U2: Turn off the decline

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Graphic by Raffi Anderian, The Toronto Star

Ben Rayner, Toronto Star

Let's get one thing straight here before we go any further: I don't hate U2.

There was once a time, in fact, when the Irish quartet ranked up there with my favourite bands. I was fully obsessed as a kid. Practically wore out my cassette copies of War and The Unforgettable Fire, loved The Joshua Tree as much as everyone else, was still right there along with the band through the spellbinding experimentation of Achtung Baby and Zooropa. And then, suddenly, U2 lost its way.

Pop was the turning point, not just because that oft-maligned 1997 album was the first truly weak entry in the U2 catalogue but because it marked the beginning of U2 pulling its punches. After the electronically enhanced excursions of Zooropa, the band crowed long and loud about making a full-tilt dance record the next time out, enlisting such electro-savvy chaps as Flood, Howie B. and Nellee Hooper to bring those aspirations to life. Yet the work that eventually surfaced from those sessions sounded every bit like the "compromise project" guitarist the Edge would later call it; it sounded like a record by a group that had gotten cold feet midway through the recording process and then hastily backtracked to behaving more recognizably like itself out of fear of alienating its audience.

That's the way I heard it, anyway -- and I think I was right, given the unsubtle retreat to its "classic" sound that the band would make three years later on All That You Can't Leave Behind after Pop's perceived commercial failure -- and I've never forgiven U2 for it.

When U2 traded fearless artistic exploration for playing it safe and pandering to the tastes of those who would have preferred it if time had stood still after Rattle and Hum, U2 betrayed its own proud tradition of artistic integrity and, from my perspective, ceased to be the band that I had grown up admiring so much.

I'd love the group to make a great record again, though, and was disappointed that 2009's encouragingly adventurous, yet tunelessly dreary No Line on the Horizon wasn't it. And I'll be going into Monday night's Rogers Centre stop on the U2 360° tour -- a makeup date from last year, when frontman Bono had to interrupt the band's world travels to recover from emergency back surgery -- hoping for a performance by a band that still plays like it's got something to prove.

I don't think U2 is beyond rescue. I think there's hope yet. I think there's still time. So, in a spirit of tough love, here are some proposals for how U2 might yet save itself from itself.

• Muzzle Bono. Yes, we can tell the man cares deeply about everything, but he's U2's worst enemy. The more his little black book has swollen with the numbers of world leaders and other global power players during his crusade to save the world, the more insufferable he's become.

True, you can't fault the man for pushing social causes such as the fight against AIDS in Africa and the eradication of Third World debt, but at some point Bono started to believe in his own sainthood and every utterance became a Statement. It's a noble thing to offer a shout-out to someone like Burmese political prisoner Aung San Suu Kyi onstage every night, yet these acts have taken on an air of self-aggrandizement over the years.

Perhaps it's time to stop speechifying and simply be a rock star again. It would make the music go down much easier.

• Lose the trappings. The U2 360° tour -- reportedly on target to gross $700 million by the time it's over, making it the most financially successful in history -- is a technical marvel, no doubt about it, and you'll get a lot of bang for your 265 bucks at the Rogers Centre on Monday. The centrepiece of the current stage show is a four-pronged, 47-metre-high (150-foot) mechanical doodad known as "the Claw" that holds the production's lighting rigs and LED screens and looms over much of the stadiums in which the band is playing, drawing spectators inside the performance. They had to build a $3-million temporary stadium on a disused racetrack to house it for the band's two shows in Montreal over the weekend.

It's cool stuff to look at. But the dazzling technology and staging has somewhat overwhelmed the band itself on the past few tours, leaving Bono, the Edge, Adam Clayton and Larry Mullen, Jr., looking rather dissociated from one another onstage and, not surprisingly, resulting in playing that sounds much the same: distanced. And let's not forget what can happen when things go wrong. The giant lemon employed on the 1997 PopMart tour infamously trapped the band inside during one date when it wouldn't open on command.

Wouldn't it be a refreshing change of pace to see U2 go out on a small-venue tour again, or at least a stripped-down arena jaunt minus all the distracting bells and whistles where the music was placed front and centre again? A smaller stage would allow the band to interact closely as musicians again, without the constant worry of stepping into an open trap door at stage left, or being annihilated by a jet of pyro, or plowed over by an enormous piece of mechanical fruit.

It would also give us, the audience, a chance to appreciate the songs as songs, not the centrepiece of a musical-theatre production, once again.

• Act your age. There are rumoured to be something like four new U2 albums in various stages of completion at the moment, including the on-again/off-again No Line on the Horizon companion piece, Songs of Ascent, and yet another stab at a full-on dance record. Producers who've recently linked with the band include genre-bending visionary Danger Mouse (of Gnarls Barkley notoriety), Lady Gaga's collaborator RedOne and the ubiquitous Rick Rubin.

The latter partnership apparently didn't gel, but Rubin would be a sensible choice. He's the consummate salvage man, responsible in recent years for resurrecting the careers of such oldsters as Neil Diamond and the late Johnny Cash and for making Metallica sound like Metallica again on 2008's Death Magnetic. He's a songs-first kind of guy and he seems to have an ear for the essence of his musical charges and would, thus, make a much more logical sounding board for the next U2 album than, say, house-music producer David Guetta, with whom the 50-ish band briefly considered working this year.

We don't need U2 trying to sound like a dance-pop outfit 20 years its junior at this stage in the game; we need a U2 that acknowledges its "mature" status and makes music reflective of that context.

• Have a sense of humour. "The right to be ridiculous is something I hold dear," sang Bono on 2009's "Moment of Surrender," one of the few No Line on the Horizon cuts to surface on the current tour's set list. And the members of U2 have indeed been known to engage in some ridiculous behaviour over the years, ranging from the aforementioned giant lemon to Bono and the Edge's recent participation in scoring the infamous Broadway musical Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark. A musical about a superhero is, after all, about as ridiculous as ridiculous gets.

Yet while there was a whiff of pranksterism to the largesse of the PopMart tour and its celebrated predecessor, the Zoo TV tour -- wherein Bono would adopt the devilish alter ego of his MacPhisto character and pull stunts such as ringing up Salman Rushdie for a late-night chat during the middle of the set -- it's given way to the self-important seriousness discussed above.

It would be nice to witness U2 having a laugh once in awhile and acknowledging the abject lunacy and excess of its situation. That would be comfortingly humanizing.

• Just be a band. At the Grammy Awards in 2007, Bono declared that U2 -- then just unleashing the classicist All That You Can't Leave Behind upon the world at large -- was "reapplying for the job .. . . (of) the best band in the world." And therein lies the problem: U2 has struggled so hard since Pop's middling performance to prove itself the biggest and the best band on the planet that it's lost sight of the creative spark that drove it to those heights in the first place.

Madonna couldn't be queen of the castle forever, as much as she tried, and now looks deposed in the wake of Lady Gaga's rise. U2 has had young turks like Radiohead and Coldplay nipping at its heels for years, and it's inevitable that someone will come along to knock it down into second or third or fourth place. Nothing lasts forever. Now is the time to show a little modesty, dig deep and concentrate on leaving another lasting work or two to shore up its embattled legacy.

Leave us a few more tunes to remember you fondly by, U2. You've had a damn good run.

© 2011 Toronto Star

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This page contains a single entry by Jonathan published on July 10, 2011 7:13 AM.

Concert review: U2 at Soldier Field was the previous entry in this blog.

The Edge Denies Accusations of U2 Tax Evasion is the next entry in this blog.

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