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"The first two records had a sort of cinema sound, a cinematic Panavision feel, the broad, big sound we wanted for U2. Now that we've done the cinema sound, I'd like to make it a bit rougher." — Bono

Running to Stand Still?

Review by John Waters of U2 by U2, from The Irish Book Review, autumn/winter 2006
The Irish Book Review
This is a difficult book to argue with. It's a large format coffee table volume weighing about five pounds. It has 350 pages of text and photographs. More than half a million copies have been printed in ten languages. It will almost certainly go into a second and probably subsequent editions. As far as the book is concerned, there isn't really all that much to "review." The format is straightforward: a chronological journey through U2's career by means of interviews with all four band members and their manager. The interviews were conducted by Neil McCormick, former Hot Press writer and schoolfriend of the band, nowadays rock critic with the Daily Telegraph.

The temptation for the reviewer is to use the book as a means of reviewing the band, or its career, or its meaning for society, but that's a tall order for a short review. The strongest sense from this book is that it takes us nowhere new. It has much in it that is interesting, challenging, moving and important, but, when you have finished flicking through it, looking at the pictures and reading quotes here and there, you are left with the sense that it represents merely the raw research for some further assessment and analysis.

There is nothing in the text or the photographs that we didn't already know. I don't mean that there are no sensational or titillating revelations (I don't think there are, but then again I don't care very much about the sensational aspects of the band's story), but that nothing in the book goes beyond what U2 members have been saying about themselves for at least 25 years. Perhaps the problem is not so much that the story has already been told many times, but that, in a sense, it concluded quite some time ago. U2 still have a sense of going someplace, and the world, or some parts of it, has a sense of this also. But each of these, U2 and the world, is talking about a different reality. U2 still feel themselves engaged in a voyage of self-discovery, whereas the world sees them as a successful rock band who manage to stay on top of the league. This the world finds admirable in itself and it causes people to buy U2's records without creating an imperative for any other form of connection or understanding.

One of the unacknowledged problems about long-life rock bands is that they go through a succession of audiences whom they woo, convert, inspire and then mostly lose. The audience moves on, forgets, while the band becomes reanimated by the arrival of a new audience every couple of years. To be fair, there are not many long-life rock bands in the same category as U2, but it would still be interesting to compile a record of the responses of the fans who've been with this band for most or all of those 30 years. How many are still convinced of a learning curve in the music U2 produces? How many of those who have stayed with the band have done so for the sake of nostalgia and how many are still finding nourishment in the later music?

When artists are constantly finding new audiences and to a degree constantly losing the old ones, they can become like teachers reading from the same book every year. They introduce variations so as to relieve the monotony and convey a sense of development to the marketplace, but they don't really take the kinds of risks that might cause them to either fly or lose their footing. Only Dylan has successfully bucked this syndrome; U2, for all the protestations of their loyal fanbase, most certainly have not. The music they produce seems from within the collective like an advance, a series of new frontiers within both their medium and their self-awareness, but to the world it simply sounds all right for a band that has been around for 30 years. What U2 has never really grasped is that the world expects much less of them than they expect of themselves. To state the same issue an entirely different way: would either of U2's last two albums have caught the global imagination if they had not been the work of a band that had acquired a global audience on the back of The Joshua Tree and Achtung Baby? Certainly not.

A constant refrain of the interviews and of the U2 story is that the whole is greater than the parts, but this is increasingly questionable for anyone who has been willing U2 to prove their case from the start. The band's last two albums have conveyed, unmistakably, a growing atomisation of the band, a regression to the state that preceded that famous note on the Mount Temple notice board, a sense that what Bono, Edge, Adam and Larry now bring to the project is no longer a passion born of friendship and ambition, but four individual forms of craftsmanship acquired in togetherness but rapidly diverging. There is a sense in most of the later U2 songs of four musicians, who, though they be infinitely more accomplished than the neophytes who forged those early anthems out of their undernourished dreams, are now only partly involved in the collective that is U2. What is missing is not, I don't think, friendship, or even empathy, still less emotional commitment, but the common consciousness that makes rock 'n' roll, necessarily, a team medium.

Another way of putting it would be to say that the songs now sound like the lowest common denominator of an infinitely more polished unit, whereas 12 or 17 years ago, their music was the highest common factor of a quadropoly of intensity that seemed to defy gravity. They know better what they're doing now. They know about pop and its history. They know whom they have to beat to stay ahead of the game. But they no longer have the collective sense of recklessness that made them great. The journey this book describes, therefore, is necessarily a journey away from its own denouement, which occurred at or close to the beginning. The magic was there to begin with but dissolves imperceptibly as the story proceeds. And the real, profound problem is that nobody seems to be noticing.

The problem, to be accurate and fair, is less to do with a failure of U2 than with the intrinsic limits of the medium they're involved in. The problem in as far as it relates to U2 is that this band continues to speak about itself as though these limits were not visible, as though they were still at the beginning rather than the end of their voyage - and this is not what they promised. In short, from a band with the ethical sense that U2 has had from the beginning, we have a right to hear that they have failed. The market allows them to conceal this. Each year, each record, a new audience discovers them, and is infatuated with the wonder of what they represent(ed). But for those who have been there for a while, never mind from the beginning, there is little left but the wonder of their survival and their phenomenality.

This book, indeed, ultimately makes you wonder about even U2's ability to understand what is happening to itself. What comes across most strongly is a degree of self-obsession that becomes tedious and dismaying in the absence of a direction or a discovery beyond what has long been obvious. U2 has, in a sense, suffered what everything human ultimately suffers: it has hardened into a habit, a mutual dependency between band and audience, but also a kind of ideology and a cult of personality that obscure, by virtue of the band's unbounded fascination with its own story for its own sake, the lack of progress and meaning that frequently accompany the mere maintenance of popularity and success.


(c) The Irish Book Review, 2006.