Last Gang in Town

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By Jon Pareles, New York Times

Onstage at the Earl's Court Exhibition Center here was a glittery dress rehearsal for the annual Brit Awards, Britain's equivalent of the Grammys. Although U2 was not among the nominees, it had the opening slot for the Feb. 19 show: a live performance of the hard-riffing "Get On Your Boots" from its new album, No Line on the Horizon (Interscope). U2 had blasted the same song earlier in the month at the Grammy Awards.

After the run-through the four band members headed to a grimy loading zone behind the auditorium for a photo session. The photographer had them walk down a ramp; Bono, who often calls himself a "Method actor," wanted to know what kind of walk. A short discussion settled it. The band started a proud, seasoned swagger as Bono announced, "Last gang in town!"

It wasn't exactly a joke. U2 has entered the fourth decade of a career that began in 1978, when its members were teenage schoolmates in Dublin; they are now in their late 40s. And U2 may well be the last of the megabands: long-running, internationally recognized rockers whose every album, from Boy in 1980 to How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb in 2004, has sold millions of copies worldwide. In an era when CD sales have plummeted, Top 40 radio favors hip-hop and teen-pop, albums are fractured by MP3 players' shuffle mode and the old idea of a rock mainstream seems more and more like a mirage, U2 still, unabashedly, wants to release a blockbuster.

"How do you puncture pop consciousness with a tune anymore?" Bono said later over a pint of Guinness in the restaurant of the venerable hotel Claridge's. "That's actually your first job as a songwriter."

A conversation with Bono is a free-associative adventure. Between thoughts about the album he dispensed fascinating digressions, casual but carefully placed on and off the record. He gave a full-voiced demonstration of Italian opera vowels and Frank Sinatra style -- heads swiveled nearby -- and mused on cathedral architecture; he described encounters with presidential candidates and plans for his future columns on the Op-Ed page of The New York Times. He spoke fondly about his band mates as characters he's still trying to figure out, about songs as bursts of serendipity and about what he wants in a performance: "spastic elastic energy."

From its beginnings, in the wake of punk-rock, U2 made music on a grand scale. The band's early signature sound -- Bono's ardent Irish tenor backed by open, echoing guitar chords from the Edge and the anthemic march beats of Larry Mullen Jr. on drums and Adam Clayton on bass -- was suited to resound through the biggest spaces while Bono sang of boundless yearnings: romantic, social, spiritual.

Once the band reached the arena and stadium circuit in the 1980s, it stayed there. It has had no lineup changes, no breakups, no reunions and no catering to nostalgia. "People don't know what's going to happen next," Bono said. "Our fans are not sure. Could we embarrass them? Maybe. Could we inspire them? Maybe. They don't know. That's very important, because when you become a comfortable, reliable friend, I'm not sure that's the place for rock 'n' roll."

Bono added: "It's very hard to be relevant, so there's a lot of stake for us on this album. I know the quality of the work is there, but will it be taken? I really don't know. I'm genuinely curious. I think it might have a bumpy start."

In the United States radio stations gave "Get On Your Boots" a lukewarm reception; its fuzz-toned guitar riff doesn't suit Top 40 playlists full of Taylor Swift, Britney Spears and Beyoncé. U2 also faces competition from younger bands steeped in its own music. At the Brit Awards other rock bands performing on the show -- Coldplay, Kings of Leon, even the grown-up English boy band Take That -- couldn't help sounding like U2 knockoffs.

Later that night Coldplay and the Killers shared a bill at the 2,000-capacity Shepherd's Bush Empire, in a benefit for War Child International. For the finale Bono joined Coldplay, Gary Barlow from Take That, and Brandon Flowers from the Killers in the Killers' song "All These Things That I've Done." Backstage, Mr. Flowers marveled at having Bono sing his song: "I was trying to write 'Where the Streets Have No Name,' so it's a real honor."

Yet even as other bands mine U2's catalog, the band defies its past. After two albums of comparatively straightforward guitar-driven rock, No Line on the Horizon, U2's head-spinning 12th studio album, takes new experimental tangents and redefines the band yet again. The album, to be released Tuesday, burbles with cross-rhythms, layered guitars and electronic undercurrents in songs the band wrote with its longtime producers, Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois. It's not as startling a swerve as 1991's Achtung Baby, on which U2 reinvented itself after the earnest '80s with irony and electronic beats. But No Line on the Horizon, the result of a convoluted two-year process, presents a band that is still restless and impassioned, kicking formulas aside.

In songs about true love, worldwide connections, transcendence and technology the music heads for extremes. "Get On Your Boots," at 149 beats per minute, is U2's fastest song ever, while "Cedars of Lebanon," which ends the album, is a somber meditation on war, separation and enmity. The album includes likely arena singalongs in "Magnificent," "Unknown Caller" and "I'll Go Crazy if I Don't Go Crazy Tonight," but it also encompasses the ricocheting patterns of "Fez -- Being Born" and the stately "White as Snow," which bases its melody on the Advent hymn "Veni, Veni Emmanuel." (Mr. Clayton said "White as Snow" was conceived as the last thoughts of an Afghan killed by an improvised explosive device; its four minutes are the time it takes to die.)

"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."

One theme that runs through the songs, Bono said, "is the ability to surrender, to give yourself, whether in reverie or revelry. And the journey of the artist is surely the journey away from self-consciousness." He paused and smiled ruefully. "Fame is all about self-consciousness."

Bono has leveraged celebrity into political clout. Part policy wonk, part showman, part charmer, he works on causes like ending extreme poverty in Africa. While he has been mocked as St. Bono, he strives not to be too single-minded. He said: "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.' "

Bono added: "I feel as an artist that my job is to try and understand the forces that are shaping the world that our songs occupy. And maybe, if you get a chance, try to shape it. That's what the band didn't understand. They thought the natural flak that we would receive for daring to want to play with the big boys, philosophically and every other way, would frighten our audience away. But actually our audience feels much more powerful."

The Edge suggested that being a rocker is like a vacation from Bono's political efforts. "I think that's what he looks forward to," he said. "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."

Making the new album was "arduous," Mr. Mullen said. "There has to be a simpler way," he continued, "but we don't understand simple or easy." At first U2 decided to record with Rick Rubin, who has produced the Dixie Chicks, Johnny Cash and Metallica. Mr. Rubin is renowned for getting bands back to basics, and instead of overseeing U2's habitual free-form studio sessions, he urged the band to bring finished songs into the studio. Two songs made with Mr. Rubin appeared on U218 Singles, a 2006 anthology.

But the group shelved the rest of the Rubin sessions and started again with a contrary strategy. Bono had been invited to the annual ecumenical Festival of Sacred Music in Fez, Morocco. He asked the other band members to join him and perhaps do some recording there during a two-week stay. To his surprise they all agreed, as did Mr. Eno and Mr. Lanois.

They rented a house and set up equipment in a courtyard open to the sky and started making music with no deadline or goal. "This was far from back to basics," the Edge said. "This was exploring the fringes." While hints of triple-time trance rhythms and Arabic vocal inflections occasionally surface, U2 avoided what band members call "musical tourism."

The band plunged into recording. The instrumental foundations of three songs -- "No Line on the Horizon," "Moment of Surrender" and "Unknown Caller" -- each emerged virtually complete in a few hours. Yet after those two prolific weeks, recording stretched out for two years: in Dublin, in the south of France, in London. Steve Lillywhite, who produced U2's first albums, and of the Black Eyed Peas helped shape and finish songs.

The deadline that would have allowed U2 to release the album before the lucrative Christmas season came and went, but the band wasn't satisfied with the music until November. U2 expects to release a companion album, which band members say will have a more meditative and processional tone, before the end of the year.

Making the music was determinedly intuitive: a collation of momentary impulses and collaborative sparks. Bono's lyrics blurt out declarations of love, character sketches and self-mocking admonitions: "Be careful of small men with big ideas." The Edge, after making a guitar documentary, It Might Get Loud, with Jimmy Page of Led Zeppelin and Jack White of the White Stripes, decided to try writing the kind of brash guitar riffs he had long shunned. Mr. Eno brought loops and textures that became seeds of songs and pushed the band toward vocal harmonies. Through the album U2's longtime strengths -- hymnlike melodies, guitar superstructures -- are preserved but revitalized, bent in new ways as the songs reach for U2's defining duality: an intimacy that strives to encompass the universe.

With the album's release intuition gives way to calculation. No Line on the Horizon sets up a worldwide stadium tour that begins in July. U2 intends to perform in the round, offering affordable seats to fans behind the stage and up front, hoping to attract a new, younger audience.

Because U2 can no longer depend on exposure through radio and MTV, it lined up major television moments. Three days after the Brits, the band finished an awards-show trifecta by performing at the Echo Awards in Germany. U2 is to appear all this week on Late Show With David Letterman. Those are prerogatives for a brand-name band, but they are also signs that U2 isn't taking anything for granted.

The group also represents one last hope for the increasingly desperate recording business: a bankable act. Last year U2 signed a 12-year deal with the concert promoter Live Nation that covers global rights to the band's touring, merchandising and branding. Unlike Madonna and Jay-Z, whose deals with Live Nation include future recordings, U2 has kept its recording and publishing with Universal Music, which absorbed U2's previous labels, Island and Interscope. The band's manager, Paul McGuinness, said via e-mail that U2 is signed to Universal for "several more albums," declining to specify a number.

The Edge said: "My instinct is to stick with the record guys. They have to sell your records or sell the downloads, whatever it ends up being. To do that, first of all you've got to love and understand the music, and right now I'm not seeing any group that rivals the record labels on that front."

Bono put it bluntly. "I'm interested in commerce," he said. "The excuse for bigness is that songs demand to be heard if they're any good. And without the kind of momentum of being in a big rock 'n' roll band, you won't get your songs heard."

As the Brit Awards rehearsal started, U2 used its sound check to play Led Zeppelin's "Whole Lotta Love" in full blare, like a classic-rock cover band. "Weddings, funerals, bar mitzvahs," Bono announced afterward. "We're available for work. U2."

© 2009 New York Times.

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This page contains a single entry by Jonathan published on March 1, 2009 8:05 AM.

'Horizon' evolves with U2's audacity, creativity, innovation was the previous entry in this blog.

U2 looks to a new 'Horizon' is the next entry in this blog.

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