Wednesday, December 6, 2017

‘Songs of Experience’ by U2 Review: Rocking Its Classic Sound

The raw, lean authority at much of the new disc’s core harkens back to some of U2’s best albums.

By Jim Fusilli
U2's new album is ‘Songs of Experience’
U2's new album is ‘Songs of Experience’ PHOTO: OLAF HEINE

As its title suggests, U2’s new “Songs of Experience” (Interscope), out now, is kin to the band’s 2014 release, “Songs of Innocence.” Because the group took a different approach to recording the latest album, “Experience” surpasses its predecessor and connects to some of U2’s earlier, superior works.

The titles allude to William Blake’s late 18th-century poetry collections of the same names. “Songs of Innocence” is Blake’s rumination on an idyllic childhood that too soon exists only in memory. Similarly, on U2’s recording, Bono explored his teen years in Dublin, his burgeoning awareness of a larger world, and his appreciation of family and the musical heroes of his youth.

But as compelling as were Bono’s narratives, some of the “Songs of Innocence” music was at a distance from U2’s best instincts. The band has long incorporated the latest techniques in music-making into its sound, but here the muddied environment was unnecessarily overburdened with additional instrumentation contributed by the album’s five producers. Played by just the quartet when U2 took them on the road, as documented in the 2016 film “Innocence + Experience: Live in Paris,” the songs hit with power.

For “Songs of Experience,” U2 again deploys a battery of producers, thus hinting it is following the previous album’s template. When it played the beefy new ballad “The Little Things That Give You Away” earlier this year on tour, the song opened with the Edge on piano and the dull huff-ting of a drum machine. But that arrangement isn’t the one on “Songs of Experience.” Instead, the track builds to a fury with the classic U2 sound under Bono’s voice.

It’s been reported that U2, not satisfied with the new album’s direction, went into a New York studio in March with longtime associate Steve Lillywhite and re-recorded the music live without additional musicians. The raw, lean authority at the core of much of the album supports that claim. Instrumentation retained from earlier sessions and appended to the live tracks distracts as often as it enriches. But “Songs of Experience” confirms that bassist Adam Clayton and drummer Larry Mullen Jr. can still create a bottom so supple and sturdy that the Edge has ample room to chug, chime and roam above them on guitar.

That rhythm section is relentless on “The Blackout,” which blends the punch of rock with the snap of funk. “Summer of Love” and “Red Flag Day” are crisp and clear with the bass and the Edge’s guitar in pleasing relief. After Kendrick Lamar’s riff on Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount kicks off “American Soul,” the song profits from the band’s heaviest performance on the disc. If “Songs of Experience” peters out with the cliché-ridden ballad “Love Is Bigger Than Anything in Its Way” and soppy “13 (There Is a Light)”—both of which seem to have been made by committee—the band hasn’t lost its instinct for clever pop: “The Showman (Little More Better),” which features the Edge’s acoustic guitar and a seductive performance by Mr. Mullen, is as catchy as can be.

In his “Songs of Experience,” Blake posits mankind as trapped and forlorn but able to transcend its dire circumstances through love and a refusal to submit to hypocrisy. Bono’s storytelling has long reflected a parallel view. Here, after acknowledging in “The Little Things That Give You Away” that “Sometimes I’m full of anger and grieving / So far away from believing that any sun will reappear,” in “13 (There Is a Light),” he sings, “You start with nothing / You start with a void / Love is all we have left.” The theme of “Love Is Bigger Than Anything in Its Way” is its title.

Bono tackles big issues, including his own mortality. Addressing his recent health problems in “Lights of Home,” he writes, “I shouldn’t be here ’cause I should be dead.” He restates his love for America: “This country is to me a thought that offers grace for every welcome that is sought,” he sings in “American Soul,” while conveying a sense of despair in “The Blackout”: “Democracy is flat on its back, Jack / We had it all and what we had is not coming back.” That Bono can be both a pontificating, steel-willed figure and a musician who opens his heart to admit self-doubt serves well a quartet whose great strength is its mastery of musical melodrama in the rock idiom.

Thus, at its best, “Experience” is in line with “How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb” and “No Line on the Horizon,” U2’s finest 21st-century albums. Now in its fifth decade, it remains a great band that works best when it’s self-reliant and rocks with clarity and determination.

Mr. Fusilli is the Journal’s rock and pop music critic. Email him at and follow him on Twitter @wsjrock.

Saturday, December 2, 2017

‘It was like giving birth’: Andy Barlow on producing new U2 record Songs Of Experience

The follow-up to 2014’s Songs Of Innocence is out on Friday, December 1

Raising the bar: Andy Barlow
Raising the bar: Andy Barlow

Producer, mixer and sound engineer Andy Barlow has spoken exclusively to PSNEurope about his production work on new U2 album Songs Of Experience and how he also became the legendary rock outfit’s live sound design consultant.

Released Friday, December 1, Songs Of Experience is U2’s 14 studio album and is the follow up to 2014 album Songs Of Innocence. Already being hailed by critics as one of the band’s best records in years, Songs Of Experience sees U2 incorporate the many talents of some of the most revered producers in the game, including Barlow, Jacknife Lee, Ryan Tedder, Steve Lillywhite and Jolyon Thomas.

Barlow’s relationship with U2, however, extends beyond the confines of the studio, having served as live sound design consultant for some the band’s notoriously spectacular shows.

Here, Barlow tells us how he wound up hitting the road with one of the biggest rock bands of all time, what it’s like to work with Bono in the studio and why making Songs Of Experience was “like giving birth”…

You’ve been working exclusively with U2 for the past two years as producer and mixer and as a consultant on sound design for their live tour. How did that come about?

Becoming their live sound design consultant happened quite casually. I was on tour with them as producer and Bono said, There are a few things we need help on including our walk-on music, would you be interested in helping us? And a few days later he said, You’re one of the live creative team now, and that was it. Because I’m an artist as well, and been on stage lots of times, I guess I was the obvious candidate to try out for it. Bono feels that when you are in the studio and the red light comes on, you are more forced to come out with ideas because that red light is on. So writing and recording on tour, in dressing rooms, backstage, the red light isn’t on and ideas flow much more effortlessly.

Tell us about the live role. The band are known for their spectacular live shows – were their any particularly unusual requests or challenges?

I’d never done the live role before and it’s a really long show. U2’s live show is over 2 hours long, and on some gigs it would be extremely demanding on Bono’s voice. Their schedule was pretty gruelling so I needed to step in and help. I would think about set list sequencing and change keys to spare his voice, listen to his voice on every section and speak to him about which parts were most demanding on his vocal chords, change the running order and find new ways of singing parts of the song. The extremes from low baritone to falsetto is much more of a strain on his vocals than anything else, so it was about looking at that and lessening the intervals and placing them differently on the live set so that we could get through the show without his voice deteriorating. Bono needed creative ways to retain his vocal power, and he was to be able to finish the yearlong tour around the world.

You produced five tracks on the new record. What was that process like?

It was bit like giving birth. The thing about U2 is if you think you know what it’s like to produce bands, working with U2 would confuse you because they do things completely differently to everyone else. For example, usually you have to win the trust of the musicians before they let you get stuck in with directing, but Bono from the first moment was without ego. He is more open to new ideas than anyone that I’ve ever worked with. When Bono would come in, he would come in with a verse, then another verse, then another verse, and I’d record all of them and Bono would then say, It’s up to you, you pick the one you like’.

Trying to write and record an album while rehearsing for shows is hard for a band, but as we progressed, it spearheaded the whole creative tsunami that followed. When we got to LA, after the tour we started to get a lot done. We were in Rick Rubin’s studio and everyone was focussed on the record. Being on the road, you can get each member for just a few minutes at a time, and we’re in a dressing room where there is not enough space to record as a band. So I would be piecing individual pieces of a jigsaw puzzle, rather than having the overview of recording together as a band. Apart from Ireland, LA was the first time properly that we could record the band all together.

Talk us through the gear and the studio you used to make those tracks?

We had a large UAD rig, they really like everything to be plugged in and ready to play, so every morning we would sound check guitars, keys and bass, which means having a lot of inputs. I would un-mute a channel and it would be ready to record. On the UAD rig I’ve got every plugin that it comes with. Bono really loved singing in front of speakers with a SM58, this would be run into a Universal Audio 6176, into an UAD Apollo interface via a Manley Vari Mu compressor. The drums would go into Neve 5024 Mic pre amps. I’ve been monitoring on Genelec and PMC monitors. Guitars would come into me from The Edge’s amps via Royer ribbon microphones and SM57s. Bass I would take with Adam [Clayton’s] Vintage Ampeg recorded with a Shure SM7 mic via an L2 Compressor. For The Edge’s vocals, we did lots of them again handheld, with a Telefunken M80 microphone, again via a Neve Mic pre, which worked really well on his voice.

How involved were the band on the technical side of things in the studio? How involved is Bono in mic selection, mixing etc?

They don’t give a damn, they are very happy to take my lead! The Edge is very technical and is always coming up with signal path changes and effects and processing his guitar in different ways and is a genius at it. But the band didn’t get involved in the technical side of things really; they left it to me to choose the technical equipment So they could focus on the creativity

How much pressure and expectation is there going into the studio with a band the size of U2?

Everyone on their team is the best at what they do, so it does set the bar very high. The band were extremely busy, so sometimes I only got them for an hour a day, so there would be a lot of my interpretation to get a feel for how the band felt for how I was progressing when they came in for the next session. I felt some pressure, mostly from myself for wanting to excel at it and not get lost. There was a lot of heightened pressure, not so much from them, but the enormity of working with a band on their scale.

U2 confronts the dinosaur within on new album 'Songs of Experience'

by Greg Kot

dinosaur wonders why it still walks the earth," U2 sings on “The Blackout.” It’s not the best song on the band’s new album, “Songs of Experience” (Interscope), but it may just be the most revealing.

It’s also an encouraging sign that U2’s latest crisis of faith — and there have been many in the Irish quartet’s storied if fractured career — comes with a dollop of “Jurassic Park” humor, a send-up of its own natural tendency toward bombast and overstatement. U2 lives in constant fear of turning into a classic-rock dinosaur, though it often behaves like one, and it’s refreshing to hear Bono and his bandmates confronting and poking fun at the stodgy old beast that lurks inside the decades-long stadium rockers.

“Songs of Experience” tries to remind listeners that U2 still has a few surprises left to unveil: It’s unusually subtle and low-key at times, it’s frequently self-deprecating, and it has one or two powerful moments that rank with the band’s better music. In sum, it’s kind of a mess, which means it’s a heck of a lot more interesting than its predecessor, the ill-fated 2014 album, “Songs of Innocence,” now best known as the dud that invaded iTunes user’s libraries in a poorly conceived marketing stunt cooked up by the band and Apple.

Bono, the Edge, Adam Clayton and Larry Mullen Jr. have made some of their finest music when they act like they have nothing to lose. That was particularly true during the ’90s, which produced a mix of noisy, jumbled, occasionally confusing and confused albums that veered between accidental masterpieces such as “Achtung Baby!” and half-finished tangents such as “Pop” and the “Passengers” side project. It was a great time to be a U2 fan, with music that was both raw and ridiculous, with bursts of unexpected poignancy, humor and why-the-hell-not? experimentation.

The ’90s, and “Achtung Baby!” in particular, also marked the first of several “comebacks” in U2’s career. It was followed by an era of more conservative albums that recycled the band’s best ’80s moves once the experiments started to lose luster with a fan base yearning for more “Joshua Tree”-style guitar anthems.

“Songs of Experience” tries to make amends for “Songs of Innocence” by easing back slightly on the slick pop production that sucked all the character out of the earlier album’s songs. The new album was initially conceived as the “adult” sequel to the childhood memories of “Innocence,” but that plan ran aground as the album churned through nine producers and several revisions. It was finally revamped for the final time after Bono’s mysterious “brush with mortality,” as described by the Edge in a recent interview with Rolling Stone.

The initial impression left by “Experience” is of a more tempered and low-key U2, with Bono delivering some unusually warm and intimate vocals that suggest a man who has indeed faced some sort of personal reckoning. The singer has suggested that several songs were conceived as letters to his wife and children in the aftermath of his near-death experience, and that reflective tone lends a haunted quality to “Love is All We Have Left” and an aura of stunned gratefulness in “Lights of Home.”

In “You’re the Best Thing About Me,” ostensibly one of several love songs on the album that Bono addresses to his wife, the band wrestles with self-doubt over Adam Clayton’s foundation-crashing bass line. Clayton’s bass, long the band’s secret weapon, was largely muted on “Songs of Innocence,” but it resumes its Godzilla-like presence on several “Experience” songs. “I have everything, but I feel like nothing at all,” Bono sings, and later wonders, “Why am I walking away.” Is he talking about his wife? His family? The band itself?

Yet the best that can be said about lesser tracks such as “Get Out of Your Own Way” and especially “American Soul” is that Kendrick Lamar’s bleakly humorous reinterpretation of the biblical beatitudes walks away with both of them. “American Soul” wants desperately to shift the perspective to world events and the refugee crisis, but it’s a heavy-handed stomp that provides a forum for some of Bono’s most face-palm-worthy lyrics: “For refugees like you and me/A country to receive us/Will you be our sanctuary/Refu-Jesus."

Yet two subsequent tracks addressing the same issue leave a far more favorable impression. There’s the nuance of “Summer of Love,” a sparse tribute to the Syrian citizen who continued to nurture his garden amid the carnage of Aleppo. And there’s the fierce conviction and melodic propulsion of “Red Flag Day,” anchored by another shattering Clayton bass line.

The album toggles between extremes, sandwiching strong songs amid ponderous throwaways. As it winds down, the missteps pile up: a lesser husband-wife love song (“Landlady”), a bloated would-be anthem (“Love is Bigger Than Anything in its Way”), and, in “13 (There is a Light),” a rewrite of “Song for Someone” from “Songs of Innocence,” apparently appended to the album to create a false sense of symmetry with its predecessor.

And yet there are also two brash tunes that sound like U2 talking to itself, and by extension its fans, about what it means to be a rock band in 2017. In the shaggy, loose-limbed “The Showman (Little More Better),” Bono suggests that all those we pay for entertainment — including, presumably, the singer in the biggest Irish rock band of all time — shouldn’t be trusted for anything. “I lie for a living, I love to let on,” Bono sings. “But you make it true when you sing along.”

Similarly, “The Blackout,” parodies arena rock with its groaning guitars and, yes, another city-stomping contribution from the irreplaceable Clayton. All doubts are extinguished “when the lights go out” and the music takes over. The takeaway: Dinosaurs really aren’t extinct. They’re alive and well and living inside Adam Clayton’s bass.

Greg Kot is a Tribune critic.

Twitter @gregkot

“Songs of Experience”


Two and a half stars (out of 4)

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

U2 - Songs of Experience

U2's staying power, self-belief and hope remains admirable after all these years

By Alan Corr

The band who tried to make the devil’s music find religion face up to mortality and wrestle with geopolitics on their new album - so business as usual for U2 but there are fresh signs of vitality

U2, that most thoroughly un-rock `n’ roll of rock `n’ roll bands, are not so much shaking all over as aching all over on their 14th album. Songs of Experience is no longer a "companion" piece to 2014’s windy Songs of Innocence but a collection of thirteen new tablets of stone from the Dublin veterans, all carved with lyrics about mortality, love, and even the actual act of performance itself. 

This wouldn’t be a U2 album if front man Bono wasn’t back trying to throw his arms around the world in an over-earnest manner that threatens to smother the good work of his fellow band mates. The ongoing refugee crisis is mentioned, America’s slide into cartoon autocracy is touched upon, and matters familial take up a lot of space here. 

Bono is also facing up to mortality after a nasty bicycling accident in New York in late 2014 and, more seriously, what he calls a "recent brush with death", which he refers to on several songs here. So far, so U2 but there are also signs of life amid the naff lyrics ("For refugees like you and me/A country to receive us/Will you be our sanctuary/Refu-Jesus") and over-reaching musical bombast - the band actually sound more vital and than they have since their self-decreed comeback, 2000’s All That You Can’t Leave Behind.

The much delayed and much tinkered with SOE was produced by Jacknife Lee and Ryan Tedder with Steve Lillywhite, Andy Barlow (of unsung electronic music duo Lamb), and Jolyon Thomas, and the songs shimmy between traditional U2 bombast and something far deeper and self-analytical. There are cranked-up rockers like the War era Red Flag Day but there are also moments of reflection and humour like The Showman.

However, too many of these songs sound like Bono is being immolated by his self-obsession again and the listener’s interest in the singer’s private life will dictate how much room in their hearts they have for another paean from a very famous bloke to his wife and kids. The Landlady, with its pitter patter drums and clipped guitars, is a cute but slightly meandering love letter to his wife Ali and elsewhere he wonders how his children will fare as they enter into adulthood. Listening to all this is just a tad like having to view your mate’s Instagram posts of his summer backpacking in Goa. 

When poet Brendan Kenneally advised Bono to "write like you’re dead" he probably didn’t have such lines as "You are rock and roll/You and I are rock and roll/You are rock and roll" in mind. There are many other moments of facepalm naffness on SOE. You may even utter "Refu-Jesus!" several times but the alchemy of the band make up for the more mawkish moments.

The Edge has magicked up some of his more inventive and engaging riffs in years (Hendrix here, Harrison there) and the engine room of Adam and Larry stomp all over the place, reasserting themselves amid the sci-fi gospel tunes and ambient longueurs. Adam Clayton’s bass in particular prowls the precincts like a very cool cat and the nuts and bolts mechanics of Larry Mullen’s drumming often hold the over-reaching arrangements together with ballast and sheer muscle power.

That impressive gallery of top notch producers behind the desk and in the studio means that there is much sonic messing about. Some of it is thrilling; Love Is All We Have Left is a spectral prayer in which Bono tries vocoder for the first time, and the scrappy Sweet Jane styled The Showman is among the best songs here, with its self-reproofing lyric and a surprising appearance of a brass section.

Bono’s chronicle of a death foretold, Lights Of Home, also has a strong melody with yearning guitars gnawing away at the edges and mucho tub thumping from Larry before it takes off into a heart-bursting anthem. But that talent for the lumbering and the inconsequential is also present. You're The Best Thing About Me is U2 by numbers, complete with distorted bass, exotic strings, a cathartic guitar solo, and some pretty ill-judged chord changes. It is only slightly less irksome than City of Shining Lights.

Get out of Your Own Way is another one of those dispiriting U2 moments when U2 sound like The Killers trying to do a U2 song only with possibly less clichés and tuneless choruses while Kendrick Lemar’s satirical Old Testament fire and brimstone preaching is the best thing about the dumb stomp of American Soul.

There are many references to the past. The Little Things That Give You Away may touch on the small hours menace of Achtung Baby but it’s just another plodding verse/chorus workout that collapses after a breakneck dash to an anti-climax. The Blackout, however, bounds along with all the distortion of Zoo TV era on a bassline that would support a suspension bridge.

There are also plenty of well-meaning but top heavy clunkers like Love Is Bigger Than Anything In Its Way (flatulent heroism on a grand scale) and 13 (There Is A Light), a somewhat superfluous slight return to SOI’s windswept Song for Someone.

As is often the case with U2, they are at their very best when they are vulnerable. Questioning his very motivation after a recent volley of fresh attacks, Bono even sounds almost thunderstruck by a new sense of self-awareness on at least one song here. But even after this return to form, the band will remain as polarising as the polarised world they’re singing about.

Despite it all, U2’s staying power, self-belief and hope remains admirable after all these years. Rarely have four men with so much experience sounded so very innocent.

Alan Corr @corralan

Tuesday, November 28, 2017

U2's Songs of Experience is full of desperation and meaty hooks in equal measure

U2 performing at Twickenham in July  CREDIT: BRIAN RASIC/BRIAN RASIC

by Neil McCormick

U2’s 14th studio album opens with one of the most vulnerable and fragile songs of their 41-year-career.  Love Is All We Have Left swells on trembling strings and synths, with Bono’s close, cracked vocal blending into digital auto-tune as he conjures a space age lullaby for an impending apocalypse. “This is no time not to be alive,” he sings.

It’s a short, strange, sparse vignette, its spectral beauty interrupted by a gnarly distorted guitar riff as the veteran band turn on the power, and roll exultantly into Lights of Home, a chunky anthem brushing off near-death experience (“I shouldn’t be here cos I should be dead”) to reach for the light at the end of the tunnel. “Free yourself to be yourself,” choral voices command in a coda purpose built for mass singalongs. This is surely closer to the idea that most listeners have of U2 as an upbeat, inspirational, anthemic rock band. And Songs of Experience is full of such moments: big meaty hooks matched by singalong aphorisms (“Get out of your own way!” “Love is bigger than anything in its way”). But the sound of a man in conflict and crisis also runs through the centre of this highly personal collection of songs, undercutting and ultimately deepening the spirit of can do positivity.

Songs of Experience is a companion to 2014’s Songs of Innocence (the one they controversially gave away free on iTunes, whether you wanted it or not). It even reuses some themes. A fantastic throwaway coda from that album’s Volcano returns as the hook to anti-Trump political anthem American Soul. Closing track There Is A Light is a tender reworking of Song For Someone, shifting its focus from the singer’s wife Ali to their four children, urging them to summon the strength to face uncertain times: “I know the world is done but you don’t have to be.”

As chief U2 lyricist, Bono has been at his most confessional on these two albums. Innocence was an autobiographical look back at the forces that shaped U2 growing up, its modern pop textures filtered through their new wave rock roots, as if debut album Boy was being revisited through the prism of a grown-up. On Experience, that same Man is in the grips of mid-life crisis, confronting problems in the world and himself. It was conceived by Bono as a series of letters to loved ones, something that you might write if you knew you were going to die. There have been hints of a health scare in recent interviews, although the big surprise to anyone who has known him as long as I have is that he admits to his first real crisis of faith. “Oh Jesus if you’re still my friend / What the hell you done for me?” he cries out on Lights of Home. “Sometimes the end is not coming, the end is here,” he sings with a tone of shattered bewilderment on existential ballad The Little Things That Give You Away.

U2’s familiar optimism is still present on good humoured songs like The Showman and Landlady, but it’s undercut by the inescapable impression that this is music made to keep pessimism at bay. Meanwhile personal struggles are made explicitly political on the album’s punchiest sequence, where he moves from grappling with America’s swing to the right on Get Out of Your Way (“You got to bite back / The face of Liberty’s starting to crack / She had a plan until she got smacked in the mouth / And it all went South”) to the human cost of Europe’s refugee crisis on Summer of Love (“In the rubble of Aleppo / Flowers blooming in the shadows” ).

Musically, though, Experience is perhaps their most old fashioned album, in part because they are no longer so reliant on conjuring science fiction soundscapes to compensate for musical limitations. Adam Clayton’s bass playing has never been as nimble, Larry Mullen’s drumming never more loosely free-spirited. Even inventive guitarist the Edge seems less reliant on effects, relishing juicy Beatle chords and carefully articulated slide guitar solos. As a lifelong fan, I’m not sure I entirely approve of this development, however.  There are harmonic shades of the California soft rock of Fleetwood Mac, while You’re The Best thing About Me essays the raunch of the Rolling Stones – the kind of band the young U2 wanted to sweep away but now cite as role models. Jacknife Lee and a whole team of state-of-the-art producers and engineers have been brought on board to lend everything a detailed, dynamic, up-to-date sonic polish but only one track, The Blackout, pushes towards the kind of audacious cyberpunk energy of Achtung Baby.  This is a band who are now perhaps over eager to compete on the radio and in the charts with their successors, Coldplay and The Killers, but might be better served following artier trajectories of their own.

But as the title makes plain, Songs of Experience is not the work of young men. It showcases U2 at their most mature and assured, playing songs of passion and purpose, shot through and enlivened with a piercing bolt of desperation. “The showman gives you front row to his heart / Making a spectacle of falling apart,” Bono sings with defiant humour on The Showman, and it is this spectacle that makes Experience so compelling. A little battered by time and bloodied by events, U2 remain defiantly unbowed, as determined as ever to make mass market music that really matters.

'Songs of Experience' is released on Friday

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

U2 interview: Bono on death, taxes and their new album Songs of Experience

U2 in concert at Twickenham
U2 in concert at TwickenhamDANNY NORTH

Recently, Bono has been worried about how he will be remembered when he dies. “The loss of David Bowie affected me profoundly,” he says. “And Leonard Cohen, who I didn’t know as well as David, but I knew Leonard.” Both singers were given a vibrant sendoff, and the tributes were 99% positive. That won’t happen for Bono. “At your funeral, nobody talks about what you achieved,” he says a little sadly. “They talk about whether you were funny or not. Were you kind to your kids? So I’m moving away from worrying too much about legacy, as regards U2 or my own work, to be more concerned about what my kids and friends think of me.” I met Bono in Sao Paulo last month on the terrace of his hotel, the day after another run-through of the band’s classic album, The Joshua Tree, for their sellout 2017 tour. A woman in the crowd passed out. Models posed for selfies. Owen Wilson was there, in bold floral trousers, singing his sad heart out to With or Without You. Four men thumped the night sky whenever U2 played a hit, which was a lot.

When I mention those men to Bono, he asks if I have met Javier Bardem. That’s how his conversation goes, a verbal rush through Who’s Who. Bardem, he explains, is a “champion air drummer”. He name-drops all the time, from “the Macca” to his “quite close friend” Lena Dunham. The photo below was taken by the supermodel Helena Christensen. He has a cluttered phonebook and a cluttered mind, too: answers come, but take an age to arrive. Dressed in head-to-toe black and tinted specs, it’s as if he has been preserved, not as the punk first famous 37 years ago, but as the strutting, do-gooding rock god of the 1990s. He’s like living, breathing taxidermy.

Two weeks after I met Bono, the Paradise Papers bomb dropped. He was named in them for using a “Malta-based firm to invest in a Lithuanian shopping centre”. It was an accusation of tax dodging against the poster boy for the moralising super-rich.

His spokeswoman insisted there was no wrongdoing, but he was still labelled a hypocrite. I emailed to ask how that felt. “I believe fully in transparency and have no interest in my investments being hidden, in Lithuania, Malta or anywhere else,” he replied. “This investment was in 2006, and my name has been visible to relevant authorities.” He added that he was part of a push in 2013 to give the press access to who owns what, and where. “I didn’t then, and don’t now, want to be complicit in a system that’s got way out of control in terms of its opacity. I think you can be an investor as well as an activist — there is nothing wrong with being a thorn in your own side.”

An attempt at face-saving, then, but this is why Bono’s legacy is far from secure. For non-fans he comes across as a two-faced, sanctimonious chugger. Fans, frankly, don’t care. U2 have played to 2.7m people on this year’s tour, and their popularity and mega-wealth meant that they (and I) fled the Sao Paulo stadium with a police escort, to an upscale hotel they had taken over for their crew and entourage. When we arrived, somehow the bassist Adam Clayton was already pacing the foyer in a flowing kimono.

Bono doesn’t help himself, but you have to admit that his money-raising does good. His (Red) branding exercise, for instance, has produced more than $465m for Aids work in Africa. Some of his tax bill may have been avoided, sure, but with the other hand, he doles out funds to needy causes. It is greatest-good-for-the-greatest-number maths to vex Jeremy Bentham for months.

Men of experience: Adam Clayton, Bono, Edge and Larry Mullen on tour in Brazil

Yet, however annoying Bono may be, I’ve met enough people desperate to dismiss all his work just because they hated that time an unwanted U2 album turned up on their iTunes. “I pretended in the past that it didn’t hurt my feelings, but it might have,” he says when asked about the public perception of him and his band. “But I don’t think it bothers anyone any more.”

It is telling, then, that I found Bono frail close up. On stage, he is anything but, yet from the cracks in his voice to the stories etched into his skin, he fills all his 57 years. Our meeting occurred before the Paradise Papers were released, but he already seemed spooked. I was not surprised. There are clues about his state of mind in Songs of Experience, U2’s imminent album, their 14th, which has tracks written for those he cares about most: his wife, Ali; his four children; Jesus. It’s the dark lyrics, full of nods to death, that linger.
“I’ve had a few attempted knockout punches,” Bono admits, quiet as a whisper for much of the interview. A serious bicycle crash in 2014 was widely reported, followed by the deaths of Bowie and Cohen. Were they the said punches?

“No, there’s a few things, but I won’t go into them,” he says, before stopping, thinking, picking up again. He does this a lot. “Everyone has a brush with mortality, and I don’t want to get into the soap-opera aspect, but I went, ‘OK, I may not be indestructible.’” He nods when I suggest it was a wake-up call. “A moment to stop and, in that pause, I thought, ‘I’m going to look at mortality and how it affects the way I see my family, friends and faith.’”

To this end, a striking line in the terrific Lights of Home — “Oh Jesus, if I’m still your friend” — is hard to ignore. Did Bono’s brush with death lead him from God? “My curiosity takes me to dangerous places, and I’ve been nonchalant about that,” he admits. “Partly because of my faith, but then I felt that faith go out of reach. It was last Christmas, and I was surprised. Belief is preposterous, but I have it, and I thought, ‘I’m experiencing fear!’

“It was new, and I realised I don’t want to die. I want to spend more time with my kids. There are songs I want to write, stuff I can be useful for. Then, when I admitted I was afraid, my faith returned.”

U2 have never been a subtle band, nor have they ever claimed to be. The bluster and fury of 1980s hits such as I Will Follow still stand up, though their musical power got patchier after Achtung Baby (1991), with its heavy mood and sonic experimentation. By 2004’s vast-sounding Vertigo, the Dublin foursome had become the biggest band on the planet, but their music had become vaguer, epic filler. Songs of Experience is a strong return. With classic skittering guitar from Edge, it is the simplest they’ve been for years.

“You have to watch the lurgy of progressive rock,” Bono smiles, as he cites Carole King’s Tapestry and sings one of his new songs to me as if it were a piano ballad on that album. The band’s current sound, then, is upbeat, but often Bono sounds lost. Depressingly, at one point, he sings: “The end is here.”

It’s not just his personal apocalypse he’s addressing after all; and in tackling the recent liberal apocalypse, his bluntness is really in your face. Take The Blackout, a military stomp with the line “Democracy is flat on its back”, followed by: “Is this an extinction event?” It’s as subtle as burning an effigy of Trump. This summer, a U2 show in St Louis was cancelled due to race riots. How does Bono, a part-time New Yorker, feel the country that gripped him as a child in Dublin changed in 2016?

“People have been acting like something died,” he says. “It is grief. The death of innocence. And my angle is, ‘Good!’ Now you can start. Because we lived with this idea that things would get fairer. Women’s rights. Gay rights. It was just happening. Then it stopped.”

Was it complacency? “Yes,” he says emphatically. “People believed in spiritual evolution by its own hand, but there’s no evidence for this.”

In February, in his second job as a philanthropist, Bono was criticised for a photo op with the vice-president Mike Pence. It didn’t help that he praised the politician for “hitting the ground running”, even if Bono insists he meant that day, after a night flight, not the new administration’s activities in general. Either way, the meeting was odd. Pence’s push for a “global gag” cuts aid to the very women in poverty that Bono’s Poverty Is Sexist campaign seeks to help. Why on earth meet him?

“Mike Pence is a person I believe we can work with,” Bono says. “I may not agree with him, but I believe him when he speaks. I have sympathy for idealists — what you and I might think of as narrow-minded ideological fundamentalists like Pence. If you can widen the aperture of that idealism, they’re capable of being passionate about, say, the environment or poor people. And liberals have got to be careful of that awful dismissiveness of people who have thoroughly conservative views.”

A meeting with Trump, though, isn’t on the cards. “I can’t meet with him because he doesn’t tell the truth. I have good friends in the Republican Party... It’s going to end in tears, and people will be embarrassed that the Oval Office was turned into the WWF.” (He means the wrestlers, not the animal-savers.)

Like Forrest Gump with gumption, Bono has met most of the important politicians of his era. Some strong relationships will remain so. About Aung San Suu Kyi, though — for whom U2 wrote a song — he told me: “Until I speak to her, I don’t want to vocalise too much [about the Rohingya crisis].” He was hoping to phone her and come back to me with his summation of her stance, but she didn’t accept his request for a call, which led to a band statement about blown minds and broken hearts. When he talks about her, though, or America, or his dashed hopes after the Arab Spring, it is clear that much he fought for is collapsing around him.

He mentions a quote from the activist Wael Ghonim: “The power of the people is so much stronger than the people in power.” It is beautiful, he says. His voice trembles. “Turned out not to be true.”

The next day, in Edge’s room, U2’s second most famous man is wearing his regulation hat and strumming an electric guitar in front of the TV. It’s a portable studio. Sprightly and sturdy, has he been worried about Bono of late?

“Yeah,” he says solemnly. “When your friend goes through trauma that could’ve been fatal, of course you’re concerned. Clearly, we’re at an age where we have to think about our wellbeing, because when you see so many people — not much older — just dying, it’s like, OK...” He pauses. “You start to put on the safety belts for the first time.”

About Songs of Experience, Edge says “simplicity is where music is at” now, and offers Rihanna’s sparse Anti album as inspiration. “It’s tight,” he says of their new record. “There’s no half-baked ideas.” He’s right: the tunes are much more probity than prog. Which is why the lyrics lend themselves to close scrutiny. One song, You’re the Best Thing About Me, about Ali, Bono’s wife since 1982, has a pained coda of “Why am I walking away?”.

That’s going to cause headlines! Is he prepared? “I am,” the singer says. “But I never wanted to do Ali the disservice of a sentimental song, so I wrote a midlife crisis one instead. It is a portrait of an idiot.” He goes on to explain that he had a nightmare in which he left his family. “I woke and was in tears. I went to the kitchen and got, ‘Ah, poor pet. And you left, did you?’ I’m mocked quite a lot at home.”

Bono, I have to admit, is sweet when he talks about home, maybe because nobody punctures pomposity like loved ones. That is where, in his daughters, Eve and Jordan, he sees hope for the world. “Get out of the f****** way!” he growls approvingly of a united fight he sees in women now, with recent marches and movements. “It’s the most important shift, the rising tide to lift all boats — women.”

As a sign of shifting attitudes, Ireland is set to hold a referendum on abortion. “My daughters are swinging from the rafters,” he says about the vote, planned for next year. “But telling women what to do with their bodies is unacceptable, and I think Irish people know that.” Will he make his voice heard nearer the time? “I don’t know,” he says. “They may not want my placard up there. ‘It’s OK, Bono. We’ve got this one!’”

He laughs. He is way more knowing than critics and satirists give him credit for. Back on U2’s debut album, Boy, Bono sang: “I felt the world could go far/If they listened/To what I said.” I guess he’s been arrogant since he was 20. He finds this funny, saying the line is “lovely, wistful humour — that’s one of the greatest debut albums... that we ever did”. He smiles, thinking back to that prophetic boast of a line. “Yeah,” he says, raising an eyebrow. “How are we doing on that project?”

The terrace has filled with well-wishers. Some try to give Bono a basket of milk products made by oppressed Brazilian women, while a fan with a U2 tattoo really wants him to see her arm. These people will cry when he dies, but what will his wider legacy be? The arena-filling star who aided the world’s ill and poor, or being “that hypocrite” who told people how to behave? A divisive act for divided times.

Noel versus Bono
Last month, Noel Gallagher told me a great story about hanging out with Bono. It featured the U2 singer’s home, a speech by the Irish taoiseach, a private jet, Paris and Gallagher turning on his TV to see Bono talking to President Macron. “I read it,” Bono says, smiling. Gallagher said the three-day session wiped him out. “Well,” Bono says, ”Noel is Irish in all the more inspiring ways, but he is missing that thing we call the ‘hollow leg’. He doesn’t really drink that much. I thought it was a quiet day!” Over to Gallagher: how does he like being called a lightweight?

Monday, November 13, 2017

U2 win Global Icon Award at 2017 EMAs

U2, who have now been a formidable force in global music for over 40 years, were deserving winners of the night's award.

Bono and co. received a gushing introduction from actor and 30 Seconds To Mars frontman Jared Leto.

Leto described U2 as the inspiration behind his own band 30 Seconds To Mars, and thanked U2 for their music and "poetry" over the years.

Leto made particular mention of The Joshua Tree, which is celebrating its 30th anniversary this year, as a source of inspiration for him.

U2 had previously performed live from Trafalgar Square in a specially arranged gig that was streamed direct to the main EMA Awards taking place in Wembley.