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U2 on the move again after their lost decade

Irish Times, February 19, 2009
By: John Waters

 

Last time I wrote about U2 I managed three separate entries in Pseuds Corner, the Private Eye satirical magazine column that aims to puncture pomposity. I naturally approach the same subject pessimistic about matching that success.

This, approximately, has been U2's problem also. Their last two albums suggested time had played a trick, insinuating in their narrative some sense of linear purpose and yet placing their best work near the beginning, condemning them to strut around for decades in a doomed attempt to repeat themselves.

For a generation, U2 have accompanied us on the way. Out of the partly real, partly imagined darkness of 1970s Ireland, they claimed their right to express, more loudly than anyone, the blurt of longing, born of the grey suits, cars and minds that blighted the youths of the generations now faced with defining reality at a moment of unprecedented uncertainty. They emerged, primed with innocence and desire, to claim their inheritance from the depths of a culture left unplumbed in the collective desire to escape it. They were clumsy and ignorant in a good way, and in the 1980s offered themselves up as gauche guinea pigs before the gods of glitz and glitter in an attempt to road-test the sincerity they could not in conscience jettison in a medium intolerant of anything but cynicism and cool. In the 1980s they clung to a dogged authenticity against the grain of the times, producing the decade's best album in The Joshua Tree.

In the 1990s they cracked the code and convinced everyone they had changed beyond recognition, when really they had learned to dance and dress more plausibly. In the Noughties, they went AWOL from their own mission, treading water in an attempt to hold market position, and became even more successful. A bit like the broader story of their homeland, when you come to think of it.

All the while they suggested that, once they had honed their craft and sullen art, they would show us something utterly devastating. And yet, this remained a promise, which a dwindling number noticed was remaining unfulfilled.

I pressed "play" on No Line on the Horizon last weekend dreading that, like its last two predecessors, it would consolidate U2's position at the top of the premiership and perhaps win a portion of a new generation to the idea of a band that could make a handsome packet out of producing a handsome racket while winking knowingly towards the future. I was ready for an album designed to tour well and meet all the mediocre expectations that have latterly come to burden its creators. I anticipated a new bunch of songs that, injected with an essence of U2, harvested and preserved at the optimum moment between The Joshua Tree and Achtung Baby, would convince the world that U2 had not, in fact, broken up.

I cannot tell you how happy I am to tell you that I have just eaten my hat, and that this is the album U2 should have made after Achtung Baby. This, of course, means they've lost a decade somewhere, but then who hasn't? It is a tribute to this album that is can be described without reference to the virtues of individual songs. Like its tremendous predecessors, it has a wholeness that owes as much to mood as to playing, lyrics or sonic integrity.

U2 have only briefly, in the middle phase, been about songs. Latterly, they have been about a Proustian rampage through the debris of a music that happens too quickly for clarity, excavating pieces that seemed like they might have contained something more than they revealed first time around. In these tracks, you keep hearing snatches of elusive allusiveness that take you to a deeper level of memory, but in a way that suggests redemption rather than repetition.

U2 squandered their lost decade casting around for a direction that would not compromise their commercial position until it seemed they would eventually have to risk frittering away their audience to complete their mission. (Their mission, incidentally, has fundamentally to do with stealing rock 'n' roll back from the dark angels, ideally involving the creation of a soundtrack in which the citizen might hope to hear, at those moments of near-despair when man-made reality reaches the outer reaches of its plausibility, something to refer him to the broader canvas. It is a tall order.) For a long time it has seemed U2 were running on the spot, standing still while suggesting radical movement. With this album they have started to move again, hesitating a further step into the improbable. And yet is is not, from the viewpoint of their premiership position, a risky album? With No Line on the Horizon, they have achieved something that, oddly, stands with one leg in the shallow, concentrate-version of U2 that the world has taken at face value for a decade, and one leg in a future as exciting as anything they have hitherto allowed us to glimpse. If, as we have previously noted, music is prophetic as to the drift of wider reality, then this album may be the most hopeful thing you will hear all year.



© Irish Times, 2009.

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