If U2’s appearance as one of the featured artists on Kendrick Lamar’s new album, “DAMN.,” is a sign of the band’s continued relevance to contemporary music and culture, it’s also a reminder of how these signs have gotten rarer and rarer over the past several years.
More than anything else, the band’s decision in 2014 to have Apple stick their album “Songs of Innocence” in everyone’s iTunes libraries alienated casual rock fans and young people. Before 2014, I used to use U2 as a benchmark for things that some people love but that nobody dislikes, like pizza or Jane Austen. But ever since then, people have started to contradict me when I use that analogy. “No way, I hate U2,” they’d say. “They’re a bunch of middle-aged white guys who stuck their crappy album in my library without my say in the matter.”
It’s true that U2’s “Songs of Innocence” is a good candidate for their worst album to date, with its maudlin nostalgia and forgettable commercial-rock sound. As someone who grew up forced to endure the vapid snobbery particular to natives of a certain California town that neighbored my own, the song “California (There is No End to Love)” and its opening chant of “Bar-bar-bara, Santa Barbara” was enough to set me fuming at U2’s assimilation into the idiotic and stultifying society of nouveau-riche Southern California. It was as if U2 had turned into their own inept counterfeiters (namely, Coldplay).
Still, it seems to fall to me alone to speak in defense of this band that has shown such life and energy over the course of nearly 40 years. U2 was and remains one of the great titans of rock and roll, and I think that we should listen to their music not just for historical reasons – which, as I’ll mention later, are enough in and of themselves – but also because, as a recent Pitchfork article argued, contemporary politics suit them better than any other era since their heyday in the ’80s.
U2 was born as a band of resistance. The ’80s were years of blood in Northern Ireland, years of iron in the U.K. and U.S. under the fists of Thatcher and Reagan. For young people, these were years of dysphoria and conflict — under the rule of governments who neither cared for them nor shared their values. Mainstream rock stultified, became baroque and conformist. After a too-brief flowering, even punk rock – a genre that had once been a music of resistance and had beautifully represented the massive upheavals in American society during the 1960s – descended into the glitz and social ignorance of ’80s rock. Few artists from previous decades survived the decade without damage to their reputation: Everyone from Dylan to the Rolling Stones got worse in the ’80s. I could count on one hand the number of great rock artists whose finest work happened in the ’80s: The Smiths are one, and U2 is another.
It’s hard for us to imagine now how groundbreaking U2 was in their day. Punk rock, the first and most searing response to 80s claustrophobia, had burned itself out by the start of the ’80s, and rock was unsure of where to go. Talking Heads and new wave provided one way forward, but there seemed to be little territory to expand on, musically or politically. A new group of artists including The Cure and Siouxsie and the Banshees took things in a new, darker direction, and U2 drew from this group — though their own music was cleaner, brighter and less experimental. They took all of this post-punk experimentation with the potential of noise and turned it into something that could soar, filling arenas with ease and cutting through political rancor with a Christian, universalizing rhetoric of difficult love.
“Sunday Bloody Sunday,” my first U2 song and an enduring favorite, is an early example of U2’s ability to criticize violence in a non-vapid way, turning the 1972 Bloody Sunday incident into an indictment of sectarian strife that stuck in my young mind through the Iraq years: “How long? How long must we sing this song?” If Bono’s lyrics and the beauty of his voice seem to border on the realm of softness or moralism, the crisp, insistent drumbeat (reminiscent of the British gunfire that killed 14 nonviolent protesters in Derry that day in 1972) keeps the hard reality close at hand.
U2’s greatest musical features are certainly Bono’s uncomplicated, muscular yet vulnerable voice, his spectacular range and that inimitable arctic ring of the Edge’s guitar. Of their two great masterpieces, 1984’s “The Unforgettable Fire” and 1987’s “The Joshua Tree,” the former is better crafted as an album, with a sense of progression and unbroken beauty from end to end. It features the song (“Bad”) that has Bono singing his highest recorded note, a C sharp, and moreover is a good demonstration of a perennial theme of the band: the desire to transcend, the inability to transcend (“If I could throw this lifeless lifeline to the wind/Leave this heart of clay”).
Still, though “The Joshua Tree” is infamously front-loaded (all the hits are on the first half of the album — but O what tremendous songs they are) the slow-burning triumphant electricity of the opening track, “Where the Streets Have No Name” and the album’s California desert-inspired starkness and tenderness make it one of history’s classic rock albums.
U2 have been faulted for self-righteousness and an inflated sense of their own magnanimity, and listeners today are probably most familiar with Bono for wearing sunglasses and talking endlessly about the plight of Africa. At their worst, they are entirely guilty of this, and their songs can sometimes tend towards uncomplicated and meaningless affirmations of love and peace. But U2 have always been at their best when the pain and blood of life seep into the love and transcendence of their dreams. Their song “One” from 1991’s groundbreaking “Achtung Baby” illustrates this with its famous line, “We’re one/But we’re not the same.” The song offers a middle ground of realism and reconciliation that fits human relationships today just as well as it fit German reunification in the early 1990s.
I have never been able to find “Achtung Baby” as endearing as U2’s two previous albums, despite how remarkable a proof it offers of U2’s ability to radically change their sound from their prizewinning eighties formula and retain the ability to make great-sounding, popular, and thematically substantial music. Still, I’ve gained a lot of enjoyment from their 2000s catalog, as well as – more recently – the more controversial albums of the mid- to late ’90s. 2009’s “No Line On the Horizon” was panned by critics, but I think it’s a good album with great artwork; its final track, “Cedars of Lebanon,” features some of U2’s most cynical lyrics to date. It depicts the Middle East in wartime: soldiers fetch fresh oranges from tanks, and in the end, Bono urges listeners to choose their enemies carefully, because “when your story ends/[they’re] going to last with you longer than your friends.”
I really hope that U2’s next album-length effort, which should appear in the next year or two, is a good one. Their reputation among young listeners can only increase, and the contemporary political climate provides a perfect opportunity for U2’s rhetoric to make an impact. Just as in their ’80s heyday, the decisions of government seem out of tune with the values of young people in America and Britain. We could certainly use the words and music of a band which has managed to adapt itself to new and unexpected developments in the history of the world, which has always tried to look for meaning in the blood and chaos of global politics, to find a hope for a peace and reconciliation that does not ignore the presence of tragedy and coldness in the world. It’s possible that politics on the left and among the young have soured to the point that Bono’s personality and reputation alone may make a renaissance impossible beyond a narrow circle of music critics and U2’s older fan base. We’ll see whether those old dependable Irishmen can be the rock prophets they have been before — or whether they truly have become nothing more than middle-aged white men shoving their albums where they don’t belong.
Contact Nick Burns at njburns ‘at’ stanford.edu.