportedly, listening to U2.
U2 have always proselytised far more shamelessly for rock ’n’ roll than for religion. The reverence with which they celebrate their musical forebears has everything to do with their own desire to be taken just as seriously, as something worth believing in. In concert, Bono has long been in the habit of interpolating lines from various rock classics into U2 songs – he did it at Live Aid, in 1985, during the band’s breakthrough performance of ‘Bad’, singing parts from The Rolling Stones’ ‘Ruby Tuesday’ and Lou Reed’s ‘Satellite of Love’ – and no music documentary is safe from his opinion. These genuflections are a species of false humility. Their real purpose is to remind you that Bono, and his band, belong among the greats.
It is particularly irritating when U2 gather into their self-celebration punk and post-punk bands like Ramones, The Clash or Joy Division (three of their formative influences), steamrolling the pointed anxiety of these artists with the force of their own sanctimony. ‘This Is Where You Can Reach Me Now’, also on the new album, is dedicated to The Clash’s Joe Strummer, and makes musical reference to that band’s 1980 triple album, Sandinista! In a recent interview with Rolling Stone, Bono described The Clash as “the blueprint” for U2, adding, “we did think we could get behind a sort of social justice agenda”.
That “sort of” is telling. It would take a whole other essay – and several have already been written – to highlight the shortcomings and hypocrisies of Bono’s own career as a celebrity philanthropist. But U2, as a band, scarcely deserve their reputation as rebels with a cause. Social justice is a collective undertaking. The Clash understood this: it’s why they named Sandinista! after the Nicaraguan revolutionary group, wrote songs like ‘Spanish Bombs’, and covered Junior Murvin’s reggae anthem ‘Police and Thieves’. To listen to The Clash is to be guided outside of yourself; challenged to think, and act, on behalf of a commons.
U2’s sleight of hand is to appear to be doing the same thing, when, in fact, they replace the potential for collective action with their own placid reassurances. “Your voices will be heard,” promises Bono at the conclusion of ‘The Miracle (Of Joey Ramone)’ – but whose voices? When, and under what circumstances, will they be heard?
The music holds as few answers as the words. Long ago, U2 stopped sounding as if they were from anywhere in particular (Dublin, in their case), and assumed the trans-Atlantic anonymity of a corporation. It’s not that Songs of Innocence is particularly bad as a collection of songs: it’s perfectly listenable, but very, very boring. Unlike The Clash, whose songwriting geography was always specific – Jamaica, Nicaragua, Brixton – U2 are the bards of consumerism’s indeterminate, globally interchangeable zones. Shopping centres, airports, arenas – and now the digital music libraries of the world – are where their bland homilies sound most at home. And mega-churches, too, for their music has also become the sonic template for Christian rock acts and prosperity evangelists around the globe.
As I child, I loved U2 more than any other band in the world. They were easy to love, and, at least during the 1980s, impossible to avoid. Now, when listening audiences are as fragmented as they have ever been, U2’s Apple stunt shows the lengths to which they will go to retain that ubiquity.
Listening to Songs of Innocence, I find myself reflecting on the final verse of William Blake’s ‘The Chimney Sweeper’, as it appears in his book Songs of Experience. It is a poem that damns the ruling classes of England from a child’s perspective – a poem that recognises that the powerful are wont to confuse our momentary pleasure with our lasting gratitude:
And because I am happy and dance and sing,
They think they have done me no injury,
And are gone to praise God and his priest and king,
Who make up a heaven of our misery.
The best I can say about U2 today is that The Unforgettable Fire remains a work of undiminished beauty.
U2 first put themselves forward as rock ’n’ roll crusaders of a very particular kind on War (1983), their third studio album. From the beginning, their songs had religious resonances, but now they came forth as Christian pacifists in single-minded pursuit of a more honourable world. Nuclear weapons, the Irish Troubles, the Polish Solidarity movement: U2 fashioned knotty conflicts into songs that were scant on detail but brimming with undeniable vigour. They were a band who sounded urgent, even if it wasn’t clear what they were so urgent about. Bono took to waving a white flag above his head on stage while the band played ‘Sunday Bloody Sunday’, still one of U2’s most famous songs. Constant touring served them well in the US, the largest and most lucrative of rock markets; by the end of 1983, U2 stood on the brink of enormous fame. Then they made The Unforgettable Fire...