Three years ago, U2 began to tell a story. It was the iNNOCENCE + eXPERIENCE tour, an eight-night residency at Manhattan’s legendary Madison Square Garden. The band was touring behind their then-latest album Songs Of Innocence, but onstage they were really after a bigger goal, looking back to their youth in Ireland to try and trace how they’d arrived at that point some 40 years later. Four decades is a long time, but the three-year stretch that unspooled before U2 returned to finish their story with the eXPERIENCE + iNNOCENCE tour, this time with a similarly long residency split between MSG and New Jersey — that feels like a particularly long three years.
When U2 took this stage back then, storm clouds were gathering that have since burst. That partially prompted a tangent between innocence and experience that looked outward at the world, when U2 revisited the hope and anguish of The Joshua Tree in Trump’s America. Bono had a near-death experience that the band has yet to go into detail about, pushing Songs Of Innocence’s successor Songs Of Experience into late 2017. A general sense of existing on the precipice makes it feel as if all of us have aged more than our due in those three years.
This is part of why bands like U2 exist. One thing that hasn’t changed in those three years is U2’s gift for transcendence. Their ability to deliver a show that has just the right amount of resonance with the world outside, but one that offers rejuvenation away from it. If anything, the Bono of 2018 — having abandoned the ill-advised blonde hair of 2015 and singing powerfully and clearly throughout the night — appeared to have aged in reverse rather than closer to 60. U2 had unfinished business with that story from 2015. And as always, your exact predilections for this or that era of U2, your exact feelings on the material they chose to play, barely mattered. They offer something transportive either way — a show that doesn’t necessarily seek to escape real life, but to defy the supposed limitations and concessions of that real life.
As a continuation of the iNNOCENCE + eXPERIENCE tour, the new show resurrects some of the same beats to rearrange the narrative and relate it from a different perspective. The arena is still divided in the same manner. A typical, larger stage rests at one end — once the “Innocence” stage, with the smaller and circular “Experience” stage all the way opposite it, connected by a walkway over which hangs a giant screen spanning almost the entire length of the arena floor and inside of which is another walkway where the band members periodically appear. As before, U2 used the staging to underline the thematic arc of the show, to move between and collapse chapters of their lives.
Yet for anyone who saw the iNNOCENCE shows, the eXPERIENCE sequel opens with an inversion. Three years ago, U2 started the performance with a spartan statement: the same four guys from across the decades, stripped-down and charging through early post-punk favorites as a means of reenacting their origins in a prologue before new Innocence songs that sought to make sense of those origins from a much older age.
Instead, last night began with Bono suspended alone, on a walkway below the screen, bathed in blue light and singing “Love Is All We Have Left,” the meditative Songs Of Experience opener that sure as hell sounds like a man on the other side of a brush with mortality, isolated but trying to find his way back to what matters in life. He’s then raised up into the screen and as “The Blackout” starts to rumble through the arena, silhouettes of the band members bash up against a static-y screen, like characters in a horror movie trying to break free of a glass chamber. When the chorus arrives, the graphics fragment and disappear, and U2 are finally, fully, revealed.
U2 have long made it their business of taking universal feelings, the whole world, and bottling them up into anthemic pop songs. There is, of course, often some specific or human roots as the foundation, the stuff that grounds material as much as it makes it far-reaching, so widely relatable. Last night, Bono alluded to this early on. “Tonight’s show is more of a story really, a very personal story,” he explained. “A boy tries to hold on to his innocence, fails, only to discover at the far end of experience some wisdom and some good company.”
During the initial songs of the 2015 iNNOCENCE set, U2 played underneath a single, giant lightbulb representing the light in Bono’s childhood bedroom. Lights played a similar, major symbolic role in the last night’s continuation of that story, whether the flickering then vibrant embers of memory or the concept of a beacon calling you back to where you came from. The opening trio of new songs closed with the pointedly-titled “Lights Of Home,” which then set the stage for a round of “Innocence” songs. They reached all the way back for “I Will Follow” and “Gloria.” The impressionistic Boy deep cut “The Ocean” was repurposed as an intro of sorts of Songs Of Innocence’s “Iris (Hold Me Close),” becoming a two-part meditation on Bono’s mother, who died when he was a young man. And when “Iris” ended, that lightbulb reappeared.
Some of the plot points remained the same. Upon the reentry of the lightbulb image, the one-two of “Cedarwood Road” and “Sunday Bloody Sunday” followed, songs about their upbringing and the violence that ruptured it in their early teenage years. As in 2015, Bono walked through the screen amidst child-like drawings of his old street, fighting his way against animated sheets of rain. Afterwards, “Until The End Of The World” — one of their finest songs, always welcome and always cathartic — filled the same slot, once more closing the “Innocence” chapter of the show with a song that, in its Biblical imagery, called back to the structures of their youth while simultaneously exploding them to expose the demons that rear their heads in adulthood.
In between, as the “Experience” stage was set to accommodate the whole group, there was an intermission video of ’90s U2 playing across the screen set to the Gavin Friday remix of “Hold Me, Thrill Me, Kiss Me, Kill Me.” Given that was the song they contributed to the famous Batman Forever soundtrack in 1995, said story played out as a comic book about our heroes reckoning with innocence and experience, of their trials and failings and the passage of going out to sea then trying to relocate their sense of lost purity. A surreal narrative, it ends with them meeting a mysterious driver who talks of wisdom at the other side of experience, and a cheeky Heaven Or Las Vegas reference.
This is the point in the 2015 show where the narrative dropped out a bit, and that’s still somewhat true of the eXPERIENCE iteration. There’s a cohesion — setlist, visuals, narrative all in harmony — to the earlier half of the set that gets lost when major latter-day hits are randomly mixed in with songs they would play one way or another like “Pride (In The Name Of Love).” You could imagine the “Experience” section going deep into the murky mess of sin and sex and lost faith and parenthood and redemption that defined their ’90s albums. Instead, there’s “Elevation” with Bono wearing a top hat. “The right to be ridiculous is something I hold dear,” as he once sang.
But even there, the band appeared to be a little more conscious of drawing connections this time around. Something as perfunctory and ever-present as their most significant post-All That You Can’t Leave Behind hit, “Vertigo,” was actually positioned as an overture to the snapshots that tried to sum up the transgressions and phases of their adulthood as effectively as the “Innocence” portion evokes their young manhood. “This is the moment in our story called ‘Vertigo,’ for obvious reasons,” Bono said. “Where the band had appeared to have lost their mind.” (It’s still always something of a bummer when U2 characterize their rich ’90s work as a wayward phase, as if it’s lesser than the safer, more relevance-conscious moves of their ’00s and ’10s.) He continued: “There’s a lot to be recommended in that if you’re kids from Dublin and you get all famous and all.”
They then launched into “Desire,” and you could picture a section of the show about the reckless search for experience of U2’s thirties. But part of experience entails reckoning with how your perception sits in the world, how you are going to consume and interact with and change the circumstances around you. So they played “Acrobat” next.
This is something that, up until this tour, seemed like it may never happen — U2 had famously never performed the beloved Achtung Baby deep cut. Now, it’s a staple of the set, but unlike when they’ve resurrected other lost tracks, like the celestial “Your Blue Room” and “Zooropa” during the 360 tour, they did more work to prime the large audience for a lesser-known song that deserved to be heard as much as their far more famous hits. And while hearing “Acrobat” would’ve felt gratifying anyway, they instead made it thunder with new meaning.
During the “Experience” set, Bono dialed up the rockstar campiness a bit — emerging with that tophat and make-up, mugging it up between songs. Before “Acrobat” he leered into some kind of VR screen, which projected his face on the giant screen above with a creepy, digital overlay of his old Zoo TV character MacPhisto on his face. He started playing the devil again, essentially, and he started by doing a sort of menacing lounge singer à capella of “Sympathy For The Devil.” This was one of the shocks of the night: Bono took the song’s recurring images of “I was there”-type references, and suddenly said he was there with the Nazis and KKK, in Charlottesville, eliciting a good deal of audible “Whoa”s from the crowd. “It was I who spray-painted the First Lady’s coat, told her it was all the rage,” he continued. “Pleased to meet you, hope you guessed my name.”
The rest of the monologue went like this: “It’s a wonderful time to be me, pitting the left and the right against each other. Liberals offended by … everything. Oh! Sensitive little snowflakes. Conservatives offended by … nothing. Perhaps the idea of giving up their assault weapons. That would be awful. You can’t make this shit up. For the educated classes on the island of Manhattan, just remember it’s when you don’t believe that I exist, that’s when I do my best work. Don’t believe what you hear. Don’t believe what you see. If you just close your eyes, you can feel the enemy.”
Those concluding lines are, of course, the first lines of “Acrobat.” What began as a cartoonish but still discomfiting pageant wound up igniting and redefining the song so many diehards have been waiting to hear forever. Those lines, in the context of the Zoo TV tour, spoke to the media saturation of the ’90s, still early in the era of 24 hour news cycles. It spoke to the way information could work as a drug, numbing or overwhelming, perception-altering. “Acrobat” became one of the most potent performances of the night because of it, and there was a convincing case to be made that a 30th anniversary tour revisiting Achtung Baby in the context of the era of digital culture and social media and fake news could be just as resonant as when they revived The Joshua Tree last year.
This in turn set up a complicated final act for the main set. One of the only other ’90s cuts to appear was Pop’s “Staring At The Sun,” just Bono and Edge on an acoustic as they’ve done over the years. Bono joked about how it came out of a period when U2 decamped to the south of France and drank a ton of rosé and, thus, neither he nor the Edge really knew what it was about. But before he began singing the lines “I’m not the only one/ Staring at the sun/ Afraid of what you’d find/ If you took a look inside/ Not just deaf and dumb/ Staring at the sun/ Not the only one/ Who’s happy to go blind,” he remarked that he felt the song was about “willful blindness.” As the song reached its conclusion, videos of Charlottesville played across the screen.
What followed was one of the most striking, most U2 moments of the show. The simmering beginnings of “Pride” — a song about MLK being played in 2018, so soon after the 50th anniversary of his death — were still accompanied by such images, by the Nazi salutes and the KKK, the sickness eating America from the inside out. Then, as soon as the band launched into the song’s chiming intro in earnest and it sounded as if Bono screamed “This is America!” into a megaphone, those images of hateful mobs quickly changed to civil rights marches from the ’60s. This is a very, very U2 kind of thing to do, and if you are predisposed to doubting them, or to despairing in 2018 America, maybe that moment landed with a thud.
But this started an arc that climaxed with “City Of Blinding Lights” as the set closer. It’s a New York song, as always, but this time Bono spoke of a shining city upon a hill. He spoke to an American promise that people all over the world want to believe in, and have seen tarnished and threatened again and again in recent years. That initial moment at the beginning of “Pride” was striking. A pop band playing videos of Charlottesville in an arena, in an era in which some younger pop stars are castigated for staying silent, to an audience that inevitably had its fair share of wealthy, aged fans whose politics may not line up with U2’s, did feel like a provocation. Then, it was answered with “City Of Blinding Lights,” the show once more turning to a light for hope, the song surging forward like an earnest and yearning effort to make the promise feel tangible again.
Ahead of these NYC/NJ shows, U2 did something uncustomary and played the Apollo Theater. By their standards, it was a raw, contained show. As special and unique an experience as that was, the show at MSG was a counterpoint. Some artists have the power for spectacles that reach further and mean more, and they should use it. The technological wonder, the threading of the personal and global … it’s the exact stuff that, if you’re skeptical of this band, could evoke eyerolls. But it was hard to poke holes in it the way you could have with some of their clumsier political lyrics in recent years. In the context of the live show, in the context of that religious experience, it often felt profound.
Then the show ended with something simple, as far as U2 go. They brought everything back to the most personal, and yet a moment anyone in that cavernous room could relate to. The band stood across the arena, on the larger stage, and on the “Experience” stage sat a tiny model of the same childhood home of Bono’s that had appeared as a cartoon on the screen some two hours beforehand. As he sang the night’s final song, “13 (There Is A Light),” Bono slowly traversed that walkway one more time, taking the long trip back to his beginnings, one more attempt to reckon experience with innocence.
If this show was put on by another artist, an artist less fixated on seeking continued relevance and touring behind new work, there would be an air of finality to it all. Where exactly will U2 go after this, after two tours spread out across three years that drew a line from their earliest days to the present moment? Where will they go after facing the gravity of their own mortality, after delivering a show that could plausibly be seen as the final page of a story started in the mid-’70s?
If there’s been something holding U2 back in the 21st century, it’s the weight of their own history. It’s that every album feels reactionary to some perceived failure with another album. There has been much to appreciate along the way, but also much fans could see as something approaching an identity crisis via identity solidification. The eXPERIENCE + iNNOCENCE show is a stunning thing on its own. The thought of what it could yield, the dream of a U2 unburdened from all this self-mythology, is alluring.
Though it’s hard to imagine, say it did end here. Say the eXPERIENCE shows turned out to be the epilogue. Here’s what Bono’s last act of night was. He finally arrived at that small model of his old home, opened up the roof, and pulled out the lightbulb that has burned through all these shows, through all these years. He took that light, and he tossed it through the air, so it swung around glowing above the crowd. He did something that U2 has been doing for their entire existence. He pulled something out from inside of himself, magnified it, and gave it to everyone else. So that, for this night and however many more, they could see their own lives and everything surrounding them illuminated in a whole new way.