The U2 conundrum – which side are you taking?


U2’s albums – where do you stand?

Love them or hate them? That is the question that Getintothis’ Peter Guy asks when discussing U2. 

About a decade ago I’d have been the first to shoot down those defending U2.

Yet over the last few weeks, I’ve found myself not only defending U2‘s station as the world’s biggest rock band, but also, somewhat championing their corner.

How can one band divide so many – and so passionately?

Furthermore, how have I come to admire them, despise them – and feel unutterably indifferent to the very same band?

In the red corner you’ve several of my mates (and many millions) vehemently rejecting even an iota of credibility or talent emerging from planet U2 suggesting they’re bloated charlatans who appeal to the unimaginative listener.

While in the blue corner, there’s myself (and several millions more) attempting to balance more than a passing interest and grudging respect for a band that simply can’t be written off as self-righteous stadium bores.

Inevitably much of the discussion – somewhat heated, as many music debates end up being – has been fuelled by the fug of closing time empty pint pots.

Nevertheless, it’s an argument which has raised it’s head half a dozen times as the ubiquitous Bono and co. jumped aboard every media outlet and award show in the run up to the release of their 13th record, No Line On The Horizon.

Such was the wealth of fawning press and five-star, ‘career-best’ reviews attached to No Line… it left me intrigued about a record which, had it been released, say five years ago, I wouldn’t have given a hoot about.

So why the change? Simple.

A visit to the City of Manchester Stadium on their Vertigo tour in 2005.

A gig so outrageously cinematic, colossal in sound and charged in emotion it left me reassessing my whole mindset on franchise U2.

A gig which hours earlier I’d contemplated not bothering with.

Yet later that day, I could no longer write them off. Not that I always had.

As a 13-year-old I’d scrawled their name (along with Oasis, Prince, Nirvana and indeed the Spin Doctors!) on school notebooks.

But it had been well over a decade since I’d purposely listened, let alone bought, anything by the all-conquering Dubliners – they were to my ears old hat and a near embarrassment, whose primary actions concerned hobnobbing and political sloganeering.

Music always seemed a distant second… or third, or fourth.

An opinion pretty much shared by many. But post-Vertigo show I found myself revisiting their back catalogue and realising how wrong I was.

And here’s the clincher – U2 have been no-one but themselves for 20 years.

They’ve never followed trends or fashion all the while making music which is largely timeless, rooted in huge melodies and commenting on weighty social issues while finely balancing universal themes of love, religion and struggle.

A balancing act which is almost impossible to achieve without lapsing into cliche, self-righteousness and downright arrogance.

But U2 succeed where so many fail because in essence they contain the punk spirit from the scene in which they emerged challenging themselves and the world in which they belong.

That they do this so openly and so passionately results in such polarising opinions.

This combination is the blueprint for the likes of The Killers, Kanye West, Kings of Leon and Coldplay – four of contemporary music’s leading forces – each of which have yet to match U2’s domination or consistency artistically, in the live arena or in the sales charts.

U2’s new album No Line On The Horizon

For a while, REM (a personal favourite of mine), challenged their domination as the world’s biggest band – but the moment they deviated from their more artistically credible college-rock template they were found wanting before quickly retreating to the safe haven of the left wing fringes.

But most crucial to the U2 conundrum is the 1991 release of Achtung Baby.

This point (raised in a moment of clarity by my friend Rum) is the prime bargaining tool which dissenters fail to recognise.

Post-Joshua Tree, here was a band at both their critical and commercial zenith, yet they retreated into the shadows, rejecting a tested formula in favour of an oblique sound infused with heavy electronics, warped personas and intense production.

In turn they embarked on arguably the most elaborate stadium tour – the Zoo TV Tour – the world had ever seen; again setting the tone for future generations of live spectaculars.

An aspect rarely equalled, (with the notable exception of Radiohead) if ever bettered since. Is it imaginable Coldplay could do such an about turn?

But, hold up. U2 can be bad – and when they are, they’re really bad, and much of what’s followed Achtung… has been just that.

Intended as an EP, Zooropa, probably should have stayed one while Pop, though artistically brave, was largely daft.

Linking up with Pavarotti, the Passengers side project was instantly forgettable while their last two records, All That You Can’Leave Behind and How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb, collected fine singles surrounded, largely, by tat.

And overshadowing the lacking musical content is the spectre of Bono‘s monumental ego; a facet which even retiring drummer Larry Mullen Jr. has been forced to concede is sometimes too much to bear.

Yet, while it’s almost undeniable that your thoughts on Paul David Hewson will influence your impression on U2 as a whole, there’s no denying that this is a band deserving of their place as one of rock’s classic bands.

Oh, and if you’re wondering how No Line on the Horizon shapes up.

After half a dozen listens it sounds particularly limp. Guess the love-hate relationship is set to continue.