I grew up listening to U2, which I guess means I’m now an adult because even I didn’t listen to their new album. How could anyone? Violating our iPhones in the middle of the night with “Songs of Innocence” was pathetic, a once-great band unable to accept their own slow fading, reduced to a needy swipe at relevance. They succeeded at that, sort of: People spent entire days wondering how to delete the album from their libraries. It was, as Bono put it with a little too much self-awareness, “The blood, sweat and tears of four Irish guys — in your junk mail.” U2’s message was one we didn’t care to notice.
Not that “Songs of Innocence” needed help to be unappealing. It’s filled with crude caricatures of mediocre U2 songs; it sounds like a U2 cover band’s first attempt at an original album. Roundly and deservedly skewered by critics who could scarcely hide their glee at being pitched such a meatball, it garnered a positive review only from Rolling Stone, whose head-in-the-sand five-star rating cemented band and magazine alike as officially impotent: two drowning people clinging to each other for survival.
But I did not share in the glee with which Pitchfork’s Rob Mitchum or the New Yorker’s Sasha Frere-Jones tore into U2’s latest. Only 10 years and two albums ago, U2 were my favorite band and still a truly great one, fresh and immediate and inventive and able to do what hasn’t been done since: top the charts and fill stadiums while playing rock. Springsteen and McCartney can still draw a crowd, but only on the strength of music from 40 or 50 years ago. U2 occupied a strange space, their songs equally at home on classic rock and pop radio. But when U2 toured in 2004, fans showed up to hear music written in 2004. U2 were the last true rock stars.
The pedestal from which they have fallen was once well deserved. Few artists have conquered as much sonic territory, much less done so while retaining a sense of emotional mission and anthemic songwriting. The shimmering desert mirage of 1987’s “The Joshua Tree” gave way to the only slightly less perfect “Achtung Baby,” a barrage of industrial sounds inspired by the end of the Cold War. Somehow, the band seemed equally at home in the newly unified Berlin as they had in the arid American Southwest four years earlier. And somehow, songs from both albums, and from the band’s other work, hold up next to each other on stage — a testament to U2’s refusal to take their heart off their sleeve. That has meant inducing some cringes and alienating the hip; but for U2’s fans, their honesty made them great. No other rock band had ever been as forthright.
I see no band ready to take up U2’s mantle as the Biggest Band in the World, and maybe there isn’t one; maybe it’s just cranks like me who hold out hope. But I still have to wonder at the people whose legs are twitching as they wait to dance on the band’s grave. Where does that vitriol come from? Embittered snobs who prefer dingy clubs to stadiums full of entranced people? Music is meant to be shared, something U2 might have understood a little too well, but something indie rock has made impossible, although maybe through no fault of its own. Indie rock defines itself as separate and distinct — “our” music as opposed to everyone else’s. Believe me, I’m as much of a rock snob as anyone, but I wish I didn’t have to be, and that’s why I grew up listening to U2.
Maybe this was inevitable. Many don’t like that U2 were built to be big; everything about the band demands it. They even called themselves “the last of the rock stars” in a song, and it’s hard to play a role with grace when you know that you’re playing it. I have listened to “Songs of Innocence” exactly once and I don’t plan to do so again, but I have listened to “War” and “Achtung Baby” a few times each since “Songs of Innocence” came out. Those are both great albums, but when a band’s new release is occasion only to break out their old stuff, you know their time has come — U2 are classic rock now. They will be the last band to become so.