Many millennials seem to hate the rock band U2 for some reason. I am not sure why. I know Bono goes and rails against many global causes that frankly Americans do not generally understand their role in Bono’s vision. And, to many, that makes Bono and the band he has been a part of since 1978, U2, targets of ridicule, sarcasm and parody. While I enjoy the parody (South Park is the greatest at meting out parody), the ridicule and sarcasm seems often based in something that is truly difficult to eliminate: ignorance.
While I would NEVER nominate the guys of U2 for pope, or even the title of the “World’s Greatest Rock Band” (the Rolling Stones have been holding onto that claim for 46 years now, since they self-proclaimed themselves with the title and are now holding onto that tile like the pirate skeletons they seem to be now. But, when the Stones made that claim, you could have denied them the title. Since then, we have seen a bevy of artists stake claim to the title: Elton John, KISS, Bruce Springsteen, Sex Pistols, The Clash, The Police, Michael Jackson, Prince, Bruce Springsteen again, U2, R.E.M., Guns N’ Roses, Metallica, U2 again, Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Eminem, U2 yet again for a third time, Arcade Fire, Jay-Z, and, currently, Kanye West. Sorry, Nickelback.
U2 popped into my life back in 1980, when I bought their debut album Boy. Their sound was totally different from most everything else at the time. Sure, we had many lesser known artists at the time who were experimenting with melody and noise, many of which are little known today, such as Joy Division, Gang of Four and Public Image Ltd. But, for some reason, be it their family lives growing up or the simple fact they were Irish, U2 rose above the rest. At the time, few artists were displaying the courage to tackle political, societal and individual ills within their music. Many critics have said that U2 filled the void left open by the untimely demise of The Clash. But, where The Clash had a tincture of art in the prose of their lyrics, U2 went at their lyrics with sense of earnestness that only Kurt Cobain and John Lennon had approached. And, that is where I connected with U2.
Now, I am NOT a fanatic of one particular artist like many are within the KISS Army. That is cool, I wish I could do that. I do get close with Cheap Trick, Prince, R.E.M. and Tom Petty, but I love that variety of music that I grew up with on the radio with WNAP, 93.1 FM in Indianapolis. When I was a tweener and a teenager, WNAP seemed to play a variety, and that’s the way I have gone in my music collection. Still, I connected early with U2 and have grown up with them, purchasing every album they have released along the way.
The great thing about U2 is that they have never stood in the same music place for too long. After they reach the pinnacle with their initial earnest lyrics and sound in 1987 with The Joshua Tree, they took two side steps. The first was the band incorporating the sounds of American music into their sound, producing the Rattle and Hum album. And, when the Nineties hit, the band embraced somewhat of a dadaist approach to their music in order to create their second masterpiece, Achtung Baby. On that album, the band discarded their earnest sound and lyrics and embraced the emerging sound of the new decade that seemed that it was going to be based upon the sounds that David Bowie and Brian Eno created with Bowie’s “Berlin Trilogy” (Low, “Heroes” and Lodger). That may have been due to the fact that the band was working with Brian Eno himself.
Throughout the Nineties, U2 continued down this path with diminishing success, until, that is, the decade was about to flip over into a brand new century. Uncannily, U2 knew it was time to change their sound yet again. Were they going to totally throw away the lessons they learning during the last decade of the Twentieth Century? Absolutely not! So, what happened.
They reached back to the Eighties for a dash of lyrical earnestness to add to the junk-culture musical landscapes their created in the Nineties for a whole new U2 for the Twenty-first Century. And, their music was ready for a world that was about to change due to the acts that occurred on 9/11/01. All of a sudden U2 was comforting us with “Beautiful Day” and “Walk On By” from the album All That You Can’t Leave Behind. Quickly, the band capitalized on the sound with yet another album, How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb. But, what happened next was unprecedented in U2 history: the music stopped.
They struggled personally and professionally. The bond between these longtime childhood friends seemed to be weakening and breaking, until, finally they released the highly uneven and definitely transitory No Line on the Horizon. Personally, I love it when U2 releases these kinds of albums. They have often. Let me name them: October, The Unforgettable Fire, Rattle & Hum and Pop. Each of those came out before a classic album was created. Did the band have enough juice left in them to create another masterpiece?
If the world tour that was tied to that album, known as the U2360 Tour, was any indication, we should not have been surprised that something special was on the horizon. That tour was a spectacle, although not on the lines of what the band did on the tours of the early-Nineties, but musically, the band was at their peak. On July 17, 2011, at St. Louis’ Busch Stadium, I had the privilege of seeing U2 play on one of the hottest days (the temperature was over 100º at the time the warm-up band, Interpol, took the stage) that I had even been outside for an event before. Yet, when U2 took the stage around 9 PM, I was NOT ready for the audio-visual assault that I experienced. The only concerts that I could use as a comparison would be to cross the 1985 Bruce Springsteen concert’s energy and musicality with the theatrics of the 2011 Roger Water’s The Wall concert. I had never witnessed anything like it. When it was over, I knew I had just seen one of my five best concerts in my life, if not THE best.
Well, on September 15, 2014, one of the greatest gestures a rock artist has ever bestowed upon a population occurred when U2 teamed up with Apple to provide EVERY user of iTunes a FREE downloadable copy of U2’s new album, Songs of Innocence. Immediately, millennials everywhere were whining that they were being given a whole album’s worth of music for-GASP!- FREE!!! Now, millennials love to download their music for free, but I guess no artist should EVER give them a copy of them new album, no matter the quality of the music on the album, better give them an album. How dare U2 do that to me! I could NOT believe my ears as millennials everywhere were complaining of this free U2 being available to them to download IF THEY WANTED IT!!! I guess they wanted Rihanna or Beyoncé for FREE instead of an artist that is still viable AND in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame!
In all of their bellyaching, these people missed out on one of the greatest albums about a group of friends who have grown-up together and have aged gracefully and are doing exactly what every other artist has wanted to do when they all begin their careers: stick together, grow as humans AND artists and continue to create fantastic and vital music. This album is the sound of remember one’s youthful optimism, one’s thirty-something battles, one’s forty-something move into elder statesmanship and, finally, arriving in your fifties ready to roar. Keith Richards, that indestructible alien of the Rolling Stones, said back in the Eighties that he wanted to how a rock ages gracefully much like the old depression-era bluesmen that influenced them did before them. Now, on this great 2014, you get to hear this underdog of a band that rose to the top of the rock world – not just once, but thrice!- aging gracefully as one of the most exciting rock band in all of history.
Since I am a completist, I bought the physical version of the U2 album, mainly because I got a second CD of five extra songs not available on the free download. Plus, I prefer the sound of vinyl and CDs over the sound of mp3s. Sorry, my iPod is for convenience only. Anyway, versions of the album begin with “The Miracle (of Joey Ramone)”, a song in which the band of middle-aged men looks back to the heroes of their youth (in this case, Joey Ramone of the Ramones), thanking the hero for the inspiration of a life that ended up being greater than the writer could ever imagine. The album continues that theme, that growing does NOT becoming less vital but giving you the power to grow as a responsible human being. The whole album proves that an artist can improve with age. Sure, they are no longer full of piss and vinegar, trying to change the world. Now, they know their art can still be vital but you can change the world through other mediums. With age comes the realization that you will not get every change that you think needs to happen immediately, like you do in your twenties. Now, you know the changes WILL happen eventually, but change comes glacially, not immediately.
This album will one day go down as the first great album by fifty-somethings that face that age group’s fears and wants. U2 lyrically broke new ground on this album. Finally, adults have a REAL way to rock out without resorting to an artist changing genres, like all the rock artists of the Eighties putting out country albums, right Bon Jovi? Nor do rock artists have to embrace the NPR music of the Middle Ages in order to “feel” mature, like Sting and Deep Purple guitarist Ritchie Blackmore have done. Nope, follow U@’s road map by trying to create great music with lyrics that express the maturity.
Now, where’s my Geritol and Ben-Gay?