“Boy sees his father crushed under the weight
of a cross in a passion where the passion is hate.
Blue-mink Ford, I’m gonna detonate
and you’re dead.
Blood in the house, blood on the street,
the worst things in the world are justified by belief.
Those who like to comment that a band like U2 is no longer ‘relevant’ either know very little about music, know only one kind of music, or just like popular music.
True, rock/pop is predominantly more appealing when coming from the physically younger medium. It is raw, hungry, mythically fearless, wild, fresh, and free. The songs’ subject matter can feel very true without actually making complete literal sense. But, even if you are young and don’t happen to like a current, young pop star, does this make you ‘irrelevant’?
So long as its players are playing it, they and the music are distinctly rooted in arrested development. And I, for better or for worse, cannot help but continue to feel so.
For if you keep writing and performing music to help change humanity for the better, from when you were younger because you felt you could legitimately do so — and in some ways, ended up doing it — that romantic feeling always stays with you in spite of how much work you have already done, knowing so many things have yet to change (or, have again grown worse), or new problems pop up. This, in and of itself, is a tough challenge: the sense that by the time you die some of these more atrocious hypocrisies will go right on living.
And, so, consider this band’s latest offering: what it means at this point in their career on how one not so much ‘should not’, but rather cannot block out the enormously relevant subject matter of the overall present.
In spite of this band’s success and celebrity — which is understandably the only thing many people have been able to see over their thirty-plus year career — what vital rock musician does not have a past rooted in personal trauma(s)? Take, for instance, this lyricist… Mother faints and unexpectedly dies as a teen at her father’s funeral. His father — an opera fan and singer, himself — then, pretty well emotionally cuts himself off. Grows up poor in a housing-project strewn about with heroin addicts, oftentimes literally having to fight his way home from school; coming of age in a nation’s economy which at the time was in the tank, in many ways as a result of living in a war-torn city of I.R.A. bombings and splinter-groups’ more indiscriminate killings, and torturing, as this still resonates along with being a member of a race once completely discarded from their ‘master’, more conservative neighbors, the Brits, across the sea. Fortunately, this person found some community in Christianity, in fellow artists and his friends, music, poetry, a band, and a girlfriend (now wife of over thirty years).
So, now older, and more hardened with layers of cynicism, those personal traumas continue to exist in other parts of the world, multiple times over. Why not in some ways directly explore what compelled invigorating those fears in the first place, and at the same time examine their place in the present — and share both? To challenge and implode those denials that elude so many? For the very silence of denial, in general, can drown out everything.
I think the genesis of much of the beef against U2 started with the release of “Achtung, Baby”.
If those bracelets existed, back in the late 1980s, where there was one for ‘WWU2DO’, they would not have been necessary, for this band was just that incredibly popular. As a result of “The Joshua Tree”, they had become a spiritual, emotional, moral, musical, and cultural force, the world over.
But, making a career out of this very open-sleeved level of sincerity is impossible. Not to mention, of course, their image was starting to be marketed and embraced as kitsch.
In need of re-invention, they decided to follow their muse to Berlin, Germany, the night the wall of the Cold War and the oppressive style of communism that went up with it had was being torn down. The band wanted a rebirth, and the majority of this city had been starving for such a thing, for over a very long time, and was itself about to undergo all kinds of renewal.
Germany had historically been the cultural epicenter of everything, post-Roman Empire, before the brief rise of Nazism and the subsequent, more often than not corrupt and brutal form of Soviet communism that for almost fifty years left a bleak affect, more immediately, upon all of Europe.
Musically, Edge was exploring industrial rock along with the rhythmic and technological potential of progressive dance and club-music — the former, much of which happened to be coming out of Germany — and how they both could be applied to rock music. “Machine-age music”, as he described both forms, in the documentary, “From the Sky Down”, where, “of the humanity that was taken out of it, the humanity you put back in came out all the more.” This approach would also interestingly reflect the image the band would adapt upon the album’s release: glossy and over-the-top, here; gritty and futuristic, there; urban-camouflage.
All very convincing to the contrary as it appeared, you quickly got clued in that on the surface it was all a con. The surface of it all was designed to be an f-u against those who just cared to go by the element of stardom; a mask, knowing and being prepared full-well for how along the ride it was going to reveal the humanity, all the more. As Bono quoted Oscar Wilde at the time: “Man is least himself when he talks in his own person. Give him a mask, and he will tell you the truth.”
So, the silly idea that they had ‘sold-out’ (or, will ever do, for that matter) was the exact opposite in intention.
This band comes from a punk/post-punk ethic; even after amalgamating or reinventing just about every derived form of music, continuing to refuse to play it safe, of late fatten their sound — as their singer still aptly likes to refer to them as the loudest folk band in the world.
Their altruistic ethic of what they continue to accomplish as being something much bigger than themselves could/should serve as a model for future musician’s longevity and sanity.
Bob Dylan is most well known for catapulting this form of conscientious rock music, from the folk tradition unto the mainstream. But, as a result of largely having to endure the level of attention he had received on his own, it was all too much as many things ended up getting mismanaged and so the spotlight had to be side-stepped. Other rock bands, like R.E.M., gave up. Radiohead is still here and there. And right now I just don’t hear anyone else really on par with U2.
So, the question I have as far as relevance is concerned, is where is the rage?
Touring must be so manic and grueling, at times, on top of the very time-consuming task of songwriting, all taking time away from family and friends. And as far as keeping a band together, personal wants and needs surely evolve, as well. Yet, the real problems of the world still require a loud electric-guitar, drums, bass, and an impassioned, articulate voice still willing to fight the good fight.
And I am sure that it is true that some of the resentment also still paid towards this band persists due to three of the four’s relationship with God. This band, though, is about as ‘Christian-rock’, or ‘Bible-beating’, as the next performer who happens to have Christian underpinnings, which comes out in their lyrics. Yet, they probably understand the push-and-pull subject matter of faith better than most set of rock musicians out there. They are not afraid to write about it, and often.
But, just because anyone may defend a what should be more contemporary practice and understanding of Christianity in contrast to what is more conservatively practiced and understood does not mean s/he is defending all of the contradictions centered around this particular religion. You know some of them: a Christian God is the only God; the question of how thus could there be more than one organized religion in the world; all of those who to varying degrees have greatly misused or abused their understanding of scripture or positions, of faith. Religion continues to exist. The problems all around the world centered around their understanding of religion continue to exist. Not intelligently discussing these problems is not going to make these problems go away. Nor, should addressing them in popular music be some violation of rock etiquette.
Regardless of where such inspiration may come, why they happen to write about these things has to do with more existential than Christian reasons. Soul music, as well as a bit of folk and the blues, is considered to be secularized gospel music. Like an Irish predecessor before them, rightly secularizing epiphanies as something any non-religious person can feel, the song “One”, for one, was written from a bit of those Christian underpinnings but most certainly not meant to be limited under such. Edge once said, “Things get associations you can’t shake off, and as they get tainted you have to abandon them.” ‘Abandon’, in essence, meaning to broaden. 
Every true artist — selfless people, at heart — wants to reach as many people as they can; to share their work and grow with as many people who care to be interested. If you insist on spending an average of $150,000/day (not just on days in which you perform, but every day) of your own money during a tour (Zoo-TV), and then $250,000/day of your own money for the next tour, and then an average of $750,000/day (but this time, with the help of at least one corporate sponsor) on your most recent stadium-tour so that each time people in the very last row of the upper-deck could feel as close as possible to being a part of the performance as if they were in a club, I can certainly believe in their integrity. When you agree to perform in countries where bands hardly perform, like in Russia or South Africa, or have to be dissuaded for seemingly obvious reasons from performing in then sniper and conflict-rich Sarajevo because your plane would get shot at prior to even landing, ignore FBI warnings that you might be shot if you go out on stage and perform a particular song, in the States; when you can write extraordinary lines like, “I stopped outside the church-house where the citizens like to sit./They say they want their kingdom, but they don’t want God in it”, incredibly sell all 7,272,046 tickets put up for sale over a recent tour, drastically refresh or even remake new songs and make them better, sing/lobby on behalf of oppressed world leaders (and in the case of Burma, help succeed in this cause) and to help rescue a continent from debt, poverty, and disease, and be an arguable influence in getting your own countrymen to stop killing each other — you don’t do any of this by ever playing it safe.
When you can persistently take on the world like this, and be pretty damn successful at it, and still write great songs, then none of this remotely makes you irrelevant? They are still in many ways the same band as when I first started getting interested in them.
 “There’s a line in, I think, the New Testament which says that the spirit moves and no one knows where it comes from or where it’s going. It’s like the wind. I’ve always felt that way about my faith. That’s why on [the song] ‘Zooropa’ I say I’ve got no religion. Because I believe religion is the enemy of God. Because it denies the spontaneity of spirit and the almost anarchistic nature of the spirit.” – Bono, Into the Heart: The stories behind every U2 song, Niall Stokes, p. 112.