U2 received a Global Icon award at the MTV Europe Music Awards on Sunday night and they also release a new album on December 1 but recent controversies over their financial dealings may be in danger of overshadowing the band’s real business: making music.
U2 are experiencing something of a perfect storm at the moment. No sooner had they announced details of their new album, Songs of Experience, than the more prosaic matter of their controversial tax arrangements and investments came lurching back into focus with the release of the Paradise Papers.
In among this latest tranche of financial records of the obscenely rich and famous there were some unsurprising international names and closer to home, nobody was overly shocked that Bono was among those revealed to have a rather creative approach to some of his foreign investments.
The family of another deeply divisive Dublin northsider was also embroiled in the Paradise Papers but for Bono and U2, these fresh revelations were another reminder of just how far they have travelled - and in what company - over the last forty years.
U2’s tax arrangements and financial dealings may be, ahem, ethically selective but they are wholly legal. Bono certainly isn’t the first pop star to have a rather covetous attitude to his considerable stash and he certainly won’t be the last. However, few other pop stars humblebrag about their virtuousness quite like the U2 frontman and that’s something that sticks in the craws of U2 detractors and fans alike.
On Sunday the band picked up a Global Icon award at the MTV Music Awards in London. The night before they played a free gig in Trafalgar Square, the landmark in the heart of Westminster which commemorates Nelson’s famous ass-kicking of the Spanish and French in 1805 and a place where Brexiteers get all dewy-eyed when they chug by in their Morris Minors.
U2’s tax arrangements and financial dealings may be, ahem, ethically selective but they are wholly legal
U2 have long been citizens of the world and a Global Icon gong certainly makes sense. Up to a point, that is. The band is sainted and canonised in the US, South America and throughout most of Europe (have you ever met any Italian U2 fan?) but they have always been viewed very differently in Ireland and the UK.
This could be because they’re a thoroughly Anglo-Irish unit or it could be because we and the Brits have a distinct aversion to cant and hypocrisy. Over the years, the great and the good (and John Waters and Eamon Dunphy) have all tried to unpick and define the significance of U2 and their place in modern Irish history and only a fool or a particularly devout Aslan fan would seek to dismiss the band’s extraordinary achievements over the years.
The band is sainted and canonised in the US, South America and throughout most of Europe (have you ever met any Italian U2 fan?) but they have always been viewed very differently in Ireland and the UK.
They enjoyed an imperial phase pretty much unmatched in pop music history but continuing controversies over what they get up to away from the stage and the studio are starting to leave a sour taste in the mouth. Perhaps their philanthropic work and the profile and investment they’ve brought to the Irish culture sector make up for all this but the band’s keen interest in the god of Mammon as opposed to the god of social justice closer to home could very well overshadow what U2 actually do - make music.
Which brings us, inevitably, to the new and fourteenth album, Songs of Experience, and that other eternal U2 question - will it be any good? It’s a question that we’ve been asking since their last truly great work All That You Can’t Leave Behind, which was as long ago as 2000.
These days discussing the band’s new material with a U2 die hard is like trying to reason with an Oasis fan in 2000 who truly believes that Standing On The Shoulder of Giants was, indeed, The Dark Side of The Moon meets 'The White Album'.
But having heard three tracks from Songs of Experience; The Blackout, You’re The Best Thing About Me and The Little Things That Give You Away, I get that usual sinking feeling - U2 just keep bottling it at the last minute.
Hopefully, they won’t make the same mistake they did the last time they released an album. On the night of September 9, 2014, it only took a nanosecond for U2 to make the worse career move of their lives when they suddenly made Songs of Innocence available for free (free!!!!) on zillions of innocent iTunes accounts.
These days discussing the band’s new material with a U2 die hard is like trying to reason with an Oasis fan in 2000
It seemed like a nifty and altruistic way for U2 to zap into the zeitgeist and have the biggest album release ever - even if they didn’t have to actually sell any copies of said album. Instead the Apple move made U2 look imperialistic and hubristic. Worse again, for anybody struggling to make an actually living from music, it cheapened the art.
The drummer from Foo Figthers, another band who have long made a very nice living from recycling the same beige sludge, even called the Apple release method "Orwellian". Which makes a nice change from the "oh, well-ian" music of modern U2.
Here’s another eternal U2 question - is the game up for "the biggest band in the world"? Well, looking at the ticket receipts for the recent Joshua Tree 30th anniversary tour, they are still very much in the game commercially. Whether they're still in the game artistically is another matter entirely.
On the night of September 9, 2014, it only took a nanosecond for U2 to make the worse career move of their lives
Back in the 1980s and 1990s U2’s nearest kindred spirits, both creatively and commercially, were R.E.M.. This, most American of bands, were another four piece with a distinctive guitar sound and a compelling front man and for a long time, R.E.M. and U2 and were two sides of the same shining coin.
In the upper leagues of a rock super stardom that no longer seems to exist, they were genuine friends and also fans of each other’s work. However, the big difference was that R.E.M. bowed out with typical grace back in 2011 on the high note of Collapse Into Now, their best album since 1998’s Up.
U2’s best song of the last 13 years is Vertigo from 2004’s patchy How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb. It’s a wild-eyed and almost disbelieving anthem about the addiction and affliction of huge success, unimaginable riches and fame, stoopid fame. It now stands as the most autobiographical thing they’ve ever written.
It's often said that when The Beatles reached the top there was only one way to go and that was down. But the Beatles couldn’t get down. Vertigo? Nope - U2 have no intention of ever coming down at all.
Alan Corr @corralan