Barbara Streisand, Cher, Jay-Z, Garth Brooks, Frank Sinatra—all of them “retired” at some point in their careers before miraculously returning to the music world, not coincidentally surfing a tsunami of cash all the way to their favourite banking establishments.
So one would have to look at U2 lead singer Bono’s recent comments to Rolling Stone that “We’d be very pleased to end on No Line On The Horizon” with a certain amount of cynicism. The band, not coincidentally, are set to release a 20th anniversary deluxe edition reissue of their Achtung Baby album on Oct. 31. On top of that, they’ve reportedly been recording new music.
Why even bother dangling a retirement then? After all, the only thing you’re doing is taking your fans on a ride that’s just going to alienate them. But that’s nothing new for the Irish foursome. Some people got that feeling long before No Line On The Horizon.
For me, it was March 24, 1992.
That’s the night that I broke up with my favourite band, the biggest rock band in the world, U2.
Bono and crew were playing Toronto’s Maple Leaf Gardens as part of the Zoo TV tour following the release of Achtung Baby. In a gesture equaled in rock music’s pantheon perhaps only by Dylan going electric, Metallica getting haircuts, and Radiohead turning their backs on “songs,” U2 had just abandoned earnestness in favour of glamour, spectacle, and worst of all, irony. The flying cars, the television screens, Bono’s turns as “The Fly,” “Mirror Ball Man” and “MacPhisto.” It was meant to be A SHOW!
But it wasn’t my show. I wanted protest songs, but got wraparound shades instead, so I dropped U2 and never looked back.
When U2 came to the Toronto International Film Festival in August for the premiere of the documentary From The Sky Down, which is being packaged as part of Achtung Baby‘s deluxe reissue the frontman said the following:
“U2’s been on the verge of irrelevance for 20 years. We’ve dodged and we’ve dived and made some great work along the way and occasional faux pas, but this moment where we’re at, to me, feels really close to the edge of irrelevance.”
Are U2 really on “the edge”? Should they quit? Certainly, their discography at the 30-year mark remains better than The Rolling Stones’ at 30 (No Line On The Horizon vs. Voodoo Lounge), but for every one of the 7.2 million people who took in the band’s recent 360° Tour, surely there are just as many who have fallen off along the way.
To find out if and when U2 lost their mojo, Macleans.ca polled 50 prominent Canadians with an ear for music, from Juno Award-nominees like Danko Jones and Cancer Bats lead singer Liam Cormier, to MuchMusic alums like George Stroumboulopoulos and Ed The Sock, to writers like Pitchfork scribe and This Book Is Broken author Stuart Berman, and asked them this simple question:
Are U2 still musically relevant?
Unfortunately for Bono, it appears his band is no longer on the edge; they fell over the wrong side of it about 15 years ago.
No Support On The Horizon
The ‘No’ vote was overwhelming, with 66 per cent of respondents saying U2 have indeed jumped the shark. While, panel members were encouraged to identify when—and with which album—U2 lost its relevance, things like age, musicianship, charity work and tax havens also factored into the mix.
“As soon as a musician starts attracting more attention for things other than their music, it’s time to hang-up the auto tune. Also, they actually play instruments, which today is seen as superfluous to a career in music.” — Ed The Sock
“A band that started off representing the face of a new Irish generation in a time of political instability has turned into the epitome of global capitalism, with music instead of mutual funds as its vessel. Just look up corporations such as Not Us Inc., which operate alongside U2 Limited to maximize profits while minimizing taxes. I can understand looking to make a solid living off your trade, whatever it may be, but when you’re taking employees from KPMG and making them your financial director, you’re not just looking out for your own interests, but making a statement that profit is your number one priority above everything else, quality music included.” — Simon Becker-Sadava, Black Skyline Media
“In many ways, I have more respect for them as people. Rather than harp about their shoddy musical output after The Joshua Tree, I would applaud their campaigning for human rights and activism, and for the paths they have personally decided to follow. I think a lot of musicians that financially succeed could learn a lot from the members of U2.” — Phil Kylgo, Weewerk Recordings
“The 2000s ushered in new technology, new music, new access, new media and U2 did their best to stay on top of all of that. But kids didn’t care because the one thing that stays the same is kids need their own music to define themselves, not their parents’ music. It’s just a band’s life cycle and lots of them go through it. I think U2 have at least done all of this very well and with respect.” — Joel Carriere, Owner/Operator Bedlam Music Mgmt/Dine Alone Records/DA Foods
Yes, I’m Still Running
They may have been in the minority, but the 34 per cent of voters who believe U2 are still relevant are steadfast and loyal. Their support appears undying and their arguments, from the amount of tickets they sell, to their altruism are solid, too.
“They still push themselves and they try not to record the same album all the time. And when you see the band play live they don’t look like a dinosaur rock band. You go to a U2 show for the experience, not the nostalgia—they’re not a casino band. They’ve also done a really good job of making the world a better place.” — George Stroumboulopoulos, George Stroumboulopoulos Tonight
“U2 is a pop music juggernaut. They adapt with the times and put out records full of singles that people constantly want to buy. They’ve also pushed their live show to new standards in an age where most other pop acts a third their age are cancelling due to low ticket sales.” — Liam Cormier, Cancer Bats
“U2’s musical relevance is based on the fact that they can write giant, anthemic songs that appeal to millions of soccer moms and frat boys alike. They’re a boy-band for adults; a man-band. They’re the band that inspires suburban couples to hire a babysitter, get drunk on white wine and head to the big city for a rock concert. Based on the fact that their most recent 360° Tour was attended by over seven million fans and grossed over $700 million it would appear that they’re as relevant as they’ve ever been.” — Barry Taylor, comedian, music journalist
“The very fact that such a politically-charged alternative rock band could emerge from the Irish punk scene of the 1970s and become unparalleled worldwide superstars makes them relevant. Where is the rest of that punk scene? They’re either dead or playing reunion shows with the surviving members at local pubs. U2 transcended it all, on a global level, to become genuine rock superstars. When they emerged at the stadium level in the 1980s, arena shows were dominated by hair metal bands and meat-and-potatoes rock ‘n’ roll. Many of those acts have fallen by the wayside, and only a mere handful can still play an arena, yet U2, 35 years, 22 Grammys, and an induction into the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall Of Fame later, still pack ’em in, and vocally stay true to their political beliefs. And they have the wherewithal to remember where they came from, giving bands like the Arcade Fire their first taste of stadium rocking. U2 = forever relevant.” — Grant Lawrence, CBC Radio 3
Boomerang: The Backhand Yes
Not all ‘Yes’ votes were enthusiastic. In fact, they were outright begrudging in some cases.
“U2 have never bothered me, but past The Joshua Tree I couldn’t hum you a tune. They’ve always been musically relevant, but mainly to the lowest common denominator and the lowest common denominator is usually made up of people who don’t consider music’s relevance in the first place.” — Danko Jones
“They may no longer be musically innovative, and they’ve certainly done well by returning to their early sound on their later albums. But they’re still one of the most popular and commercially successful bands in the world today. When you’re that big, you’re relevant, no matter how redundant you might sound.” — Matt Blair, writer/DJ
Zooropa is officially the worst U2 album. At least according to the whopping 24 per cent of ‘No’ voters who cited the 1993 album and its singles “Numb,” “Lemon” and “Stay (Far Away, So Close)” as the reason why they gave up on the band.
“You never really hear anyone in an awesome band say things like “Yeah, Pop by U2 changed my life,” or “I went out and bought a guitar and started writing songs after having my mind blown by Zooropa. Achtung Baby seems to be the self-respecting cutoff point for most people who don’t shop for their music at Walmart.” — Adrian Popovich, Mountain City Studios producer/engineer
“Sure, it’s not easy following a timeless classic like Achtung Baby, but Bono couldn’t even be bothered to try — and hasn’t since. Where its Berlin-recorded predecessor offered heartfelt ruminations about Euro-life on the knife-edge of monumental change — as the Soviets collapsed and the media rose up—Zooropa boasted Bono singing about lemons in an ironic falsetto. It also came off as an excuse to prolong their Zoo TV tour, sullying a legendary road show with superficial songs. Zooropa added no hits to their canon and subsequent albums have all similarly paled against U2’s iconic early efforts. Achtung, indeed.”— Joshua Ostroff, Spinner Canada
“The Fly,” “Mysterious Ways,” “Even Better Than The Real Thing” and the undeniable ballad “One,” this 1991 album was the turning point. U2 became a pop band and there was no turning back, though 18 per cent of ‘No’ voters did.
“Growing up, I always thought of them as a pop band. I considered groups like R.E.M. part of my musical sphere, but Achtung Baby was just an album that my aunt wanted to order from Columbia House.” — Sarah Kurchak, Risky Fuel
And then Bono, The Edge, Larry Mullen Jr. and Adam Clayton confronted those “pop” band accusations directly with songs like “Discothèque,” “Mofo” and “Please” on the 1997 album Pop. This album sent 18 per cent of naysayers overboard.
“Up until Zooropa (an underrated album, methinks), U2 were still writing the rulebook on how to be an intelligent, musically adventurous arena rock band, but with Pop they came off as desperate bandwagon jumpers, trying to compete with your Chemical Brothers and Prodigys or, worse, Oasis (“Staring At The Sun,” anyone?) The post-Pop era did yield one of their finest singles (“Beautiful Day”), but in retrospect, that was more a last gasp of glory than a harbinger of revitalization.” — Stuart Berman, The Grid/Pitchfork
All That You Can’t Leave Behind
For another 18 per cent of those in the ‘No’ camp, 2000’s All That You Can’t Leave Behind, with its shimmering “Beautiful Day” and Tomb Raider-soundtracking “Elevation”, was, in fact, the exact point where they left Ireland’s finest behind.
“In my opinion, ‘Beautiful Day’ was the last relevant song U2 put out. That might even be a stretch, but I thought it was dope. They looked ridiculous in the video, but the song itself was pretty strong. To me, they fell off after that. I’m not sure if that was a ‘them’ thing or a ‘me’ thing, though. Either way, beyond that point, I was either clowning Bono for being a horrendous douche or not giving a shit.” — Muneshine, producer/rapper
“The point of no return — the singular moment at which U2 got bored with its own schtick — was the release of All That You Can’t Leave Behind in 2000. Eleven years later, there’s nothing left but four middle-aged narcoleptics touring the world in a 50-tonne jungle gym.” — Philippe Gohier, Macleans.ca
“They stopped pushing the envelope, therefore becoming irrelevant to me as an artist who looks to songs and music and life for inspiration with All That You Can’t Leave Behind. Nothing after Pop is relevant to anyone who enjoyed anything intriguing by them.”— Dylan Hudecki, Cowlick/The Dill