Irish studies lecturer Visnja Cogan reflects on a catalogue of music that has left its mark
U2 are a hugely important part of the Irish cultural landscape. Their body of work helped change the course of Irish music and it deserves to be treated in the same light as the great writers – Joyce and Beckett – and filmmakers like Neil Jordan.
I used to get raised eyebrows when I said that to fellow academics in the past, but not so much now because there is more of an acceptance that U2 are important artists.
I first became aware of the band when I heard 'New Year's Day' in late 1982. I was still a teenager then and the song moved me greatly. I thought it was the work of very special musicians and even when I listen to it all these years later, I think it stands up very well.
U2 helped open the door to Ireland for me. It was clear from their earliest work that they had really interesting things to say about their native country. There's still great power in 'Sunday Bloody Sunday' – it really captures the unrest in Northern Ireland at the time. Similarly, a song like 'Running to Stand Still' has much to say about the deprived Dublin that Bono grew up in.
U2 really helped put Ireland on the map in the 1980s – and they continue to do so. They had huge ambition from the start and were not afraid to say that they wanted to be the biggest band in the world. Their success would surely have helped to make other Irish musicians, writers and artists think, 'why not us too?'
Their great strength has been in the live realm – and they have changed the course of stadium rock forever. Each subsequent live tour is more spectacular than the last – they have a real sense of the theatrical.
Now, when I listen to new U2 songs, I ask myself how they will sound live. I think 'Unknown Caller' from their most recent album, No Line on the Horizon, worked really well on the 360° Tour.
It is remarkable that they have lasted as long as they have – and there have been several creative peaks: The Unforgettable Fire in 1984 is a masterpiece, a truly, great album; then you have the Achtung Baby/Zooropa period in the early 1990s in which they successfully reinvented themselves; and the All That You Can't Leave Behind album in 2000 made them relevant in a new decade.
They still want to release albums that make big statements and are worthwhile. Yet, like many of their admirers, I would like to see them be more spontaneous and bring out an album like Zooropa which arrived just 18 months after Achtung Baby.
I wonder if the change in manager will have any effect, good or bad on their creativity. I like both Ordinary Love and Invisible, so I look forward to seeing what they can come up with next.
Visnja Cogan lectures in Irish studies at the prestigious Paris 7 University and is the author of U2: An Irish Phenomenon