There seem to be two discrete ways of approaching the new U2 album. One, exemplified by a review on the Jim DeRogatis/Greg Kot radio show Sound Opinions, is to look at the fact that they’ve employed Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois for some tracks and write off the big stadium rockers to paint the album as an embrace of texture and mood, and a general triumph. The other view, however, is more dubious. Being a rock star is great, but it can’t help but seem less important when you’ve been doing what Bono’s been doing, and the five-year gap between albums would seem to indicate Bono’s changing priorities. Certainly he doesn’t seem very connected to his bandmates anymore. It’s like Bono woke up one day and realized he was turning into Bob Geldof: someone whose social activism overshadows their music, and consequently seems like a fraud. And so, it was time to update his brand with a new album. Unfair? Maybe. But let’s look at the evidence.
If that was indeed the idea, it might not have worked, at least judging by the reviews that take the occasion to complain about Bono’s activist work. In some ways, this is understandable and even justifiable. Bono is nothing if not a character, and he doesn’t play a different character when he’s singing and when he’s meeting with heads of state. The sunglasses, the hair, and the outfits are all unchanged. That’s part of the appeal: he’s not representing himself as a private citizen, but as someone who speaks for all his fans, channeling the public opinion he seems to be able to tap into to make a case for certain causes. If he took off the Bono costume, he would just be another activist. That he doesn’t means it’s reasonable to connect the music and the politics.
But in a New York Times article published this weekend, he makes a good case for why they shouldn’t be connected:
“Get On Your Boots,” Bono said, is an almost journalistic collection of images of taking his family to a fun fair in southern France on the eve of the war in Iraq, with warplanes zooming overhead. One verse proclaims, “I don’t want to talk about wars between nations/Not right now.”
That line, along with hints in “White as Snow” and “Cedars of Lebanon,” provides what Bono described as “peripheral vision”: a recognition of the turbulent world beyond the private thoughts in the lyrics. “That’s the elephant in the room, the absence of this thing, that almost draws attention to it,” he said. “It never takes away from the personal or the psychodramas that are going on, but it’s there.”
Look, as much as he deserves a cock-punching, Bono is clearly a smart guy. His desire to make good, important music comes through loud and clear in the article. Any great politician must, by necessity, have a gigantic ego and a concurrent need to have it fed, and as a political actor Bono is no exception to this. Being a gigantic rock star seems awfully fun, and can be much more rewarding than trying to save Africa. Quoth the Edge: “I think that’s what he looks forward to. There is no end to the other thing. That struggle is ongoing. With U2 it’s like, there’s things you can say, well, we did that. We delivered a record. We delivered a show.”
The problem seems to be that, ultimately, Bono thinks politics is more important. Here’s his own explanation for the band, which seems awfully close to that Geldof anxiety: “Edge is always whispering in my ear: ‘You’re an artist. That’s how you’re getting away with this. If you start to behave in a correct fashion and very serious and doing a serious job, it’s awful.’ ” Which is true, yes. It’s a good reason to make music. But it doesn’t seem like a particularly good reason to listen to it.
Last Gang in Town [NYT]