If there’s beauty in simplicity, there’s a whole lot of power in it, too. Applied to rock, there’s no better proof in the past three decades than U2 and its chief sound architect, The Edge.
Though “powerful” is easily the go-to adjective for the band’s work from its astounding debut Boy to seminal releases likeThe Joshua Tree and Achtung Baby, they’ve shown time and again that powerful doesn’t—even in rock—always mean loud, fast, or complex. If a chord change functions as a release, Edge knows there’s a sweetness in its anticipation, an almost physical yearning for its resolution. Listening to songs like “Where The Streets Have No Name,” it’s possible to feel oneself coasting on a simple, repetitive progression. In Bono, U2 has a frontman that virtually defines the word, but it’s Edge’s use of rhythmic delay and effect that created the singular clarion sound that has become a U2 trademark.
It’s a sound he’s honed since answering a 1976 school bulletin board ad placed by one Larry Mullen, who was looking to start a band. Edge’s earliest influences were punk and the fact that he taught himself to play by figuring out ways around what he didn’t know. As he did so, the gear piled up—to the extent that any online search of his name brings up link after link to mathematical analyses of his guitar sound and stage diagrams of his equipment setup.
It’s also a sound that’s landed him in iconic company amidst the upper numbers of both Rolling Stone’s and SPIN’s lists of the greatest guitarists of all time. In its listing, SPIN said “It’s difficult to imagine the monolith that is U2 ever having had anything to do with punk, but in the late’70s U.K., [The Edge] masked and flaunted his willful ignorance of how guitars are meant to be played with forgiving delay pedals, forging a sonic trademark so distinctive that his band’s name became an adjective. Every note of 1980’s Boyfeels like an argument about how guitars in rock music are supposed to sound.” It also went on to say “…even U2’s most dug-in detractors would allow that parlaying limitation and brazen naiveté into 30-plus years of mega-stardom is a fairly unprecedented form of sticking it to the Man.”
So hailing from that sensibility, what happens when you kind of become the man? Some thought that happened some time ago, others in 2014 when the band struck a deal with iTunes to have its album Songs of Innocence automatically download to users’ playlists. In apologizing to the ranks of the disgruntled, Bono said, “Artists are prone to that kind of thing. A drop of megalomania, a touch of generosity, a dash of self-promotion and deep fear that these songs that we poured our life into over the last few years mightn’t be heard.” It’s an apology that can also be read as a formula for longevity and success; i.e., continued risk. It’s admirable in any artistic endeavor at any time, but especially in “the biggest band in the world,”—one that could’ve easily rested on $170 million in record sales, $1billion+ in concert sales and more Grammy Awards than any other band.
These days it seems we’ve developed particular reverence for “undiscovered” bands that cater to niche-loving, genre-specific hipsters; and many such acts are deserving. But the detractors who call U2 “too commercial” might pause to remember that you don’t often get there without first having made something that touches, joins, and elevates us with a common emotional language. Does anyone else find it odd when we criticize artists for doing what artists are arguably supposed to be doing?
One person likely not much interested in that debate is Dave Evans. He remains the unflappable, optimistic gearhead-slash-poet, doing what he’s done since getting his first flea market guitar at age nine. And as the band prepares to release a new album this year, we’ll be listening, because U2 continues to experiment, surprise and connect, with Edge at its beating, reverberating sonic heart.