At a certain point in a lengthy career, it must become damn near impossible for bands to make a new album. Sure, that’s what they set out to do, that’s the dream, that’s their job. But it has to be something of an uphill battle when you have a ton of history for it to be compared against. There’s the classic affliction, that of an artist simply being active for so long that they could run out of things to say. And then there are all the practical complications for bands with a significant legacy, bands that now operate as complicated, multi-faceted operations. The basic act of getting everyone together, away from their other lives and concerns, to write new songs in between tours that will gross insane sums of money on the promise that fans around the world will flock to hear a few decades’ worth of immortal hits. How do you keep finding the spark within all of that? How do you come out with anything when all of that could weigh you down?
For U2, the problems are more severe and more unique than with almost any group of their stature or history. Part of that is they remain — to this day, nearly four decades removed from their debut album — an almost-total anomaly in rock and pop history. The same four guys, through all these years, each one crucial in the band’s iconic sound and decision-making. If any link in that chain — Bono, the Edge, Adam Clayton, or Larry Mullen, Jr. — were to give way, U2 would be over. Those four guys went from being small-town Dublin post-punks to the biggest stars on the planet, a crown they arguably still wear even as they close in on 60. They were of a younger generation that nevertheless aged up into the old classic rock lineage.
At the same time that they’ve kept active with other interests — most notably, Bono’s very busy second life as an activist and philanthropist, a rockstar holding meetings with world leaders — U2 still mount one of the most exhilarating, life-changing live shows out there, record-breaking tours featuring enveloping experiences unlike almost anything else possible in the rock sphere today. And whereas artists with that many years under the belt might recede from songwriting, content with simply touring, or might become satisfied with smaller-scale albums that bear no pretensions of equaling their decades-old classics, U2 have yet to accept that kind of future. The fire that propelled them to being the biggest band on the planet still burns on some level, fueling a desire to craft great new records, records that are still events. Records that still matter.
Even for a band that has often sought (and attained) the impossible, just think of the sheer impossibility of that ambition. It has occasionally yielded noble intentions that backfire, like the press heyday and consumer backlash that surrounded the release of U2’s last album, 2014’s Songs Of Innocence, which was beamed into every iTunes user’s library. And it has, often, slowed them down. In the 21st century, U2 take four or five years between albums — which you could chalk up to the size of the apparatus or to their age or their globe-spanning tours, but which the band themselves have often detailed as full of explorations and aborted other albums, the stretch between 2009’s No Line On The Horizon and Songs Of Innocence in particular being filled with, theoretically, no less than three or four discrete projects.
This time, there was a brisk three-year gap between Songs Of Innocence and its sister release, U2’s new album Songs Of Experience. Even there, it was initially intended as a quick followup, the way Zooropa extended and concluded the story began by Achtung Baby and the accompanying Zoo TV tour. Circumstances intervened, the album changed, the band toured The Joshua Tree for its 30th anniversary. And now, finally, Songs Of Experience is out in the world. Ahead of its release, we talked to Bono and the Edge to try to get some insight into how a band like this can still operate after everything else.
Part of the reason this particular record took longer than expected to come into focus is that the band encountered both political and personal upheaval at a point where they already had a pretty much finished record. They decided to hold it and revisit the songs in the wake of Brexit and Trump’s election, but also following a “brush with mortality” Bono experienced that the band has yet to elaborate on. “Without getting into the soap opera of it, I had a few potentially mortal blows I had to fend off,” Bono says, alluding to the event and how it altered his perspective. “There’s nothing like an earthquake to have you thinking about the street you’re walking down, where you’re going, who you’re visiting with, your fellow pilgrims, etc.” The end result is that the new version of Songs Of Experience featured music that dated further back, but the narrative was reframed: Now, it began with the premise of Bono, as a man having experienced the brink of mortality, writing letters of advice and tribute and concern to people, places, and concepts that are the most important to him.
One way you can tell that Songs Of Experience is dealing with some gravity is the fact that it both opens and closes with restrained, meditative songs — unusual for U2 albums, which tend to begin with something more anthemic or propulsive. The songs in question are the celestial “Love Is All We Have Left” and the closer “13 (There Is A Light),” which calls back to Songs Of Innocence’s more straightforwardly-U2 “Song For Someone” but recontextualizes that song’s chorus in an atmospheric denouement that stands as one of the prettiest, most meditative moments on either of the albums.
“There’s a weightlessness that is key because, in truth, some of the subjects are very heavy,” Bono says of “Love Is All We Have Left,” which he also describes, aptly, as a “sci-fi Sinatra.” Amidst acknowledging that Songs Of Experience was “quite a difficult record to sequence,” the Edge remarks on how they were often eyeing “Love Is All We Have Left” as the opener. Part of that difficulty came from the band’s commitment to the old notion of an album as a cohesive artwork, a concept that’s often discussed as being under threat in the contemporary music landscape. Once they’d finally settled on beginning Songs Of Experience there, the question became what sort of journey they would take the listener on for the rest of the record.
Those two songs work together as bookends, but are also a feint to some extent. As its title suggests, the album comes from a perspective rooted in having accrued some decades in your life, and though it’s been influenced by some dire circumstances, Songs Of Experience is one of U2’s most consistently poppy and brightest-sounding albums. That aesthetic exists not exactly despite some of the heavier themes, but because of them. Across the record, Bono mixes personal and political lyrics, couching intimate moments in broader visions of the state of the world. Rather than become mired in anxiety and darkness, the music strives for joyousness, catharsis, and hope.
“In terms of that joyfulness, [it’s] absolutely something we strive for always, but of course it needs to be tempered with that thread, the reality of life. Otherwise it becomes insipid,” the Edge explains. As he puts it, because the band were finishing Songs Of Experience with “a sense of how troubling things are in the world right now,” they had an impulse to forge in the opposite direction. “Of course, you can’t ignore it,” he says of the climate in which the record was completed and released. “But you’re almost compelled in these times to think about making the light brighter, the way forward rather than dwelling on the negatives. Which, of course, there’s a lot there. But it doesn’t seem so useful or helpful or interesting, weirdly enough, because that’s kind of obvious. And that’s where everyone’s going.”
The end result is an album that — dominated by glistening pop moments like “You’re The Best Thing About Me,” “Get Out Of Your Own Way,” “The Little Things That You Give Away,” and “Love Is Bigger Than Anything In Its Way” — feels like it could’ve come out between 2000’s All That You Can’t Leave Behind and 2004’s How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb. It is also, one would imagine, a far different sequel to Songs Of Innocence than the band might’ve first conceived back in 2014.
“I’m still coming to terms with that,” the Edge muses when discussing how he perceives the two albums relating to one another now. “You know, these songs have been in gestation for a while, but we were changing the album right up until the last minute. Yes, it’s taken a long time to arrive but it’s very up to the minute. It’s very much about this moment in time, and influenced by everything that’s been going on around us, both musically and politically. Personally. That’s the only way we know how to make a record. It has to be everything and mean everything to us in that moment when we finish it.”
For Bono, the distance traced between the two works seems to underline the differences between the person he was as a young man and the person he is now. “It has crossed my mind over the years when I’m shaking the hands of some dodgy politician or trying to take commerce seriously, what the younger me would think of what I’m doing now, not so much musically, more philosophically,” he says. It’s a gray area for sure, one that the band, specifically Bono, has often been attacked for. It’s one of those factors that, from the outside, would seem like another impossible pressure when it came to making new pop music from that perspective. “I sometimes yearn for a more black-and-white world I had in my teens and 20s,” Bono adds. “Unitarian beliefs, dualistic view of the world. Us versus them. We versus I.”
He also implies that there might’ve been less of a concrete direction for Songs Of Experience than might’ve been expected upon the release of Songs Of Innocence, that it was never going to be a simple A/B structure of one looking back at their roots and one engaging with what they learned along the way. The borders are a bit more permeable than that. “I started down the ‘experience’ road without knowing what would be at the end of it, meaning I didn’t know where Songs Of Experience would end up,” Bono explains. “I just wanted to start the ball rolling and ask some hard questions. I do like to believe that at the far end of experience, with wisdom, there might be a chance to recover innocence.”
The Edge mentions the insights of the band’s friend Noel Gallagher, who apparently heard Songs Of Experience and pointed out there was more innocence here, that it sounded like an album “made by a bunch of 22-year-olds.” In comparison, Gallagher has a point: Songs Of Innocence had its fair share of soaring U2 anthems, but it also dug back into a complicated past and featured a few darker, more insular songs. Songs Of Experience, whether in its echoes of contemporary pop and rock elements or that unabashed search for joy, does at times have more youthful qualities to it.
If that’s what people hear in Songs Of Experience, it’s logical enough considering U2’s longstanding fixation on keeping abreast with current tends and younger artists. At times, that has scanned as stubbornness, the band seeking to remain relevant, which is a difficult goal to square with being a rock band so many years into your existence and also maintaining vitality and excellence, none of which are synonymous goals. But there’s also a plain hunger evident there; they’re music fans who are always looking for new inspiration. Both the Edge and Bono are into Royal Blood, with the Edge also name-checking M83 and Kaytranada. Meanwhile, as far as 2017 goes, Bono was a fan of Jay-Z’s 4:44, Chance The Rapper’s “First World Problems,” and the new albums from Noel Gallagher and Lorde; he praises the “audacity” of Arcade Fire’s “Everything Now” and calls it his single of the year.
Of course, there’s one younger artist that looms over it all in terms of U2’s 2017. Back when Kendrick Lamar suddenly released DAMN., there was a surprising snippet — Bono’s voice, mulling over America, a piece of previously unheard U2 music. That turned out to be a drastically different setting for music that would later reappear on U2’s own “American Soul,” a song that in turn features Lamar. (He also appears on the preceding track “Get Out Of Your Own Way,” providing the segue between the two.) “It was really just that we were fans,” the Edge says of their collaboration’s beginning. “We were just thinking about artists we really respect and like, and he was on the top of our list. We look for artists that we feel have a similar spirit.”
“There’s a righteous anger that is hard to argue with,” Bono adds. “I asked him would he rap about where America is at, his reply was to rap about where America isn’t at. Smart dude.”
Altogether, either U2 are still too big to fail or all of their gut instincts about Songs Of Experience led them well: It just became their eighth #1 album, meaning they’ve now set a record as the only group to have scored #1 albums in the 1980s, 1990s, 2000s, and 2010s. That’s a fairly insane accomplishment for a rock band in 2017. As always, they are an anomaly. But the question always seems to linger: Will this band retain, or seek, that status throughout the rest of their existence, into old age? If your universality is forever secure, what drives you to the next chapter?
Over the course of U2’s career, they’ve been considered mainstream and they’ve been considered alternative. They’ve managed to blend the avant-garde with pop, at times leaning further in either direction. For a longtime U2 fan, this current era could, in a way, be somewhat confusing. It’s not the albums themselves; those play with new ideas while also being solidly U2-esque, much in the way the band has through most of their ’00s iteration. It’s the way the band talks, that strange combination of self-awareness, pride, and self-deprecation that arises when they consider the idea of what a great new U2 album is supposed to be, that comes up when they discussed that notion of continued relevance. But at what point does a band like U2 no longer need to concern themselves with such questions or with the desire to incorporate contemporary trends into their sound?
For the Edge, the concerns are twofold. He identifies what he considers a “slow creative death,” where an artist finds the thing that works in a moment and they stay there even after the culture has moved on. Throughout their career, U2 have been resistant to that, to repeating themselves or returning to the past in any significant manner. They want to know what’s going on in the conversation now, today, but they don’t necessarily want to just jump into that. “Often, the best way to respond to the current conversation in the culture is not to mimic what’s happening. It’s to contradict it,” the Edge says. “To create the opposite. That’s valid.”
“Pop music, relevancy, depends on what tools you want to use to paint your picture. I mean, if you’re a video artist, you probably would want to keep up with the new software,” Bono adds, amidst cautioning against the idea that exploring the avant-garde is a virtuous quest in of itself, that it shouldn’t be tempered with a healthy pop sensibility. “But whether it’s analog or digital, it doesn’t matter. If you’re a musician, it’s about what you want to say and hear.”
That’s the big question going forward, for a band with all the baggage U2 has. There are many different versions of U2 — perhaps the real way you achieve universality — which means there are in turn many different versions of the band that they themselves, and their fans, might want to hear. “I’ve had people talk to me about what they think is or is not authentically U2. They’re often in violent disagreement with each other and I like that and I’ve had those conversations for 40 years,” Bono says. “We’ve had some bad haircuts over the years but stylistically, musically speaking, I’m not embarrassed about anywhere we’ve gone. Lyrically, yes. Vocally, yes. But in terms of the present tense, who isn’t curious about what’s going on around them?”
That ties back to Edge’s second concern: to ward off that “slow creative death” by rigorously taking stock of the current sound, where U2 fits into it, and how they can avoid falling on old tricks. “We’ve never stopped being students of music,” he says. “We are insatiably curious about what’s happening and why it’s happening and drawing ideas in from other parts of the culture.” The key, in his estimation, is gaining that awareness as a way to learn what you yourself might need to “discard.” “We have certain things that are very characteristic and synonymous with us creatively in terms of our sound and arrangement style,” the Edge explains. “There’s a danger of us just ending up doing the same old thing. We really are pretty brutal in terms of not allowing that to happen. We try and eliminate those things that would appear to be synonymous with previous albums and our previous creative output.”
To that end, I ask both of them what they want out of U2’s future, after everything they’ve already done. Bono’s answer is, true to form, a bit cheeky and a bit self-deprecating, but also one that, given recent events in their lives, comes with a bit of real weight now: “To have one. That’s not a given.”
“I think every time we make a record, we learn. You still continue to grow,” the Edge says. That’s what he wants, for U2 to keep finding that hunger somewhere. To him, the threat is U2 “succumbing to that sense of entitlement,” the belief that whatever they release should make its mark simply because it’s U2. (It’s easy to wonder whether that take is in some way informed by the backlash to the way in which the band released Songs Of Innocence.) “I’d think we can continue to make potent music,” the Edge adds. “That’s what I’d hope. And ‘potent’ is, weirdly enough, not that subjective. If it it really works, people notice. And if it doesn’t, it’s pretty obvious, too.”
Who knows what form that will take going forward, for a U2 that is unwaveringly successful, for a U2 that is the longest-running band of their nature, with the same four guys, and steadfastly rages against becoming purely a legacy act. There’s something else Bono says that sums it up, all the different angles that go into crafting a U2 album today, all the different perspectives of fans across generations and across the planet. “We’re the U2 you want us to be,” he says. “And, it has to be said, often the U2 you don’t want us to be.” That might be Bono being sly. But there’s perhaps no better way to describe this band’s singular place in the music landscape — then, now, and in whatever happens next.