Waiting for a new U2 album is hard-work if you’re a fan of the band. Since 2000, they have only released 3 albums (All That You Can’t Leave Behind, How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb and No Line on the Horizon). This fall it will be 10 years since Bomb was released, meaning that they’ve only released 1 album in the past 10 years.
This wouldn’t matter so much, if the band weren’t dropping hints about a new album in interviews in the past several years. Even during the 360 Tour, they were talking of a quick follow-up to No Line on the Horizon which Bono referred to as Songs of Ascent. It was supposed to be a more mediative and reflective album more akin to the “experimental” sides of No Line on the Horizon. At one point, Adam Clayton revealed that they were working on several albums at once.
Around this time last summer, they seemed to be on the verge of completing the new set with Danger Mouse behind the helm and what looked to be a wrap-up party in New York City. But alas, there was no new album and all we got were 2 mediocre singles: “Ordinary Love” from the Nelson Mandela bio-pic Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom and “Invisible”.
“Invisible” with shades of New-Wave and a Killers-type vibe was the better of the two. With electronic drums and icy guitars, it seemed to be a different sort of direction for the band. In a way, it looked to both the past and the future. But it still sounded a bit stiff and failed to make any sort of mark with fans and quickly disappeared.
This would hardly matter if it weren’t U2. For better or for worse, they are not happy unless they have complete dominance in the musical world at any particular point. After 30 plus years of being in one of the world’s biggest bands, they still want to be everyone’s favorite band. While their peers have moved on by either fading away, or creating music that matters to them, U2 hasn’t. Bruce Springsteen for instance, still makes quality albums and sell-outs stadiums, but he seems content that he will never achieve a Born in the U.S.A. level status again. The irony is of course, that The Rising and Wrecking Ball in particular have now become classics in their own right.
When “Invisible” was launched as a free-download in partnership with the RED Campaign, all signs seemed to point that a new U2 album was in fact on the way. The song was highlighted with an ad during the Super Bowl and the band even performed the song on the first night of Jimmy Fallon’s take-over of The Tonight Show. They performed the song as the sun went down on a cold February evening. It was the kind of promotional stunt reserved for a re-entry into the pop-world.
I’m guessing U2 saw the lukewarm reception and panicked. Ever since the negative reception the band got during Rattle and Hum (the movie) they have become very conscious of how people view them. They’ve become reactionists to their own image. After being accused of being too earnest, they dove into irony and post-modernism with Achtung Baby and Zooropa. When the joke ran too thin with Pop, they turned the other way and released the retro-U2 inspired All That You Can’t Leave Behind. With No Line on the Horizon, they tried to combine both halves of their musical palette: the experimental and the classic U2 sound. Unfortunately, it was the first U2 album that one could actually view as boring. Whatever you think of Pop (I’m not a fan) it certainly wasn’t boring. (Luckily, the 360 Tour was pretty great.)
Trying to come up with new sounds and experiment lead to some spectacular work. It worked for The Beatles. They constantly pushed themselves forward. But even as they progressed, they never forget how to write a perfect song. That’s U2′s problem as they head into their mid-50s. Since 2000, they’ve only managed to come up with a handful of great songs – the ones that capture the imagination of their listeners and strike a universal chord.
The reason for this is that they’re not good songwriters. At least in the traditional sense. There’s no Pete Townshend or Brian Wilson in the band – a guy who comes in with complete songs and ideas. U2 noodle around in the studio coming up with various sounds and melodies and mesh different parts together until they have something they like. It has worked for them in the past – that’s how they came up with “One”. But as their confidence wanes, it’s harder to pull off that kind of songwriting.
The fan-club b-sides release Medium Rare and Remastered confirms this. It contains several alternate versions of songs found on Atomic Bomb and All That You Can’t Leave Behind. On several songs, you can hear ideas that would eventually end up in subsequent songs. “Xanax and Wine” for instance, contains lyrics that would end up on “Fast Cars” (off of Atomic Bomb) with a riff that would drive “All Because of You.” There’s also an alternative version of that song, too.
It’s good that U2 doesn’t rest on their laurels and past glories, but not at the expense of quality music. No Line on the Horizon didn’t suffer from lack of ambition but rather cohesiveness and good songs. The best U2 albums have a sense of purpose, and that album seemed to be without any direction. The band seems to be a cross-roads here and they know it. Time will only tell which side they will end up on.