U2’s Slow Decline (and What They Still Have to Offer)

U2 was one of the first bands to affect me profoundly in my youth.  When I say profoundly, I mean that their music and artistry really impacted my worldview.  I read their interviews, analyzed their lyrics, went to their concerts.  U2 was my hero.  When I grew up I wanted to be The Edge.

However, the band hit its creative peak in the late 80s and early 90s and then ever since they’ve been on gradual, slow decline, not necessarily commercially but creatively.  That’s not to say that they are utter failures, few acts sustain a long career and remain artistically relevant, and from that point of view U2 is a remarkable, resounding, exceptional success.

But I still wonder how the band that could create transcendental anthems like “Pride” and “Where the Streets Have No Name” stop doing so, even though they still clearly want to.  Here are my thoughts on what happened:

  • When the early urgency of punk rock gave way to more atmospheric texture, U2 hit their first sweet spot.  Instead of protesting specific political and humanitarian unrest, they started talking more in abstracts, and that hit the audience much deeper, deeper than rock music ever has, perhaps with the exception of the Beatles.  This run produced The Unforgettable Fire, The Joshua Tree and Rattle and Hum.
  • Then they felt the need to switch gear, as they felt confined by that somber, gloomy and ultra-serious persona they developed over that run.  Achtung Baby was the artistic triumph, the second peak that equals or perhaps even surpasses The Joshua Tree.  They embraced glitzy, giddy and ridiculous fun and used that façade as the safety net to produce the most serious and personal album.
  • But from there they couldn’t figure out how to balance that new-found persona and their music.  Zoolopa and Pop still contained some interesting material, but gone were the consistency that filled the preceding albums and the transcendental impacts.  They found the knife that could cut through deeper but they misplaced it somewhere while honoring their wanderlust.
  • Sensing that they were losing their grip on their artistic identity, they shifted gears back with All That You Can’t Leave Behind.  But re-incorporating some the signature urgency of their first three albums with what they considered their signature gesture to uplift actually missed the point of what made their career peaks.  Together those two elements created bombastic, forced and contrived anthems.  In some spots they worked well enough to create hits, but now they are shallow sport-event anthems at best and can’t come anywhere near hitting the existential, timeless depth of their peak.  They became what they hoped to avoid during their 90s exploration — a parody of themselves, except the pieces they’re parodying, or embracing as the tentpole of their artistic identity, are not their best bits.  U2 never understood what they had, so when they try to return to it they didn’t land where they wanted to.
  • It didn’t help that their production budget swelled up and their albums became heavier and heavier balls to get rolling.  As of this writing their most recent albums, No Line on Horizon and Songs of Innocence are commercial and artistic flops (relative to their catalog to this point, that is) wrapped up in multi-million dollar sheen.  I never equate commercial hits with actually impactful songs but these albums contain neither.
  • Now they are resorting to nostalgia by mounting a tour around The Joshua Tree.  I’m not against revisiting old material, but they in interview essentially admitted that the timeless truths conveyed in that album address the current climate better (and quicker than) writing any new material to do so.

As I write my observation on their career, I’m struck by how they are as clueless as the rest of us and their career lacks any kind of coherent vision.  They are wanderers who are just reacting to whatever they did the last time around, and when they decided to embrace, rather than reject, the idea of an artistic identity in post-2000 era, they only regained more surface-level, shallower aspects of their creative peak.

All that said, U2 is still very relevant and a big-deal today, because as a performing unit they are still firmly in grip with what make them effective and powerful.

  • For all the flashy technological innovation they keep attempting each tour, every outing since Zoo TV also features consistent elements.  The intimacy of the four of them playing together in a tiny “B” stage in the middle of their audience, and the straight forward honesty of showing the four of them facing the audience from the main stage in black and white footage.  When they bring out their signature tune “Where the Streets Have No Name” they begin by flooding the venue with that simple red light, and it still works, and works remarkably, every single time.  That’s what I call timelessness.
  • But together with their long-time collaborator Willie Williams, they keep pushing the envelope of concert experience with daring use of technology.  They are right to cling to their throne as the concert innovator — that’s a seat they never seceded even when their creative outputs floundered.
  • While the staging of the said innovation often requires scripted, theatrical moves in their concerts, they also know that what makes concerts special are unscripted, unexpected, human moments.  Bono still pulls pretty girls up on stage to dance with, a tradition they started way back in 80s — and as trite and over-done as that practice has become, it’s still a concert best practice, one that helps the audience vicariously experience the elation of standing on the same stage with your heroes.  They don’t get carried away with scripts, they know how to balance it out by still being loose and quick on their feet.
  • Bono’s humanitarian activism is unwavering in the face of haters and naysayers, showing up in many places where he’s pretty unwelcome.  He knows how to be loud and obnoxious but he is also steadfast and rock-solid consistent. That results in U2 still maintaining rabid, royal fans of all ages (and a throng of vicious haters — but any time you say anything worthwhile, haters show up.  Haters usually are barometers of how impactful you are.) No one act or person can be loved by everyone, and the key to success is to have loyal followers by being strongly opinionated and remain consistent.

So yes, on one hand U2 fails to recapture their artistic peak, but on the other hand they do remain a force to be reckoned with.  They are peerless in terms of being the latter for as long as they have, which makes me all the more disappointed that they don’t seem to understand what it took to commnd the power they once had in creating new music.

If they are still interested in hitting us as deeply as they did with The Joshua Tree and Achtung Baby, here are my suggestions of directions they can pursue.

  • Recognize that what made those albums special are not uplifting but vulnerability.  When Bono sings “I want to run/ I want to hide/ I want to tear down the walls that hold me inside” or “We’re one/ But we’re not the same/ We hurt each other/ And then we do it again” we’re not told to have a beautiful day, are we?  What moved us was their exploration of their darkness, not their view of a city with blinding lights.  Furthermore, their anthemic, uplifting quality of their music, which is their strength, becomes over-burdened and heavy-handed when coupled with lyrics that match the mood too literally.  The conflict and tension between vulnerability and anthemic was integral to their mid-career pinnacle.
  • If you’re going to return to their root of immediacy, you need to actually embrace it.  Their first three albums are raw and minimal in terms of both layers and production and the arrangements remained fairly spare until Zoolopa They can’t reproduce that while mired in lengthy, no-holds-barred songwriting sessions and slick production.  Go into a studio with nothing in hand for 10 days and make yourself create quickly.  That’ll force you to embrace economy and honor your artistic instincts.
  • Return to talking in abstracts instead of concrete.  Some artists can make more meaningful connection by being personal and specific, but not U2.  Even songs written in reaction to some specific events like “Sunday Bloody Sunday” and “Bullet the Blue Sky” do so without getting nitty-gritty with specifics, and that’s why they remain relevant and timeless.
  • Discard all the electronica and keyboards and explore how the four of you can play together, perhaps differently than they did before.  At this point The Edge’s echo-ridden guitar is so overdone and predictable — Actung Baby was a sonic departure from its predecessors but the fundamental U2-ness didn’t get lost in the mix.  It only expanded the range.

It’s always a balancing act for an artist, as far as sticking to your guns in terms of your artistic identity and taking chances to keep things fresh and avoid being stale.  What matters at the end of the day is where your authentic heart is — AC/DC points a middle finger to artistic exploration but some people like Prince and Bowie made their changes part of their identity.  U2 found its footing and is staying on it as the performance unit but is awkwardly going about their exploration as the creative unit, and I’m sure I’m not the only one to feel saddened to see their slow decline.  I believe U2 can come back, though, I believe in the fire in their belly.  They know who they are in concerts and they just need to channel that energy at the right angle when creating new music.

I am available to serve as your creative consultant any time.  🙂  Here’s hoping that your next album will blow me away and prove me completely wrong.