U2: The Great Divide

Posted: September 16, 2014 in 80s Music, 90s Music, Rock
Tags: , , , , ,

Last I left off, my relationship with U2 was struggling. A few years ago, I was forced to remove my rose-coloured glasses, and come to terms with who they are, and though I will always be a fan, I can also freely admit to their flaws. Over the years, they have become more of a conundrum than anything, causing all kinds of divide when it comes to their music and their actions. They’re rock ‘n roll, but also people-pleasers. They do their own thing, but try and keep up with the masses. They do things that make no sense, but they’re not controversial. It’s a tough time to be a U2 fan.

U2 is notorious for experimenting with their sound. They spent the 80s and early 90s putting out some of the best music they had in them. Instant classics.

Their first foray into something a little different – as far as I can remember at least – was their 1993 album, Zooropa. Some of their tracks were good old U2, others were an entirely uncharted sound. The Zoo TV Tour made an even bigger statement. It revolved around, giant disco ball lemons, Bono dressing up as a devil. It was about glitz and glamour, more than anything else. Some fans appreciated the change of scenery. Others were hankering for U2 of the past. They continued trying new things with 1997’s Pop, which again, received mixed reviews; this ring any bells?

2000’s All That You Can’t Leave Behind reverted back to a more familiar sound, with commercially successful formulaic hits; in fact, it was pretty much interchangeable with 2004’s How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb; like they had once again found their own comfort zone. These albums were less synth, more rock ‘n roll, but still leaned closer to the pop genre, compared to their 80s hits.

Then 2009’s No Line on the Horizon, took a page out of no man’s land. It was just bad, but was accompanied by the glorious 360 Tour, which was a huge production. Huge. Spider- like stage, floating mics and cameras, TV screens in abundance, a lot of static, a lot of noise; it was all too distracting, and so the music suffered. Some argue they were just trying to contend with other big pop shows touring concurrently, including Madonna’s epic Sticky & Sweet Tour. Others that it was too over the top. Regardless, it was clear U2 was not going back to their music of the early days.

U2 – specifically Bono – has also created a dichotomy amongst music lovers with their activist roles (not to mention Bono’s wardrobe – cowboy hats and sunglasses, anyone?) There’s absolutely nothing wrong with wanting to help heal the world, but a lot of people feel that has nothing to do with music and musicians should stay out of politics. In a 2002 interview with Bono on Oprah, he basically said (and I’m paraphrasing here), that he cannot live in this day and age, in the world in the state it is in, and do nothing about it. Let’s be real, because of his fame, he has a loud voice. He has friends in high places, people supporting him, and his message can get across much quicker, so why not use it as a platform? Why not take his good fortune, and use it as best as possible?

Now on to their most recent album, last week’s Songs of Innocence. There has been plenty internet chatter all year claiming U2 has new material in the works. There has also been a lot of discussion of Apple’s new iPhone 6 and its release, which was to involve U2 in some way. Most thought the band would perform a new track or two, since they have an ongoing friendship it seems with Apple (do we remember the red and black U2 iPod?) At the launch of the iPhone 6, these pals surprised every iTunes store customer in 119 countries, with a copy of U2’s brand new album in their music library. For free (as in Apple bought it from U2 for all its customers). It didn’t even need to be downloaded, it just magically appeared.

Was that a douchebag move? Kind of. To assume that those hundreds of millions of people would all want to tune in is being a tad overconfident. Was it as bad as rapper Tyler the Creator (who?) claims, comparing seeing the album in his music library to Herpes? No. Was Beyonce’s surprise iTunes release better executed? Definitely. Bono has defended the idea by saying maybe some people who’ve never heard them before, now will take a listen (not that they’re in dire need of fans); for those who don’t like it, he claims, no harm done, just erase it. The reaction has been mixed. U2 fans love the idea, of course. They don’t think it’s arrogant or presumptuous at all. Others have wreaked so much havoc over this alleged assault, that Apple had to create a button that automatically deletes the album. Ouch. Who knew free music was such a big crime?

Not Surprisingly, the reviews on Songs of Innocence are also split. Some critics can’t get over how it was released, pointing a finger at a band nearing irrelevancy trying to force their way back into our hearts. Other critics say it was genius. Ignoring their chosen method of release, and focusing solely on their music, here are my two cents: Songs of Innocence is a good U2 album. It’s light years ahead of No Line on the Horizon; also nowhere near the unforgettable, The Joshua Tree. Along the same lines as All That You Can’t Leave Behind, and How to Dismantle and Atomic Bomb. It’s a good U2 album. Nothing exceptional, nothing disdainful. The tracks are solid, but none of them make you stop dead in your tracks; at the same time, none of them make you want to hurriedly skip ahead to the next track.

In an article originally published in Maclean’s in 2011, 50 Canadian music industrialists were asked about different aspects of U2’s relevancy. Some said they are still 100% relevant. Some said not at all. Others said yes, but only because of what their name has come to mean, almost like it’s a brand; that their music is not what’s making them matter. You can’t knock a band for trying to keep up with the times by continually reinventing themselves. Sure it may not always be successful, but at the same time, they themselves are finding their way, and pursuing different creative directions. There’s also something pretty bad ass and rock ‘n roll about sticking to your own thing. About not conforming.

As a fan, you always hope a band’s true musical colours will resurface, or get resurrected once they’ve faded; although I’m not holding my breath. U2 may never be who they used to be, but one thing is for sure: no matter which way you slice it, they will make you think. They will always cause a reaction, they will always stir up conversation, they will always be heard.

  1. […] many of my regular readers know, my relationship with U2 is a complicated and tumultuous one. They were my first “favourite band of all time”; I quoted them in […]

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