By BEN WRIGHT
After five decades, U2 need an exit strategy.
Black rappers do it better than white rockers. That’s my opinion anyway; though I’m sure fans with more intimate knowledge of musicians have split opinions. I’m talking about retirement, of course.
Exhibit A: Dr. Dre.
Used to be an awesome hip-hop artist. Realised it was a young man’s game and went into production and record labels. From there he jumped into the headphone business and now he’s a billionaire. Net result: no one forgot about Dre.
Exhibit B: Any white rock star over 50.
Many argue that Jagger, Springsteen and Petty have still got it, but I’m not so sure. Pick any reunited hair metal band for example. That’s not their real hair, for one thing. Several years ago, I saw Duran Duran in concert at the South By Southwest festival in Austin, Texas. It was weird. People that age shouldn’t wear tight jeans.
Why does any of this matter? U2. That’s why.
U2 matter. They are an incredible band who have enjoyed both monumental success and critical acclaim. Three times (1987 and 1991 with rock, 2000 with pop music) they dragged whole industries into new territory. Most great bands only get to do this once.
But there’s a pattern. After Joshua Tree came Rattle & Hum. After Achtung Baby came Pop. (Zooropa is too good an album for the argument I’m trying to make, so I’m just going to ignore it.) Don’t get me wrong, those albums all have flashes of genius – but you sensed tired fingers at work.
U2 have always followed up cultural prophet-ability with an Elijah comedown. Each time, having slaughtered an onslaught of false prophets, they collapsed in the desert—exhausted and in need of divine help to dream it all up again.
Their latest album, Songs Of Innocence, is proof that they are back in the desert. However, there’s a difference this time; I don’t think they have another All You Can Leave Behind in them. This is their third not-utterly-awesome album in a row. Furthermore, it’s their third conservative album in a row. Zooropa may not be Joshua Tree, but it was experimental and ballsy. Not so with the latest offering – though smuggling it on to everybody’s iPod obviously isn’t a task for the fainthearted.
Thirteen studio albums down the road, I think its time for U2 to put their affairs in order. It pains me to say this. The world will never know another band like them. The modern music industry simply does not allow for one band to occupy that sort of space anymore. But how can U2 exit stage left with class? Ironically enough, Songs Of Innocence shows the way.
Last week they released six acoustic versions of tracks from the album. Upon listening, I was amazed at how much better those songs sounded. While remaining overly wordy, they are eloquent, thoughtful and sombre songs – uncluttered by the malaise of fickle pop production that plagues the full album.
Those six songs work much better as an EP than the fully produced songs do as an album. (I wonder what Pop would have sounded like as an EP…)
The verdict: acoustic albums are the way to ride off into the sunset with dignity
Exhibit D: The acoustic half of the Foo Fighters double album In Your Honor.
Exhibit E: Todd Rungren and Joe Jackson’s rendition of While My Guitar Gently Weeps.
Exhibit F: Ray Davis singing Waterloo Sunset at Glastonbury.
The problem: it’s just so tempting to plug that guitar back into an amp. It just doesn’t work very well. These are the weapons of young people – volume, bombast, narcissism and energy. Wise and learned folk must rely on the songs themselves, which (unlike the rockers) look better naked the older they get.
U2 don’t need to go away and dream it all up again. They’ve done enough. Now they are in danger of becoming the Rolling Stones. Most acts don’t know how to fade out. It’s ether a blaze of false glory (prison, premature death) or a cringeworthy descent into karaoke. U2 have always been earth-shattering, managing to bounce between humility and hubris like the stylus on a seismograph. Now its time for them to once more lay down the false prophets of a global culture – by admitting their own limitations.
Ben Wright worships and writes in Austin, Texas. You can listen to his music at https://soundcloud.com/ben-