Something happened. The hype (U2 fans, like what I did there?) was notching up. The band were everywhere. First, there was a convenient opening to get back in the game with a perfectly placed soundtrack song on The Mandela Movie, Long Walk To Freedom. If you didn’t break the stupid modern practice of leaving cinemas without waiting for the credits, then go back immediately and see the movie again and watch Ordinary Love right through. Brilliant.
Anyway, as I was saying that got the band’s name back in the spotlight and the BAFTAs and Oscars that followed. After that came the release of Invisible for RED and millions of dollars raised over night. There were the radio and television appearances that was leading up to the expected Spring release of the first album in 5 years and the Summer tour that even they, though never giving a release date for the record, hinted they’d be doing.
And then… silence. Nothing. Well, nothing but rumours. It has been delayed until next year. It isn’t finished. Bono has writer’s block. They are back in the studio remixing. U2 is all over and they are not going to release it at all.
So, what gives? Well, U2 are at this point exactly where they were after POP at the end of the 90s. They have fallen like Manchester United. They are still in the top echelons of pop but they have fallen from the summit. No Line On The Horizon didn’t do the business. I mean that literally. It simply didn’t shift the same units as All That You Can’t Leave Behind and How to Dismantle An Atomic Bomb.
As Atomic Bomb was released we heard about Songs Of Ascent, the same name as a section of the Psalms that one of Bono favourite theologians Eugene Peterson had written a book on. It was, we heard, more ambient. Five years later, still no sign. They had, they said, been writing raw rock n roll while on the U2360 Tour and wanted a quick release. Nothing. The problem was that the mediocre sales of No Line On The Horizon had cost them the privilege of a mediocre self indulgent follow up release, as they done after Achtung Baby with Zooropa.
U2 have always wanted to be the biggest rock band in the world. That was a sense of literally spiritual calling way back in their early Dublin days, even when they had nothing even remotely like the talent to cash the cheque they were writing. Yet, through sheer hard work at their craft and live playing they became just that in 1987 when Joshua Tree changed the rock world as well as theirs. After the disappointment of Pop they had to apply all over again. When they started touring All That You Can’t Leave Behind Bono was declaring - “we want our old job back!” Against the run of play, they got it back!
In his recent book of interviews, that included a very intimate one with Bono, Irish broadcaster Gay Byrne comments on this desire at the core of U2’s DNA. He said that they didn’t want to be just the biggest rock band in the world. They wanted to be the biggest band in the world so that they could change the world. Agreed and I think the latter has been a reason that they achieved the former. My fear now is that the former might be the death of the band. I would love them to concentrate on making a great album and not get distracted by having to make the most popular album!
Things have changed in music. It doesn’t sell in the numbers it used to. Radio programming is different. Is it possible to be the most popular band in the world in your fifties? Should it matter? If the Songs Of Ascent was worth releasing for its artistic merit should we deprived of it because it might not be as iconic as Joshua Tree?
My favourite commentator on the band is their old school friend Neil McCormick who Tweeted recently, “There are enough U2 albums out there and unless it is a great one we don’t need another!” I am not convinced. Bruce Springsteen has shown a different perspective. High Hopes was the work of a man who didn’t only not worry if it sold well but had new versions of old songs, so no worries about people having too much Springsteen. Indeed those reworks that might not have seemed essential were the highlights! Springsteen seems to be saying I don’t have many years left, let’s record and get stuff out.
Take heed U2! I personally was losing patience and to be honest a little bit of interest. However, a trip across the States and talking about the band has me all committed again. The world needs U2 in the transformation thereof. Do the big businessmen need them? Maybe, but who cares. Big sales are possible with empty plastic cheese pop; bands that finished third in X Factor can do that! Changing the world takes another gift and U2 have the gift. Don’t hide it under a bushel guys! Give us more. NOW!