Bono and the boys reunite with Steve Lillywhite for that difficult 14th album
One! Two! Three! Four! Bono began Boy, 24 years ago now, counting in the opening bars of “I Will Follow” just so. They sounded drilled and disciplined from the start, marshalling the righteous ire of The Clash with the rigour of Joy Division, like God’s own post-punk marching band…
UNOS! DOS! TRES! CATORCE! So when “Vertigo” wails into life with mangled Spanish, it feels like a timely nod to their garage-band hinterland. “Catorce” rather than the expected “cuatro” because this is, after all, U2’s 14th album (including Wide Awake In America and Passengers). It had, by all accounts, a difficult gestation: a year’s work with Chris Thomas, including sessions with a 50-piece orchestra, was shelved. There are actually seven people, including Eno, Flood and Nellee Hooper, credited with “additional production”. Having spent a decade reinventing themselves as stadium ironists, the supreme irony may be that sincerity is the trickiest pose of all to maintain. If All That You Can’t Leave Behind saw them reapplying for the job of Greatest Rock ‘n’ Roll Band In The World, four years on, they might still be on probation.
In which case recalling Steve Lillywhite, the producer of their debut trilogy of albums, to work with them seems like a back-to-basics statement of intent. But no one steps into the same garage twice. While the songs on HTDAAB revisit the wide-eyed, clanging vistas of October or War, some of that marching certainty has been lost, the compasses are reeling and all the clocks seem awry. Really, the cover of this record could have been an experienced update on the blankly innocent portrait of Boy. The title might simply have been Man.
In retrospect, the key line on ATYCLB was from that affectionate quarrel with the ghost of Michael Hutchence, “Stuck In A Moment”: “I’m not afraid of anything in this world”. It may have been a record riddled with mortality, but it sounded oddly energised by the encounter. By contrast, HTDAAB most definitely has The Fear. Bono has said that he thinks of himself as the atomic bomb of that unwieldy title, that his father’s death lit a self-destructive spark that took two years to defuse. And “Vertigo” may be the sound of that immediate tailspin of grief, the brutal disorientation of “everything I wish I didn’t know”.
Before his death, Bono’s father apparently struggled with and finally lost his faith. If HTDAAB feels much more intimately urgent than any U2 record of the past decade, it may be that, with their belief so jeopardised, their hopes so thoroughly jangled, there’s so much more at stake. While in the past they may have hung with Johnny Cash, and even named a record after the experience of Hiroshima, HTDAAB feels like the first U2 record fully acquainted with Doom, touched by what the American novelist Steve Erickson once called “the nuclear imagination”.
The strongest songs on the record wrestle explicitly with these disconsolate intimations of mortality. “Sometimes You Can’t Make It On Your Own” begins quietly with tough-guy bravado, the circling, half-articulated disputes and debts between father and son, and builds gradually to a keening, chiming, classical U2 crescendo that, crucially, feels dramatically earned. If the grief is operatic, well, as Bono acknowledges finally to the father who conducted along to the radio with knitting needles, “you’re the reason why the opera’s in me”.
“One Step Closer”, meanwhile, is the centrepiece of the record. Inspired by a comment from, of all people, Noel Gallagher, it’s the hushed aftermath to “Sometimes…”. Half-sighed in elaborate reluctance, accompanied by a shining mist of guitar, it offers no consolation in the face of death other than the bruised knowledge that “a heart that hurts is a heart that beats”. But, in its stark, awestruck honesty, it may be the bravest, most affecting song they’ve ever recorded.
This may all make HTDAAB sound like an entirely morbid, maudlin affair—in fact, it’s their most unabashedly strident record since The Unforgettable Fire. At times you suspect that they took the much-trumpeted post-9/11 Death of Irony as a personal relief. On the rampant, rumbustious “All Because Of You” and “City Of Blinding Lights” you get the sense of a band flexing muscles they haven’t used in years. And though he sings, “I like the sound of my own voice/I didn’t give anyone else a choice”, the stadium rock statesman is most assuredly back. “Crumbs From Your Table” and “Miracle Drug”, along with the lavish 50-page CD booklet, grow out of Bono’s campaigning for Third World debt relief, fair trade and AIDS research, declaring baldly, “Where you live should not decide/Whether you live or whether you die”. The stomping Jericho blues of “Love And Peace…Or Else”, meanwhile, is U2’s own tactful intervention in the Middle East crisis.
But even at their most glibly bombastic, there’s a melancholy undertow that they can’t shake. Though the band rattle and strum with their old ’80s vigour, the lines that stay with you speak of a creeping malaise: “I’m at the place I started out from and I want back inside”… “The more you see the less you know”…”What happened to the beauty I had inside of me?”
So it feels like an overcompensation when the record builds to the inevitable, unequivocal prayer of “Yahweh”—the glinting skyscraping guitars of “Pride” or “Where The Streets Have No Name” reactivated and ringing as Bono pleads, “Take this heart… and make it brave”. It’s yearning, rousing and, frankly, it’s U2 on autopilot. It feels like a rather pat conclusion to such a troubled record, a piece of deus ex machina uplift tacked on to a film noir by a studio determined not to send the audience out on a downer.
And you suspect that someone in the band might feel this way, too. Because, for the UK release alone, the record actually concludes with “Fast Cars”, an eerie, Arabic-flavoured sketch of a song recorded on their last day in the studio. Overloaded with “CCTV, pornography, CNBC”, it feels like the dazed and hungover sequel to the reeling “Vertigo”. The singer’s “in detox and checking stocks” while “out in the desert they’re dismantling an atomic bomb”. But the song seems rueful about its rehab: “Don’t you worry about your mind”, sings Bono in a fade clouded in muezzin wails, “you should worry about your pain/and the day it goes away…”. It’s an appropriately unsettling ending to a record that, at its best, is honest in its doubts.