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…