The opinions expressed are solely those of the Author.
“Write as if you’re dead”
The advice Bono took to heart as he penned the lyrics to U2’s latest album is just one more nail in the coffin of any opinion that U2’s story is not entering its final chapter. The band has treated us all to a huge midlife crisis over the last decade, showing an obsession with relevance when relevance once showed an obsession with them. It’s been fully a decade since U2 last had a hit single – and while that’s an admittedly poor yardstick for greatness, it’s the one U2 themselves uses. Between 1998 and 2007, U2 had an astounding 14 consecutive top 5 singles in the UK, stretching from The sweetest thing to Window in the skies. They made countless new fans in this decade, despite it being their third. They won 15 of their 22 Grammys in the 21st century. In musical terms, that’s the stuff of legend. It’s a unicorn. It doesn’t happen. Artists don’t produce either their best or their most successful works after the age of 40.
But in the decade since, three albums, four tours, one Broadway musical. Zero hits. For a band obsessed with relevance, that’s a total strike-out. A second “great decade” happens for very few bands. Not the Beatles. Not Zeppelin. A third “great decade?” Not the Rolling Stones. Not Queen. For U2, it seems the fourth great decade is the bridge too far. Still, that’s one hell of a batting average.
Bono will be 58 when the tour kicks off. On top of airplane crashes, terrorism near misses, bicycle accidents and a 2011 back surgery that left him “no longer able to fly”, he has now had a “brush with mortality” and is “writing like he’s dead.” In addition, Bono’s voice is not broken, but you can see the cracks. He can no longer sustain the highest notes, the power that drives U2’s most poignant moments. It’s hard to imagine U2 writing anything as powerful as BAD today. His falsetto is stretched. No more Lemon. His low register is no longer convincing. No more Love comes tumbling.
History – not to mention the tea leaves coming from the band – says U2 is on borrowed time. Though there are examples of artists who have produced great works late in life – Beethoven famously produced his 9th symphony at age 54 – these are the exceptions that prove the rule. God seldom “walks in the room” of an artist with grand-kids.
There is, of course, a huge difference between relevant and good. Most U2 fans are rightly perplexed that a band that has experienced both would choose the unachievable over the achievable. Songs like sleep like a baby tonight and the troubles show that greatness has not left the building. But with each passing album/tour cycle, U2 is going longer and longer between moments when God walks in the room, and there is more filler between those moments.
The cover art of Songs of Experience tells the entire story. On the left, Bono’s son, himself an aspiring rock star. The face of Bono from thirty years ago. Hope. Future. It needs a big kiss. On the right, Edge’s daughter, donning the helmet once used to showcase the loss of childhood innocence. The torch of innocence lost is passed to a new generation, as experience tells us it must.
If this is not the end, it’s the beginning of the end.
It’s quite possible that U2 will do a Rolling Stones type ending – sticking together all the way to death rather than announcing the end of the band. They are roughly 20 years younger than the Rolling Stones so it’s worth comparing. In the last 20 years, the Rolling Stones have produced just two albums. They toured extensively until Mick Jagger reached the age of 64, at which point they mostly ceased to be an artistic entity. Bono will be 64 in just six years.
That we are all here, reacting to new music from a band formed when Gerald Ford was President, is an achievement in itself. A band who released its first album during the Carter Presidency. Who rose to stardom in the Reagan era. Who redefined themselves in the Clinton era. Who negotiated a deal to save lives in Africa with the Bush administration, had a number one album during the Obama era and are still around in the Trump era, still speaking truth to power- at least truth as they see it.
Where are the other bands who charted their course during the same time-frame? How many people are in chat rooms discussing new material from the Police? Sex Pistols? Human League? Simple Minds?
Even when those bands do survive, it’s usually after significant hiatuses or with radically updated member lists. Often they are, as Pink Floyd have been in recent years, no more than a brand. U2 remains a band.
If the new album contains just a handful of worthwhile songs, will it be a disappointment? Sure. But the writing is on the wall, and we should be graceful about it. U2 will one day soon cease to exist, if not entirely, certainly as a going concern.
None of that takes away the beauty they have given us over four decades. The songs that drove us to this forum will remain a part of us, even as we discard the parts we dislike. If just one song from the 13 Songs of Experience gives us some joy, then the new album has added to, not diluted, our experience. That which is great remains. That which is disposable, we can dispose of. Hold on only to all that you can’t leave behind.
This is not to portend doom and gloom, of course. I am looking forward to Songs of experience. I like much of the new material, cracks and all. I love that it’s in your face. I am looking forward especially to hearing The little things in the studio. It could be epic. The tour could be great. Maybe there are two more decades, several more albums and three or four more great tours. But there is no denying that gravity is pulling U2 down, as it pulls down all older artists, and indeed all older humans.
Of course, maybe i’m wrong. Maybe we’re all wrong – I suspect most agree with me. U2 opened two of its tours to the “Ode to Joy”, from Beethoven’s aforementioned 9th symphony, written when arguably the greatest musician of all time was 54. That’s 70 in today’s years, given 19th century medicine. He was also deaf. Bono’s maladies, however mortal, are surely not so fatal to musical ability, and his is but one part of the creative force that is U2. It is possible that at some future point, there will be one more masterpiece. They may produce a Bowie-esque Lazarus, as they produced a Bowie-esque Berlin reinvention.
But if they don’t, they owe us nothing. Many of us look to U2 for too much. If a fan wants a rock star to fill that God-shaped hole, the chances are that fan will be asking for their money back when the artist is alive at 33. Bono penned that lyric at age – well – 33. He’s now 57.
There are two more things of which we can be fairly certain. One more album. One more tour. One.
May we all live this album/tour cycle like it’s the last one, and treat anything beyond as a bonus from a band that has already given us so much.
I, for one, will not be asking for my money back on the new album or tour – even if Songs of experience is not U2’s magnum opus.