| Todd Heisler/The New York Times|
VANCOUVER, BRITISH COLUMBIA — It was definitive arena rock, loud and clear, filling Pacific Coliseum here with surging sound. The Edge blared a distorted two-chord guitar riff, Larry Mullen Jr.’s tom-toms and cymbals landed hard on the backbeat, Adam Clayton’s bass throbbed down below, and Bono was unleashing “woo-oohs” in exultant falsetto. U2 has taken over the coliseum for a month of full-scale rehearsal to assemble its “Innocence and Experience” tour, which starts at Rogers Arena here on May 14, and the band was charging through “Elevation.” The stage was an austere geometry of fluorescent tubes; the song was triumphant. “Wow, that’s four years since we played that?” Bono said as the last chord faded. “Not bad!”
U2, the Irish band that released its debut album in 1980, is about to test its place in the present. Because Apple gave away millions of copies of U2’s 2014 album, “Songs of Innocence” — its 13th studio album and its first since “No Line on the Horizon” in 2009 — the band has no way to gauge the album’s impact through conventional measures of sales. The album also faced a furious online backlash from nonfans who resented it showing up in their music libraries or iCloud as “purchased,” even though it was free. Until it performs the songs on tour, U2 won’t know for sure whether anyone paid close attention to their work. “The idea that there may be a whole swath of audience out there that don’t yet know they like the band is really turning us on,” Bono said. “It makes us want to go out and find them if they’re there.” He paused. “They may not be there.”
“Songs of Innocence” has a dual and sometimes contradictory mandate. It aims for mass pop impact with songs full of individual, local details and memories. U2’s confidence was shaken by the response to “No Line on the Horizon.” Despite the international barnstorming of the “360°” tour, “No Line on the Horizon” didn’t yield the hit single that U2 has always prized: songs like “Where the Streets Have No Name” and “Pride (In the Name of Love)” that merge popularity with an implied sense of high-minded solidarity.
So the band set out to discipline its songwriting, building from acoustic-guitar basics rather than the sonic experiments of “No Line on the Horizon”; it also chose younger-generation producers. Yet the new album’s lyrics steer away from simple, teen-oriented rock, often looking back. “We wanted to think that we could make songs that were contemporary to what radio plays now, but in reality we come from a different place,” Mr. Clayton said. “We have to write from the perspective of that journey, that 35-year journey.”
The band remains nonplussed by what Bono now calls the “difficult birth” of “Songs of Innocence.” At the time, band members say, it seemed like a way to reach listeners as directly as possible. “Just to puncture public consciousness at this time is really, really hard, so we were trying to think of ways that would get our album through to people,” the Edge said backstage. “The prospect of putting it out and have it just disappearing down a rabbit hole, which seems to happen to so many albums now — that would be soul-destroying.”A month after the release, Apple announced that 26 million people had downloaded the entire album. But what U2 and Apple considered a gift — Apple paid Universal to give away the album — was treated by a fast-reacting blogosphere as spam, an intrusion into personal devices and an overbearing exercise of power by a self-important rock band and a technology corporation. U2 issued a partial apology in a video interview on Facebook, in which Bono described the album release as “a drop of megalomania, a touch of generosity, a dash of self-promotion and deep fear that these songs that we’d poured our life into over the last few years mightn’t be heard. There’s a lot of noise out there. I guess we got a little noisy ourselves to get through it.” Apple offered a one-click way to delete the album.
Now, Bono reflected: “I think Apple and we got a lot of the backlash that was headed to Big Tech for knowing too much about us. But in fact, Apple is not interested in every search you ever made — it’s only interested in your music, so it’s not fair to tar them with that brush. And as a person who’s been a lifelong member of Amnesty International, of all human-rights crimes I think that this kind of unwanted mail, if it’s at the top of your list or even halfway up it, your life is really fantastic.”
Kevin Weatherly, senior vice president for programming at CBS Radio and program director of KROQ in Los Angeles, predicted: “The tour is going to spark a lot of interest. When all is said and done people are going to revisit the album. Quality wins out.”
Despite the giveaway, sales of the physical “deluxe edition” version of the album, which added a few songs and arrived in October, did land it in the Billboard Top 10. Nielsen SoundScan has tabulated sales of 101,000 copies of “Songs of Innocence.” But further promotion for the album was derailed in November, just before U2 was about to start a weeklong residency on “The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon” and announce the tour it had been planning since 2013. That was when Bono had a bicycle accident in Central Park that fractured his eye socket, his shoulder, his elbow and his left hand. “I really used to think that my head was harder than any surface it came in contact with, and I don’t anymore,” Bono said backstage. “I didn’t come off a Harley-Davidson. I came off a push bike and smashed myself to bits. There is no glory here.”
Onstage in the coliseum, Bono worked the space with the assurance of a longtime frontman, often using his left hand to grasp the microphone or to point a finger skyward. But he is still recovering. “It feels like I have somebody else’s hand,” he said backstage. Pointing to his curled fourth finger and pinky, he said, “I can’t bend these, and this” — he pointed to another part of his hand — “is like rigor mortis. But they say that nerves heal about a millimeter a week, so in about 13 months I should know if it’s coming back.” He gestured to his forearm and elbow. “It’s all numb here, and this is titanium,” he said. “The shoulder’s better, the face is better.”
He held up his hand again. “But this is the hard bit because I can’t play guitar,” he said, then glanced at the other band members. “They don’t seem to mind,” he said with a half-grin.
Last week, U2 was exploring its new arena setup as its production team tried out visuals and effects, followed by meetings that dissected every possibility: A string section for ballads? Video images or color fields? How to pare down a sprawling set list? Bono did most of the talking, but it was obvious that U2 was determined to work by consensus, weighing each idea respectfully. “The songs are the boss. They tell us what to do and they tell everyone in this building what to do,” the Edge said during a dinner meeting. “We’ve just got to unlock what the songs are asking and telling us what to do.”
The tour’s most striking innovation isn’t immediately obvious. U2 has moved its sound system to arena ceilings: an oval of 12 speaker arrays that sends the music downward evenly everywhere in the arena. When I walked all around the coliseum as the band played, the music was uniformly transparent and strong, the volume constant from front to back. “If you’re trying to blast sound the length of the venue from the stage, the venue sometimes wins and you get mud,” the Edge said. “With this, you don’t have to have it so loud — you’re getting good quality sound from something that’s much closer to you than normal.”
The band calls the walkway the divider stage because that’s what it does midway through the concert — turning into a barrier that separates the audience completely. The division is part of the concert’s underlying narrative, a passage from innocence to experience inflected by Irish memories. “Songs of Innocence” is U2’s most specifically autobiographical album; its titles include “Cedarwood Road,” where Bono grew up, and “Iris,” named after his mother, who died when he was young. At the start of the concert, the band is illuminated by a lone swinging light bulb, as Bono was in the room in 10 Cedarwood Road where he started to play music. There’s another idea as well, Bono explained: “After all the scale and sculpture of ‘360,’ to begin the next tour with only a single light bulb.”
The concert’s bleak midpoint — “the end of the innocence,” Bono calls it — is “Raised by Wolves,” a song from the album about a terrorist car bombing in Dublin that killed 33 people on May 17, 1974. “We grew up in a culture where random terrorism was a horror. It’s now part of everyday life worldwide,” said Gavin Friday, one of Bono’s childhood friends who led the post-punk band the Virgin Prunes in the 1970s, and who has long worked with U2 on staging. At the coliseum, Mr. Friday and a sound engineer were assembling an audio collage of explosions, speeches and news reports around the 1974 bombing. “The way the album was released, Apple overshadowed the whole thing, so the album was never really listened to,” he said bluntly. “I was told to make the song really real.”
At the intermission, Bono said, half-seriously, “people will walk out into the aisles not buying T-shirts but having counseling, and wondering, ‘Where did the fun go?’ ” The second half of the concert breaks down the divide and, true to U2’s past, promises healing and love. “When we undo that division, we’ve got to really glue them together,” Bono said.
Backstage at the coliseum was a warren of activity: construction, video programming, sound editing, catering, a rehearsal room with another set of instruments. An HBO crew was shooting a tour documentary. And there was one more curtained nook: recording, with a mobile studio setup. There the next U2 album, “Songs of Experience,” is taking shape.
During the enforced downtime after his accident, Bono had been writing songs, sometimes with a guitarist to play the chords he couldn’t. “At the very end of an album you’re at the height of your powers in terms of writing, arranging and performing,” the Edge said. “It’s a shame that you have to stop then and start the other phase of what we do, which is playing live. This time we haven’t really stopped. Bono is trying to capitalize on that momentum and that sharpness.” New producers have been joining the band in Vancouver, including Andy Barlow from the electronic group Lamb, who cued up some of the U2 tracks in progress like “Red Flag Day,” “Civilization” and “Instrument Flying” as Bono enthusiastically sang along with himself. “We’re keeping the discipline on songs and pushing out the parameters of the sound,” Bono said. “They’re very basic earthy things, irreverent. They’re not lofty themes. One of the things that experience has taught us is to be fully in the moment. What’s the moment? Pop music.”
But in the meantime, the band has a tour to mobilize. “On May 14 we’re going to find out if the album worked and if the experiment worked,” Bono said. “If people know those words and feel those songs, then the experiment was right.”