It is no coincidence that, just as the world commemorates 20 years since the invasion of Iraq, U2 re-emerges.
That conflict was described by the Times this week as a “hubristic act of overreach” – which sums up Bono’s life and career nicely.
Bono spent most of the early 2000s pestering Bush and Blair to steer their messianic interventionism in a plausibly beneficial direction. Some found his propensity for bolstering the egos of Western leaders deeply questionable.
He said Gordon Brown and Tony Blair were the Lennon and McCartney of international development after the invasion of Iraq. He said he had become “very fond” of George Bush, which the hundreds of thousands of people who died as a result of his decisions might regard as a difficult circle to square.
For all of this irritating grandstanding, U2 did knock out a few good albums in the 80s and 90s. Most successful musical artists get about a 10-year period when they are on the top of their game. For U2, I’d put this between 1983’s War album, through the magnificent The Joshua Tree, to the surprisingly inventive Zooropa in 1993.
That means it’s been about 30 years since U2 were interesting. In that time they’ve become increasingly desperate for attention, peaking when they put an album directly onto everyone’s iPhones without asking.
Will you surrender yourself to Bono?
Which brings us back to the present day. Bono has appeared, wearing circular rose-tinted glasses, reminiscent of John Lennon or Jimmy Savile depending on your perspective, to give us Songs of Surrender. This new album is U2’s attempt to present their bombastic anthems in a more sensitive, stripped-back form.
Many 80s stars have done this brilliantly. A-ha’s acoustic version of Take On Me takes a jolly pop number and turns it into something miraculous. But then Morten Harket is a really good singer, who feels things.
Bono is different, of course. He want to secure his place as one of the best songwriters in the (western) world…ever! To do this, he is attempting to utilise abstract nouns like ‘intimacy’ and ‘humility’ for what very much looks like the first time.
To achieve his strategic objective, Bono and his side-kick, The Edge, pitched up to do an NPR Tiny Desk Concert.
These concerts are pretty much my favourite thing on YouTube. They present an artist in front of the aforementioned ‘tiny desk’ to perform three or four songs in cramped but pleasant surroundings. Among dozens of examples, see concerts by Mac Miller and Stromae for evidence. Even Sting and Shaggy did a tiny desk concert full of joy.
So, it’s the right move. But can it work for Bono?
Short answer: of course it bloody can’t.
Intimate grandstanding – Bono meets Tiny Desk
They start with one of their turn-of-the-century anthems, Beautiful Day. This song, used for Barack Obama’s presidential campaigns and the footie highlights, is nine-tenths chorus, and does not work as an acoustic ballad.
Bono then introduces his backing singers, from the Duke Ellington School of Music. He does this mostly to juxtapose himself with one of the greatest composers in music history. And, contravening the Tiny Desk tradition, the student singers don’t squash into the small space behind the desk, but remain off-stage.
Then it’s into In a Little While, which reveals how much Bono’s voice has declined since his 1980s pomp. During the song he gets a bit bored and starts wandering off to do a clap-along or something, before remembering he’s meant to be showing his sensitive side.
His next song is led by a hugely cringey intro, about “friendship…sorta.” As it’s Bono it’s not just any friend, it’s about Michael Hutchence, the legendary INXS singer who died in 1997.
For the finale, Bono moves to his comfort zone, which is sticking his nose into the world’s problems. To this end, he has rewritten the forgettable single, Walk On, as a tribute to Volodymyr Zelensky, for whom he clearly has a massive, justified man-crush. He gets the choir on stage for this one, which gives him the chance to lark about a bit.
The concert is over, and you realise he has not touched any of their true classics, which is a shame.
What is the point of Bono?
Rock music is all about doing something preposterous, with enough verve and sincerity so that it becomes magnificent. Bono is, needless to say, brilliant at this.
There is, however, a reason why some people are solo performers and some are in bands. Bono needs bass, drums, guitar, a phalanx of backing singers, some tight leather trousers, a stadium full of mad clapping people, a light and video extravaganza and a couple of dodgy western leaders dancing in the wings to make coherent sense. So, his current endeavour is a bit off-point. It won’t do anything to advance his place in rock history.
In a geopolitical sense, Bono remains incredibly annoying. He talks in slogans. He makes reasonable people turn to extremism just to wind him up.
But my hard rule on this is to separate the man from the art. So, whatever the absurdities of his persona and his politicking, U2 still have a stack of splendid songs which will endure.
And that, in the end, is what counts.