With their latest album about to land, do Bono and his bandmates still got it?
Experiencing U2 for the 14th time with new album Songs of Experience
The global need for a 14th U2 album would be a matter for debate at any moment this side of the new millennium. On December 1, the Irish rock behemoths release their latest offering Songs of Experience and it is impossible to imagine a single review that won’t find at least a few spare column inches to dwell on singer Bono’s latest round of dubious tax receipts, laid bare in the recent Paradise Papers exposé.
In the annals of headline-stoking moral outrage, the singer is ranked somewhere between British monarch Queen Elizabeth II and F1 racing driver Lewis Hamilton. The scandal broke inopportunely days after the album’s release was confirmed; at the same time his band teased the new track Get Out of Your Own Way, complete with the goading soundbite “Blessed are the filthy rich”.
In this case, Bono has most definitely unleashed a Song of Experience – estimates of the singer’s wealth reach US$700 million [Dh2,571 million], a fortune only matched in the rock world by Paul McCartney.
After close to four decades of bright-surfaced stadium-baiting rock, it remains an uphill struggle for U2 to stimulate enthusiasm for a 14th release. Not least because the group cynically called their own relevance into question by spending the better part of the preceding year touring in support of the 30th anniversary of their celebrated The Joshua Tree album – a four-leg outing which banked $317 million (Dh1.164 billion), playing to more than 2.7 million fans across three continents.
If only their new music could generate the same excitement. Despite the pundits’ puns and social media jibes – “With or Without Dues”, “Where the Offshore Accounts Have No Name” and “I Still Haven’t Found The Right Baltic-based Retail/Property Tax Avoidance Shell I’m Looking For” rank among the wittier Tweets – one subject unlikely to come up on Songs of Experience is the taxing question of fiscal policy.
Instead, the record promises to be the band’s most political to date, with an original late-2016 release delayed for Bono to pen fresh lyrics in response to – you guessed it – Brexit and Donald Trump.
The lead single You’re the Best Thing About Me will set few hearts alight, politically or emotionally, grounded as it is by a clunky guitar riff and a chorus that stumbles over its own weight of expectation.
Ahead of the big release, the band have also shared The Blackout, a fuzzy, frenetic stomper driven by a punchy bass riff which hints at a harder direction and renewed vigour.
Bootlegged live recordings unveil the piano-led lament The Little Things That Give You Away, which builds to one of those inevitably ecstatic climaxes which have come to define U2’s brand of grandiosity for fans and detractors alike.
The most diverting thing about the record is likely to be a biblical-themed spoken word cameo from hip-hop innovator Kendrick Lamar – the source of the “blessed are the filthy rich” clunker – which segues between the trudging U2-by-numbers euphoric rocker Get Out of Your Own Way and American Soul, which was described by Rolling Stone as a “buzzing, distorted” rock cut following a since-deleted internet leak.
Lamar is deepening the exchange begun when U2 made a surprise appearance on XXX, which sampled Bono’s American Soul vocals, from the rapper’s acclaimed fourth album Damn earlier this year.
But with or without the incongruous celebrity tie-in, the new album is unlikely to eclipse the growing taxation furore, with most fair-headed fans resigned to the fact that U2’s last truly satisfying album was 2000’s All That You Can’t Leave Behind.
Let us not forget Songs of Experience is the sister release to previous outing Songs of Innocence – a collection which caused consternation among millions when it appeared, overnight and uninvited, on millions of iPhones.
What should have been a timely embrace of technology, and could have been portrayed as a generous act of globalised altruism, sadly smacked of cultural imperialism of the worst kind – the world’s biggest tech firm and rock band in cohorts to force-feed you their mutually devised product.
And, let’s face it, cribbing from a Romantic poet – the album titles reference William Blake’s seminal 1789 school syllabus staple Songs of Innocence and of Experience – did little to help the accusations of hubris.
This might be a charge Bono has weathered for decades, but the latest revelations really hit the singer, born Paul David Hewson, where it hurts – his wallet.
Named after the exotic island tax havens on which the rich and famous deposited their money, the Paradise Papers – a trove of 13.4 million confidential documents made public after a hack of the law firm Appleby – detailed how in 2007, Bono became an investor in a new shopping mall in the low-tax jurisdiction of Lithuania, a country U2 have never performed in; an asset later transferred to a company in the tax-free haven of Guernsey.
Following the leak, Bono – who also famously made a fortune investing in Facebook – released a statement claiming he was “extremely distressed” by the arrangements entered into as a “passive minority investor”. The singer’s Dh25 million stake has, at least, had the unlikely effect of making the mall’s home in Utena – a city smaller than the average U2 crowd, home to around 27,000 people – temporarily famous.
This was a rare admission of something resembling guilt from the 57-year-old singer, who has repeatedly come under fire since it emerged that U2 moved their multimillion-dollar publishing business to the Netherlands in 2006, to reduce their tax bill – a move which pulled millions from their home government’s annual budget, and saw Bono singled out for criticism in a report by Christian Aid two years later.
The scandal refused to go away; the band’s 2011 headline slot at the legendary Glastonbury festival – which should have ranked among their crowning moments – was best-remembered for violent clashes between security and a group of protesters who unfurled a 25-metre inflatable balloon reading “U pay tax 2?”.
This unflattering moment, caught on camera at the close of what remains the highest grossing concert tour on record – the 110-show, U2 360° Tour banked a staggering $736 million (Dh2.7 billion), the equivalent of $6.7 million (Dh24.6 million) a night – made the band’s creative ethical approach particularly galling.
Here the “Orwellian” release of Songs of Innocence – in the words of Foo Fighters drummer Taylor Hawkins – again seems prescient.
Multiple musicians, including the Black Keys’ Patrick Carney and Pink Floyd’s Nick Mason, rallied against the iTunes tie-in, rightly pointing out that a free release devalues the art form of recorded music – especially concerning for smaller acts struggling to make a living in a world where few feel the need to buy albums anymore.
But here’s the kicker: the release might have been free, but U2 still got paid. Billboard estimates Apple could have forked out as much as $52 million (Dh191m) for exclusive rights to the album, as well as footing a promotional bill of up to $100 million (Dh367m).
Opting for a conventional release for the follow-up may prove a wise move, but with little hope of their music rising above the chatter, if U2 can alter the public discourse surrounding them, it will inevitably be onstage, where the band will soon return.
Kicking off in North America in May, the Experience + Innocence Tour is already destined to be next year’s biggest, most in-demand, live music spectacle.
U2’s Songs of Experience is released on December 1
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