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"A band is like a street gang. It makes sense when you're 20 and gets harder as you get older." — Edge

U2

Bono and friends still making good music, still a force in rock after all these years
Akron Beacon Journal
Paul Hewson is a better person than you.

Not only is he rich and famous, but he helps starving and AIDS-ravaged people in Africa, has the phone numbers of the pope, heads of state and rock stars on his BlackBerry, has been mentioned as a Nobel Peace Prize candidate, has been in the same band with the same three guys for 25 years and he has a cool rock 'n' roll nom de plume.

His band mates and millions of fans all over the globe call him Bono and he is a 21st century rock star.

Unlike the rock stars of yore, who reveled in drug-induced decadence, their star status and other people's daughters (and some sons), Bono has been married to the same woman for more than 20 years and there are no sex tapes, embarrassing photographs (save the early '80s when he had his new wave mullet), or tales of him roughing up paparazzi or being rude to waiters.

In comparison to the Led Zeppelins, Mick Jaggers and Steven Tylers of the '70s or even the well chronicled sins of the hair metal bands of the '80s, Bono and his band mates, who are playing a sold-out show Saturday at Cleveland's Quicken Loans Arena, seem pretty boring as rock stars go. Those band mates would be guitarist the Edge, bassist Adam Clayton and drummer Larry Mullen Jr.

Even compared to the fellow long-timers and all-around nice guys in Bon Jovi (whose Richie Sambora toed the rock-star line a bit and married actress Heather Locklear), U2 seems relatively tame.

In the recently published book, Bono in Conversation With Michka Assayas, the man himself denies his status as celebrity even as he uses it to help Third World countries get debt relief, and get AIDS drugs to Africa.

"I'm a scribbling, cigar-smoking, wine-drinking, Bible-reading band man," he tells the French journalist. "A show-off who loved to paint pictures of what I can't see. A husband, father, friend of the poor and sometimes the rich. An activist traveling salesman of ideas. Chess player, part-time rock star, opera singer in the loudest folk group in the world."

It's that kind of self-awareness and self-deprecation that has made him a hero to his many fans, an annoying self-important rock star to detractors and a cover boy for Time magazine, which posed the question, "Can Bono save the world?"

Of course not, but while his altruistic deeds (he also recently launched a clothing line called Edun that uses factories in Africa, South America and India to spur trade) have brought him plenty of positive attention, perhaps the most important factor in U2's continued reign as one of the biggest rock bands in the world is the simple fact that the band is still making good music.

Yes, the aforementioned Bon Jovi has been churning out well-crafted, positive-minded populist anthems with singalong choruses for nearly as long as U2, but few music fans look to Bon Jovi's music for musical meditations on life, death, love and faith -- all common themes of Bono's lyrics.

The release of a new U2 record is still an event rather than an excuse to tour, and the band's latest, How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb, stands up well alongside U2's best work -- War, Achtung Baby and The Joshua Tree.

And the band members know it.

"Without sounding totally phony, I think this might be our second best -- if not our best -- album," Bono told Blender magazine shortly before the album was released late last year. "It's right up there with Achtung Baby. It had to be. You can't live like this and put out a crap album or else people are going to want to shoot you."

After three albums of increasingly obtuse keyboard and electronics-laced tunage, and Bono's increasingly annoying MacPhisto and Fly personas, the band came to that point that many longtime artists reach after years of musical evolution: It has become satisfied to simply sound like U2.

How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb is the second album to harken back to the traditional U2 sound. Its predecessor, 2000's All That You Can't Leave Behind, was a welcome return to the group's signature sounds, i.e. the Edge picking out riffs while stomping on his various echo pedals, Clayton thumping his E string and Mullen laying down a steady beat while Bono wails and moans.

But where that album seemed tentative in spots, HTDAAB finds the band sounding more confident (if that's possible) and is simply filled with better songs.

It has the opening big arena rock blast of "Vertigo"; Bono's meditations on the death of his father, Bob, on the gentle "Sometimes You Can't Make It on Your Own" (which the band performed at his funeral) and on "One Step Closer to Knowing"; and the sexy, blues-abilly groove of "Love and Peace or Else." The album is sure to bring back any fans who jumped ship during the late '90s electronic phase.

In concert, the 2005 rock hall inductees' acceptance of themselves and their history has manifested itself in the revival of some long-ignored songs from their catalog, including "The Electric Co." and "40" from War, and alt-rock radio staples, such as "I Will Follow" and "New Year's Day." The excesses of the '90s, which included the band emerging from a Spinal Tap-ian, giant lemon in concert, have been stripped away to the basics of four guys (and a hidden keyboardist) plying their rock 'n' roll trade with minimum fuss, allowing the songs and Bono's inner "show-off" free rein.

Rock history tells us that eventually U2 will join the ranks of other lifers, such as the Rolling Stones, Tom Petty and Aerosmith. They'll be artists who still draw tens off thousands of fans to see them play, but whose new music usually signals a trip to the concession stand or the bathroom. But at 25 years and counting, and with its strongest album in years on the charts and radio (and an Ipod commercial), U2 has managed to pull off the difficult trick of not only still making good music, but of still being a relevant force in popular music.



© Akron Beacon Journal, 2005.