U2: Songs of Relevance and Irrelevance
U2 is my favorite band of all time. But they haven’t been relevant since the early-to-mid ’90s. I think I have a clue as to why.
Good is the enemy of great.
Around 1984 The Police, my previous favorite band of all time, was calling it quits, and U2 released The Unforgettable Fire, hot on the heels of 1983’s War and the live EP Under a Blood Red Sky.
There was nothing like them and never had been. They embraced the “Greatest Band in the World” mantle and sought to use their position to make the world a legitimately better place, just like their heroes from a generation before had. Their music was fire and steam and passion and they performed, it seemed, with one foot in this world and the other firmly planted on some higher plane where music forged reality.
But while they remain my favorite band of all time, it’s been a long time since they were my favorite band of the moment (that honor currently goes to The Raveonettes).
The why is simple: they’ve produced some very good music in the last two and a half decades, but they haven’t been relevant since … Achtung, Baby? And that was released in 1991.
1991. Has it really been that long?
History teaches us that many of our greatest artists do their best work when young, and that quality fades as they age. In Rock, this is perhaps more true than in any other genre. How many of our musical luminaries have remained relevant over long careers, or perhaps even gotten better? Peter Gabriel. David Bowie never ceased to matter. Warren Zevon. Perhaps more, but they’re the exceptions to the rule.
In popular music, of course, artists fade for different reasons, not all of which are their fault (or a reflection on their work), Sure, artistic faculties wane. Sometimes the burning fire of youth flickers out. And it seems perfectly logical that wealth and fame might take the edge off the hunger driving a generation’s young tigers.
Sometimes artists sort of opt out, wandering off down creative paths that interest them more (but audiences less). Elvis Costello comes to mind, as does Mark Knopfler.
But every so often careers nosedive because fashions change. How many bands did “Smells Like Teen Spirit” kill overnight? How often do you hear Rock on Top 40 stations these days? And hey – remember the early days of MTV? Not a lot of room for singers who didn’t have the look, was there? Video killed the radio star indeed…
U2 certainly isn’t on top of world today, as they were in 1984, and a number of factors probably contribute to the “decline,” if that term can be applied to a band that sells out stadiums and whose albums still sell hundreds of thousands of copies even in the age of streaming.
The one that’s been on my mind for months, though, is suggested in an interview with Edge published last fall in Rolling Stone.
There’s this dichotomy to production standards these days where the music listener is used to really precise and simple, stripped-down arrangements so the inaccuracies of a band playing in a room where everything bleeds into everything else is not what’s happening. It sounds, dare I say it, old-fashioned. We love when that works for us and we love that feel of people playing in a room, when it sounds fresh. But I think we’re also wary of the fact that that sound is associated with 20, 30 years ago. We need to make sure, as we always have done, that we are part of a current conversation that’s going in music culture in terms of production, songwriting, melodic structure, all the things that keep the culture moving forward.
What we don’t want to be is caught in what I describe as a cultural oxbow lake where others are moving forward and you’re still faithfully doing what you’ve always done, but now you’re anachronistic and part of a historical form rather than what’s actually pushing the boundaries forward, the flow of where it’s going. [emphasis added]
At the risk of oversimplifying, I can’t help dividing U2’s career into two phases. The second is defined by what Edge characterizes as a concern for the “current conversation that’s going in music culture in terms of production, songwriting, melodic structure, all the things that keep the culture moving forward.”
The first phase would be the period from @1980-1992 where U2 was the thing moving the culture forward.
Again, I know I’m ignoring a lot of nuance in framing it this way. There’s no question whatsoever that U2 circa-1987 was keenly aware of how the rest of musical world sounded. What was new, what was innovative, what was fresh – listen to Joshua Tree and everything else going on at the time and it’s evident the band had its ear to the ground.
But I’ve listened to a lot of music from the ’80s and I hear zero evidence (Edge’s protestations notwithstanding) that U2, on its first few releases, was even a little worried about being part of a current conversation. On the contrary – it was the rawness and the uniqueness of their sound that was so compelling. They were the conversation other bands needed to be aware of.
In other words, U2 became the greatest band in the world by blazing the trail. Since Achtung, Baby, they have concerned themselves with following the trail. Electronica, sampling, contemporary production techniques, hip-hop influences, and on and on: U2’s relevance – musically and culturally – has varied in direct proportion to their proximity to their roots.
I hope I don’t sound bitter. Or worse, like a hipster. I’m not. I have all these albums I’m talking about and some of them are quite good. I really like All That You Can’t Leave Behind and No Line on the Horizon (and parts of How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb). The last couple have been quite accomplished, and I think I appreciate Songs of Experience a bit more (despite what certain critics think – perhaps I like it because it’s a tad ragged). I even defended Pop, which may not have been a satisfying musical experience, but it was a brilliant commentary on the commodification of music in society.
I’ve seen them live four times and am baffled as to why they aren’t playing Denver on this tour, because I’ll pay whatever they’re charging, always, to see U2 live.
My complaint is more elemental. I remember how War and Unforgettable Fire felt. I remember playing them over and over because I couldn’t help myself. I remember being physically unable to sit still, the chills, the adrenaline.
I remember when U2’s music possessed me. Altered me. I remember Unforgettable Fire rewriting my code.
I understand Edge’s concerns. Really, I do. Boy was a remarkable album, but it’s been done and doesn’t need to be done again. And who the hell wants to see U2 playing the hits on the Dinosaurs of Rock outdoor amphitheater circuit every summer?
They want to be great. They work very hard at it and sometimes it feels like they’re so close (“You’re the Best Thing About Me,” for instance, or “The Miracle [of Joey Ramone]” or “Raised by Wolves,” even).
But Bono has been known to quote the adage that “very good is the enemy of great.” Does he understand that Songs of Experience is very good, but not great?
It’s almost as if I’m being asked to believe there are only two choices – trendsurfer or retro act. I do not believe this. I’ve seen genius from U2 and can’t help thinking it’s still in there. I’ve seen old dogs learn new tricks. I mentioned Bowie and Gabriel earlier for a reason.
And damn it, we’ve seen U2 itself rise from the ashes before. They were on the verge of breaking up while recording Achtung, Baby. The story goes* that some of them had stepped out for lunch and when they came back Edge was noodling with this little guitar riff. It turned out to be the opening strain of “One,” and the rest is history.
And the hallmark of creative genius is the ability to onboard influence – from anywhere – assimilate it and transform it into something new.
I don’t know how U2’s muse works. I have no idea where the moment of inspiration occurs. In truth, I don’t know if they have another great moment in them. We may have to content ourselves with a decade of greatness followed by two or more decades of very good. And I suppose that wouldn’t be a bad bargain – how many bands ever gave us anything like Boy, October, War, Unforgettable Fire, Joshua Tree and Achtung, Baby, anyway?
Still, you can’t blame a boy for dreaming. I like to see leaders leading.
*Who knows if the story is true, but the near-breakup is well-documented.