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U2: The Relevancy of Relevancy

I realize this may upset a few of the hardcore fans of U2. I happen to be one of them. Bono has talked extensively on the subject of whether U2 is still relevant. Sadly, the answer appears to be a resounding ‘no’.

From the negative reception to U2’s ‘gift’ of Songs of Innocence to what basically amounts to minimal radio play of “The Miracle (of Joey Ramone)”, is there a way to think anything less? A brief look at YouTube statistics tells the same story. U2’s “Miracle” has under two million plays. By comparison, Foo Fighter’s recent “Something From Nothing” (a song that was not huge for them) had 5.5 million views. And as much as any band would love to have a couple of million views, where U2 is concerned, that basically qualifies as being completely ignored.

Many fans will point to the upcoming Innocence + Experience tour. If they are so irrelevant, how come they selling out dates all over the world? I can point to The Rolling Stones who tour and fill major venues as a prime example. What’s the last new Stones song you can think of that made the charts? That’s right, you can’t (they haven’t had a U.S. chart single since the remix of “Sympathy For The Devil” in 2003 and that only got as high as number 97)!

Towards the end of last year the band started playing a beautiful version of “Every Breaking Wave” on their various show appearances. It was far more powerful live than the version that was released on Songs of Innocence. This week they’ve released the song as a single with a re-recorded version that is much closer to what we saw live. Hear it here. You can tell this is a reaction to the lack of resonance the album has received to date. Will this version hit the mark? I think it’s a beautiful song. I think it will be a killer live. But even this new recording is lacking. It doesn’t have the power of the performances we’ve seen. It is controlled where the live version appears more raw. Where’s the cracking in Bono’s voice? I am not sure why they seem so afraid to release something that isn’t perfect. Perfect and clean does not equal power and connection.

I’ve seen a lot of fans screaming for them to loosen up their live performances. People want less pre-recorded and time-limited and more raw, real, less rehearsed and more open and flexible shows. It is no different for their releases. I’d rather hear Bono fall apart, lose it for a moment in a recording than be perfectly controlled. And for a band that has been so high and decided that perfection, as in 5+ years to release an album, was required, maybe they’ve missed the point. Their early albums were full of those moments where they don’t get it perfect. They cared less about the sound quality and more about the performance. As the later years transpire, it seems they’ve tried to do both. That translates to well-written, well-played and well-recorded. What I think has been missing for many years now in their records is raw emotion. And when I say that I mean that both musically and vocally. It comes out more live but their albums, while interesting, often innovative, lack the oomph.

Where’s the pain of “Sunday, Bloody Sunday”? Where’s the truth that lies within “With or Without You”? Where’s the political anger underneath “Mothers of the Disappeared”? We live in an increasingly desperate time. We see rights taken away bit by bit while the bricks of democracy get removed without anyone caring. We the growing distance between the ‘haves’ who want it all and the rest of us who haven’t made significant progress in years. We see angry young men blowing themselves up for a questionable cause. We see education being diminished at home and abroad. We see hatred and racism and sexism and genderism every day. So let me ask you this: Is the fact that the band is so very rich, so very comfortable, taken the edge off? No matter how hard they work and rework their songs, does the lack of boiling blood at the state of world take them a step back from the masses? Is corporate U2 now the enemy? For all Bono’s declarations of them still being ‘punk rock’, does anyone believe that?

Unless Songs of Experience is something of a surprise that provides both anger and raw passion, I wouldn’t expect much to change. How many times has Bono said in the last few releases how ‘angry’ Edge is and how it is coming out in his playing? I haven’t seen that, have you? I see a band in full control. I see a band that has decided for years that ‘perfect’ is their goal. And I think if you ask anyone who cares, they’d really prefer out of control…

Larry Lootsteen

Music is life and I love to write about all things music. Independent music blogger. Writer in general. I am a big fan of alternative and indie music but there's no genre I haven't found something to like.

Larry Lootsteen has 630 posts and counting. See all posts by Larry Lootsteen

7 thoughts on “U2: The Relevancy of Relevancy

  • Rare is the artist who can maintain the hunger and the anger and the edge for an entire lifetime. You get older, you gain financial security, you believe your own press, you don’t get the new music, you don’t get the modern world, etc. etc. It’s not impossible but it’s truly shocking when you see a career sustained for decades and still relevant.

  • I guess we all face the enemy ;TIME.
    Recapturing moments from your youth are often looked at as a nice escape from reality.
    Once a bass player I was in a band with said he didn’t want to eat
    Until after the gig.Said he felt he played better HUNGRY.

  • As a fiber artist, I don’t exactly appreciate someone criticizing another artist for trying to be perfect. No, I don’t take five years to complete a handwoven, handspun sweater but my overshot coverlets can take that long. It’s the love of the craft and there is, or should be, a craft in all art. I know Navajo weavers always put in a little “mistake” to show that the piece was actually hand woven so I’ve adopted that hidden bit of surprise…not that anyone should notice. It’s a smile for me. In U2’s Every Breaking Wave, the new version especially, I hear bits of that “smile” in Bono’s voice when I’m wearing my headphones. I have to listen for it so I can smile too.

  • Despite the backlash, I’d say that the iTunes fiasco proved that U2 is still relevant. The last album really hurt them and they’re still recovering, but the release on apple made a lot of noise and pushed a huge discussion about music distribution to the forefront. I don’t think there are too many bands left that can make so much noise with a move like that. As much as Bono says they’re punk rock, let’s be honest — they haven’t been punk rock since The Joshua Tree came out so using that as an argument is kind of a moot point. If the free release of Songs Of Innocence had been met with total silence and hadn’t drawn attention, I’d be more worried — I actually think a normal album release would’ve hurt them more and not gained the attention this risk did. I also wouldn’t write Every Breaking Wave’s success off yet. They’re pushing it harder than I can remember them pushing a single in quite some time. Obviously they believe in it, know how important it is to their careers and are even working with I Heart Radio to push it into heavier rotation.

  • Agree, agree, agree! Where is the raw feel that we had during the Zoo Tour and to a lesser extent the Rattle & Hum tour (Sunday Bloody Sunday from R&H video anyone??). I am looking forward to Songs of Experience but I am glad to hear that I was not the only long term U2 fan that was completely disappointed with SoI (with the exceptions of EBW and the Troubles). And a side note, was anyone else totally ticked off that the acoustic session was one track, or is it just me?

  • Its time we recognize that articles like this one, indeed much of the criticism leveled against U2 lately, represents the sort of intolerance U2 has spent so much if there careers fighting. I frankly don’t care how many people listened to new U2 music on YouTube or who complained about the free ablum, all this talk does is conflates relevance with popularity. Its superficial banter, and it misses the point-it misses the relevance! Lamentationfor the lost spirit of punk; the end of innovation in popular music (and culture); the hope that it might one day he resurrected; saddness induced by the very sort of trivial thinking we find exexemplified in this article. Its too simple to assume that when U2 sought perfection that perfection meant clean and pretty! Art in about expression and if they sought perfection it was peyertin in the expression of the ideals and emotions that inspired then. If audiences don’t ‘see’ the raw emotions SOI is saturated with, they might want to check their prejudices, or, at least, respect that this art might not speak to them. That doesn’t make it irrelevant!

    • Darryl, I find it odd that you look at my points as intolerance. I am a huge U2 fan (35 years now). I liked SOI, loved a couple of songs too. Let’s face it. The general public has ignored it. They love them live but as listening/digesting/emotionally involved in music, they just don’t care. And it was Bono who went on and on about relevance. That you disagree and feel they’re relevant is all fine and well. Sales, streams, radio plays, talk, examination all say otherwise except for the hardcore fans. Who is playing the new version of Every Breaking Wave? I have heard it exactly once on one station. We only heard The Miracle a lot because of Apple. It got some radio play but nothing even remotely viewable as successful. If the band wants to be in the public psyche for their music, it ain’t happening. The tour will be a great success. They’ll get airtime for media interviews. And unless SOE comes out with a smash hit, it may all end at the end of the tour.


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