With a Joshua Tree 30th anniversary tour on the horizon, Colm O'Callaghan takes a cold, hard look at The Biggest Rock 'n' Roll Band In The World and asks: where do U2 go from here?

The announcements in early January that U2 were parking the release of an intended album and were instead loading their bases to tour The Joshua Tree on the occasion of the thirtieth anniversary of its issue, won’t have taken regular watchers of the veteran band by surprise. 

Songs Of Experience had initially been touted as a quick-fire follow-up and companion piece to 2014’s Songs Of Innocence, even if more specific detail wasn’t forthcoming, a tack favoured by a band that, even now, likes to play with a closed hand. Innocence was recorded in a  myriad of locations by multiple producers and a team of engineers and sounds like it was a real struggle to complete. And so it’s easy to see why the band has re-ordered it’s to-do list - with a big birthday looming, the associated commercial opportunities are simply too attractive to ignore. The line between band and brand is indeed a fine one and U2 have played fast and loose with it for years.

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Watch: U2 launch their PopMart tour in a New York discount store, circa 1997

The band has always been as pragmatic as it’s been notoriously driven and competitive, especially in the corporate field. Writing about the ticketing mechanism used for the band’s date in Dublin’s Croke Park next July for instance, Jim Carroll has pointed out in his excellent Irish Times blog, On The Record how ‘the same corporate entity is  promoting the U2 [Joshua Tree] tour, managing the band, flogging the tickets and operating one of the biggest secondary ticket markets’.

On the day of the announcement of the forthcoming tour, Adam Clayton, the band’s bass player, told Ryan Tubridy on RTÉ Radio One that  ‘desperate times’ motivated the band to re-visit The Joshua Tree thirty years on. But while many believed he was referring to Donald Trump’s election to the office of American President and the growing sense of global anxiety that’s followed it, he could just as easily have been referencing U2’s creative and critical nose-dive, which started in earnest over ten years ago and which shows no sign of abating. Simply put, U2 have ‘the drabs’ and have been re-cycling bitty old riffs and scraps of familiar lyrical conceits for ages.

It’s not the first time that U2 has shelved a record, of course. The early sessions for what eventually became the band’s 2009 album, No Line On The Horizon were started three years beforehand with Rick Rubin, one of the co-founders of the Def Jam label and unquestionably one of the most important producers in the history of contemporary popular  music. The band’s previous album, How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb, was an uncomplicated, mildly diverting but ultimately familiar sounding U2 record. And so the prospect of a creative marriage with Rubin on it’s follow-up suggested, fleetingly as it transpired, the sort of possibilities realised a decade previously on the two most lateral of all of U2’s albums, Zooropa and Pop, when the band cut loose while under the influence of producers Flood and Howie B. And paid dearly for the privilege at the hands of critics, who largely panned them, and fans, who rejected them.

Simply put, U2 have ‘the drabs’ and have been re-cycling bitty old riffs and scraps of familiar lyrical conceits for ages.

But although Rubin’s ‘Beach’ sessions sound far more conventional than one might have expected, the marriage was dissolved quickly and the band returned instead to the more familiar arms of it’s long-time squad of Brian Eno, Daniel Lanois and Steve Lillywhite, aided by a large support cast of assistants and engineers. Rubin clearly wasn’t taken by, or had the patience for, the band’s preferred way of working - riff it out in studio and let’s see what gives. In an interview with Rolling Stone magazine, The Edge claimed that ‘it’s in the process of recording that we really do our writing’. And, with reference to the abandoned Rubin sessions added - ‘we’d almost have to make a record with Brian [Eno] and Daniel [Lanois] first, then go and re-record it with Rick Rubin’. Even to those of us who’d grown accustomed to U2 at half-throttle, this was a pretty exceptional reveal.

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Steve Lillywhite had first seen the band work this way during the studio sessions for it’s second album, 1981’s October. He’d already produced U2’s debut, Boy, in the relatively modest Windmill Lane facility in Dublin city and was back again behind the desk when an under-prepared band struggled to bring a follow-up record together on the studio floor. U2 have never traded as the most prolific of writers and, having flogged the best of their early material on 1980’s Boy, found themselves under real pressure to deliver a second album on schedule. But despite helping the band to make an initial splash in Britain, October was really no more than a collection of loose ideas and half-imagined words stitched together in studio, a point made by Lillywhite some years back during an interview with the @U2 fansite. ‘They pretty much exhausted all of their songs on Boy’’, he said. ‘They were touring Boy and they used to play I Will Follow twice because they didn’t have enough songs. So when it came to doing October, they didn’t really have very long to prepare it’. And it shows :- the title track is Spinal Tap’s Lick My Love Pump, I Threw A Brick Through A Window is a meandering jam, Scarlet is random riffing and so on and so forth.

Producers Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois go back with U2 to 1984’s The Unforgettable Fire when, during a critical cross-over period in the band’s career, they succeeded in pushing the band out of what had already become comfortable territory. They also pushed the band out into the sticks :- the record was laid down, for the most part in the vast, ornate ballroom at Slane Castle in County Meath, and the layers of production and additional sound design on ‘The Unforgettable Fire’ reflect the extent of the surroundings in which slabs of it was conceived. Much of it brought to the table by Eno, in particular.

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Barry Devlin’s documentary film, The Making Of The Unforgettable Fire is an excellent portrait of a starry-eyed young band at work, especially revealing in how, as early as 1983/84, U2 were approaching the studio recording process and regarding the role of the producer. After three albums and the broader cut-through achieved by War, which was also produced by Steve Lillywhite, the band had of course earned the right to take a looser, more unhindered approach to studio work. But Brian Eno’s contribution to The Unforgettable Fire is vast, none moreso than on Pride, the record’s signature piece, which he elevates – as seen in Devlin’s film – from a series of sinewy riffs into something far more defined and magical. The Making Of The Unforgettable Fire captures Eno variously as producer, mentor, writer, teacher and guru: if Devlin were to document U2 at such close quarters today, what – and who – might he find inside the studio walls?

In Joshua Klein’s 2009 Pitchfork interview with Eno, filed to mark the 25th anniversary of the release of The Unforgettable Fire, the producer explained that the band wanted him on that album was because they wanted ‘to be changed unrecognisably’. And by effecting that change, Eno and Lanois became fundamental to the scale and extent of U2’s global breakthrough and, consequently, their entire raison d’etre. So much so that by the time the two producers had completed their work on No Line On The Horizon, they were also finally credited as co-writers and, to all intents, the fifth and sixth members of the group. If, as The Edge had previously explained, it was in the process of recording that the band did it’s writing, then what was it exactly that U2 brought to the studio with them at the start of that project? Because Horizon, like Songs Of Innocence, sounds exactly like a record painted by numbers and laid down by a committee.

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U2 wouldn’t be the first, and certainly won’t be the last of the great bands to work in such a manner. Johnny Rogan reveals in his book Morrissey And Marr : The Severed Alliance, that much of The Smiths’ finest material came together very quickly during studio sessions, often from half-raw riffs that were vigorously jammed out on the fly. Indeed the band’s long-time producer, Stephen Street, maintains that during the recording of the group’s final album, Strangeways, Here We Come, his input into the string arrangement on Last Night I Dreamt That Somebody Loved Me was such that he could have been given a writing credit.

Although The Smiths were only ever together for barely five years, their career – like much of the early part of U2’s – was characterised by a relentless and often reckless touring-recording-touring schedule. Strangeways, for instance, was recorded off of the back of a long American tour and many of the songs that made it onto that album were seriously under-cooked before the formal sessions began. Its been decades since U2 have had those kind of scheduling problems and time pressures but, from 2000 onwards, they’ve been re-mining the same seam for ever-decreasing returns. And the more that basic songwriting has become an issue, the more desperate – and ultimately cluttered – their sound has become in search of those familiar, big statement pieces.

The more flaccid and middling U2’s records have become, the bigger and more complicated their accompanying live shows have been.

In that same @U2 interview, Steve Lillywhite suggests that the band has consistently asked him back because he brings clarity to what they do. But by their own standards, U2’s recorded output has lacked real clarity and any sort of positive form line since All That You Can’t Leave Behind, their last truly full-bodied album. And the 'Cinemascope cut' of The Joshua Tree that The Edge referred to recently in Rolling Stone magazine is far removed from the wedding video finish of the band’s last three elpees. With U2 cut adrift in the roaring forties, the suite of songs on The Joshua Tree, must pretty much haunt them now.

The more flaccid and middling U2’s records have become, the bigger and more complicated their accompanying live shows have been - spectacle and scale plastering over the obvious. To that end, the Songs Of Innocence tour was essentially U2 : The Musical, a flabby and over-rated theatre show that only really kicked into gear up the final straight when the band dipped into its back catalogue to just about salvage it from the ordinary. And The Joshua Tree cabaret is an obvious extension of that broader theme, U2 celebrating themselves and their achievements – some of which are still scarcely believable – under-pinned by the shake and roll of some of their greatest hits.

The Innocence tour in Dublin was the first time that the emotional underlay that usually accompanies their Irish shows wasn’t enough to fully hold the weight of the band’s ambition. Bono’s voice, previously the fulcrum around which every single great U2 moment has resounded, sounded weary and weak, hindered by the lethargic set-list. And from my seat in the stalls, I found it difficult to buy into the giddy hoopla that surrounded the record’s lyrics - in the absence of imposing signature tunes, the autobiographical aspect of the words had attracted much of the critical focus beforehand. But Bono has long dealt in the confessional, themes of childhood, aspects of family life, parenting, adolescence and loss. And far more convincingly so on U2’s earliest records too. By comparison, the likes of Iris, The Miracle of Joey Ramone and Cedarwood Road just sound as hollow and incomplete as the most featherweight material on October, as if they’d been beaten into shape to accompany an elaborate set and lighting design.

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A point that was also made over five years previously by the Dublin writer and journalist Michael Ross, who has observed the band at close quarters since it’s inception and has written with terrific insight on U2 over many years. And never more so than in a long feature for The Sunday Times in 2009 following the release of No Line On The Horizon - and the opulent live tour that accompanied it – that forensically deconstructed the band’s creative decline using thirty years of personal testimony and first-hand experience to scaffold his thesis. That prescient piece (read it here) is essential for anyone with even a passing interest in the complicated and compelling history of Ireland’s most successful ever rock band, and it was foremost in my mind as I sat watching on in The Point.

I made the mistake of articulating my views on the Innocence tour to my companion that night in November, 2015 - my wife. Devoted, loyal and steadfast, I pale into insignificance when she turns her focus onto the small matter of U2, with whom she’s been smitten for the guts of thirty years, for better and, this last while, for worse. And I’m still paying the price for my loose tongue. She’ll be there once again come July and, like most other long-standing U2 fans, will travel in good faith, delighted to have stayed the course with them, still fearless in devotion. And why not ?

Croke Park itself – and the organisation to which it belongs, The Gaelic Athletic Association – has changed beyond recognition in the thirty years since she first saw U2 anoint the holy ground to the strains of The Joshua Tree. The band itself may be caught in a long-term creative torpor but remain one of the most fascinating, infuriating, driven and ambitious acts in the history of popular music. Like the hurlers of Cork, who’ve long lapsed into listlessness, they have tradition and history on their side, even if that’s been eroded slowly over time. And yet, as we’ve seen over the years, they’re at their most lethal and dangerous when they’ve been counted out.

But for now that count continues, steady and backwards.

Colm O'Callaghan 

Originally published by The Blackpool Sentinel