One of the tragedies of No Line On The Horizon is the lack of a sense of place. We know, of course, that U2 recorded parts of the album in Fez, Morocco, and that the influence of this North African city can be felt in those songs. No Line might have been the band's "Morocco" album -- much like Joshua Tree was their "America" album and Achtung Baby their "Berlin" album -- but they balked. Concerned about singles, concert showpieces, etc., they wrote and recorded a clutch of new songs that ultimately diluted the "Morocco-ness" of the release.
And that's too bad. To me, anyway, the band has (mostly) always benefited from its focus on place. Not just on The Joshua Tree and Achtung Baby. But also on Zooropa -- with the nations of the incipient European Union "all hooked up to one cable, as close together as stations on a dial" -- and Pop, whose beats and overall vibe were influenced by a trip to Miami. Such a focus can help to set the mood of an album, and inform the musical and lyrical motifs that wind through it.
So what about the new record -- the one we hope to see later this year? I haven't heard anything about a particular setting for the release. But if the band are looking for a last-minute burst of inspiration, or a unifying theme like on those earlier albums, I have a few ideas for places they can visit.
Fez, Morocco. Let's just get this out of the way. I was promised Songs Of Ascent -- a quieter companion to No Line with more of the Morocco influence, a "ghost album of hymns and Sufi singing," as Rolling Stone described it -- and I want Songs Of Ascent. Go back to Fez if you have to. Just finish it and release it so I can get my grubby little hands on it.
Kabul, Afghanistan. U2 love a good crossroads, and Kabul is certainly that. It's a crossroads of East and West. A crossroads of history in the wake of a long, devastating war. And a sort of cultural crossroads: Not so long ago, music was all but totally banned in Kabul. Today, the city is home to a vibrant scene, a bona fide counterculture movement with "crazy metal and dub step," as Solomon "Sully" Omar of the band District Unknown explained in a recent interview with NPR. In traveling to Kabul, U2 would surely expose themselves to charges of overreaching for significance. Still, a stay there might inspire them to produce something wildly new and different, an Achtung Baby for a post-9/11 world.
Space. U2 have long been fascinated by space travel, as both a metaphor and a reality. This can be traced back to Astro Baby from Zooropa and the ZooTV tour, but its fullest expression will be found in the 360 tour: See the video linkups with astronauts Mark Kelly and Frank DeWinne, and the "spaceship" motif in the stage design and production. With Commander Chris Hadfield of the International Space Station recently giving us the first music video produced off-world (see below), it might finally be time for Bono and the boys to make the trip. An album set against the backdrop of space would likely highlight the band's ethereal side and give them room to explore themes of solitude, for example, and the distance between ourselves and others. Alternatively, it could inspire a Rush-like sci-fi concept album: U2's very own 2112. Can you imagine? That would be awesome.
Tokyo, Japan. Am I the only one still waiting to see a follow-up to the Passengers record?
Mumbai, India. The trick with the setting-based approach to recording albums is to draw inspiration from a place without falling into the trap of appropriating its musical culture: to make it more Joshua Tree and less Rattle And Hum. In this case, though, I'd say forget about that. I'd love to see U2 travel to India and record a soundtrack to a Bollywood film (an imaginary one if they're combining this with the Passengers follow-up) with the full array of Bollywood influences: American jazz, Indian folk tunes, electronic dance music. Would it be weird? Sure. Would it be totally intriguing and fun? Absolutely. And if they wanted to give us a Bollywood film-like video, with epic dance numbers in exotic locales and inexplicable plot developments, well, that'd just be icing on the cake.
Commander Chris Hadfield was an inspiring presence during his recent tenure on the International Space Station, tweeting from the ISS, performing science experiments designed by high school students and even performing a live duet -- via satellite linkup --with members of Barenaked Ladies (Hadfield himself is a musician). And just before returning to Earth a couple of weeks ago he gave us an excellent parting gift: a fully produced music video, a version of David Bowie's "Space Oddity."
There's a U2 connection here -- the band took the stage to "Space Oddity" on the 360 tour -- but mostly it's just a super-cool video. Check it out here.
(c) @U2, 2013.