Five years on from their last record, U2 have hauled Bono away from his saving-the-world duties long enough to finish their twelth studio album. But will it win them any new fans – and can their return bail out a bealeagured industry?
Can U2 save the music industry? The short answer to that is: Duhhh! Of course not! For one thing, Bono is far too busy trying to save the world, and the problems facing the world – recession, repression, war, poverty, famine, mass migration etc – are nowhere near as intractable as those knots into which the music industry has managed to tie itself over the past two decades.
I'm joking, of course. Although, had the music corporations actually intended to make a dog's breakfast out of a once powerful industry, they couldn't have made a better job of it even by appointing a task force headed by Blair, Bush, Brown and the board of HBOS, with Nick Leeson given control of the day-to-day running of the business.
Of course, if Bono were in control of the music business, he could probably get such a task force appointed in just a few minutes' face-time with the supposed great and the good. Or the merely rich and famous, as the less complimentary might describe them: a recent account of the band's recording sessions in Morocco for the new album No Line on the Horizon referred to studio visits by both Queen Rania of Jordan and Microsoft squillionaire Paul Allen, the latter complete with bar-band in tow, ready to rock.
This, it seems, is the company Bono, at least, now keeps – a situation which inevitably has to be reflected in his art: the constituency to which he speaks, or preaches, has clearly changed markedly since 2004's disappointing How To Dismantle an Atomic Bomb, and out of all recognition since 2000's All That You Can't Leave Behind.
Bono is not a stupid man, and freely acknowledges, in both interviews and songs, the risky course he personally has opted to pursue. The closing track on the new album, "Cedars of Lebanon", includes lines that surely refer directly to the singer's questionable relationships with bloody-handed politicians: "Choose your enemies carefully, 'cos they will define you/ Make them interesting 'cos in some ways they will mind you", going on to conclude that your enemies will stick with you (albeit negatively) longer than your friends. Grudges, presumably, being easier to keep than faith. But when you deliberately choose, for ulterior motives of the most admirable kind, to blur the clear distinctions between friends and enemies, you risk obfuscating the ethical landscape for more than just yourself.
Bono, of course, would simply refer to the aid he helped persuade the Bush administration to commit to anti-poverty programmes in Africa as the bottom-line justification for chummying up to the loathsome former president, and there's no real answer to that. But it is still far too early, as Schiller would say, to comprehend the complete ramifications of this process; what might be called the celebrification of political action, in which Bono has become such a major player. At the very least, it represents a sharp turn away from the democratic process of broad-based political activism to an earlier, Victorian notion of philanthropy and Good Works. Except nowadays, the wealthy would probably prefer it be characterised as "revolutionary capitalism". Whatever, it's plain that money speaks far louder than any number of concerted voices raised in protest.
The singer's own bandmates have confirmed that they all found Bono's extracurricular activities worrying, particularly the meetings with George Bush and Tony Blair, and that they harboured concerns that the tail might come to wag the dog. But they have since categorically stated that the borders between the band and Bono's other dealings have been respected, and that when he's working with them, he gives 100 per cent of his energies to the band. But with the moneyed demi-monde dropping by the studio, it can't be easy to keep those worlds totally separate, to keep focused on the matter in hand.
Even by U2's exacting standards, No Line on the Horizon seems to have had a particularly protracted and difficult gestation. Its eventual appearance will mark the longest period between albums in the group's career. Work initially began on the planned follow-up to How To Dismantle an Atomic Bomb in 2006, with Midas-fingered producer Rick Rubin at the controls. It can't have been too productive an alliance, because none of the resulting V C material features on the new album. Instead, the band reconvened the following summer in Morocco for the first substantial sessions with Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois since those that produced All That You Can't Leave Behind.
Eno and Lanois were the team who effected U2's transformation from eager but ordinary rock band to globe-girdling stadium megastars with The Joshua Tree, and their attention to depth, detail and background texture, and their encouragement of experimentation, served the group well through the 1990s. Perhaps not insignificantly, there was a sales drop of three million from All That You Can't Leave Behind to How To Dismantle an Atomic Bomb, in which the pair had little involvement. It still shifted nine million units, but a 25 per cent fall is a quarter down, nonetheless.
Since the Morocco sessions, the six men (and Terry Lawless, whose keyboards feature on the majority of the tracks) have tinkered for a year and a half with the resulting tracks, in round after round of gruelling perfectionism. If they didn't own their own studios, the fees would probably have bankrupted them.
The results represent an intriguing volte-face on the band's part, in terms of sound and style. It wasn't the first time they'd turned things around: they'd succeeded in doing so with The Joshua Tree, initiating a new, exploratory era in their music. Then with All That You Can't Leave Behind, the band announced that they were "re-applying for the job of the best band in the world": turning their back on the sonic exploration of their 1990s albums Achtung Baby, Zooropa and Pop, they delivered a more straightforwardly solid, classic U2 album, studded with strong, memorable tracks like "Stuck in a Moment You Can't Get Out Of" and the anthemic "Beautiful Day". But it was still recognisably a post-Joshua Tree U2 sound.
However, with How To Dismantle an Atomic Bomb, the backwards process continued even further. Steve Lillywhite, who helmed most of their 1980s recordings, returned as head producer in place of Eno and Lanois, and the album's sound accordingly reverted to something more like their pre-Joshua Tree style. When Bono sang, in "All Because of You", "I just arrived, I'm at the door/ Of the place I started out from", it was impossible not to hear it as an affirmation of the retrospective tone of the undertaking.
But crucially, the album lacked a decent complement of memorable material in the classic anthemic U2 style. The closest it came was the single "Vertigo", and even that sounded like an artificial euphoria, a fabrication of feelings rather than something springing unstoppably from authentic emotional involvement. In other words, like a band desperately trying to rediscover the drive of their earlier career. All of a sudden, U2 sounded tired and rather washed-out, aping their own former glories in half-cocked, vaunting hogwash like "City of Blinding Lights", a song blustery enough to be used at a presidential inauguration.
Now, with Eno and Lanois back in harness, the band have turned again, returning to something more like the experimental, exploratory approach of Achtung Baby and Zooropa. Only not as successful. Despite the obvious time and effort lavished on the album, it still has a patchy and somewhat perfunctory tone: the scraps of sonic collages and synth pads that herald several tracks seem like bolted-on afterthoughts, intended to jessy-up some fairly dull ideas with a bit of aural window-dressing. It starts well, with "No Line" and "Magnificent", both drawing from U2's bottomless fund of uplifting stadium singalong anthems, and "Moment of Surrender" balancing Bono's heartfelt vocal on a languid musical bed. But the computer metaphors employed in "Unknown Caller" ("Force quit and move to trash"; "Restart and re-boot yourself", etc) are crass and embarrassing, while "I'll Go Crazy If I Don't Go Crazy Tonight" may be one trip too many to the well of "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For".
And, before the album's halfway through, you may find yourself wanting to strangle Bono if he does that yelping "Oh-ohhh-ohhhh!" thing one more time. And the further one gets into the album, the less definition tracks seem to have: "Breathe" is about as rote a performance as U2 have ever recorded.
Still, we should be thankful that the band have at least made a determined effort to return to sonic exploration, albeit with mixed results. It should certainly outsell its predecessor, which will come as welcome news to an industry fondly pining for the days when Def Leppard and Michael Jackson – and even Alanis Morissette, for heaven's sake! – shifted albums in sales of 20 and 30 million apiece. Last year's biggest global seller, predictably, was Coldplay's Viva La Vida, at round about six or seven million, with Duffy a million or two behind: fantastic for her, but only so-so for them, and extremely worrying, if we're honest, for an industry that, like the movie business with which it is strongly allied, has become too reliant on the notion of one or two blockbuster engines pulling along a train of less populist, more marginal products.
A healthy seller – somewhere in the double-figure millions, perhaps – would be a welcome fillip for a faltering business. But saving the music industry? I doubt it. The industry's problems are so far-ranging, and so deeply embedded in its archaic practices, that it needs much more than an occasional injection of superstar success to salvage its position. Don't get me started...