U2 – O2 Arena Live Review
Songs Of Innocence, the album which planted itself onto each and every iPhone on planet, found U2 in a strange situation. For the first time in their career, the Irish quartet, who can quite justly claim to have invented the modern arena headlining sound, were quite clearly baring the influence of the post-U2 generation. Despite producing some seriously slick pop music, it felt unsettling, if not unedifying, to see Bono and The Edge dance to their imitators’ tune. So Songs Of Innocence, destined to be defined more by technological platforms than the songs themselves, did raise one nagging question: what are U2 trying to achieve in 2015?
Bono completed his impossible mission to make middle-aged U2 the biggest band in the world for a second time over a decade ago. In “Vertigo” and “Beautiful Day’s” wake, U2 feel rudderless. 2009’s No Line On The Horizon flitted between thoughtful revisionism and mid-life crisis dad rock withoutever really stumbling on a sense of purpose or inspiration
Songs Of Innocence, the album which gives the Innocence and Experience tour its name, sought to fundamentally alter U2’s approach – not simply with a raft of new producers, but with a change of lyrical tact. Bono, the holder of the broadest brush stroke in all of modern music, would be getting personal. The impetus was there and the enthusiasm was palpable, but despite signposting songs about his mother, lost love and childhood home, Bono still felt like he could be singing about anywhere or anyone. The challenge for Innocence and Experience tour (assembled and ambitiously directed at unfathomable expense) was both simple and daunting: bring Bono’s narrative to life, find the sweet spot between the spotty teenaged Irishmen and these globe straddling caricatures of superstardom.
U2 certainly set off on the right foot. “The Miracle (Of Joey Ramone)” bounds across the cavernous O2 arena. The 20,000 strong crowd encircling the band don’t appear overly familiar with the “new stuff”, but they are happy to clap and chant, almost as an infectious reflex. The true revelation comes when the band drive into their debut release, Boy: firing off their earliest singles “Out Of Control” and “I Will Follow”. Scratchy post-punk edge is not what anyone expects from a U2 arena show in 2015, but it’s exactly what the Dubliners deliver. The first is all anarchic clatter and clash, as if these primitive chords are forcing these aged professionals to thrillingly regress. The second remains a ferocious live force. Dance or be damned is the message, but beneath this outpouring of early energy are neat hints to the potential that lay in weight. Even in 1980 U2 were obscuring the bellowing chants and plaintive pleas that would conquer the world within a decade.
The juxtaposition is both viscerally thrilling and pleasing thematic. “The Miracle (Of Joey Ramone)” might struggle to capture the excitement of discovery on record, but next to songs thirty years its junior it feels like the true culmination of experience (or, more precisely, refinement). The same cannot be said of “Vertigo”, a stadium sized crowd pleaser that Bono does his best to butcher as he struggles to keep pace with the verse.
Attention thoroughly arrested U2 quickly transition between a collection of audio/visual set pieces. Bono clambers inside are giant video screen that levitates over the runaway that divides the arena in two. He promises to take us to the streets that raised him and he does so in a staggeringly literal manner. Bono walks the length of “Cedarwood Road” as The Edge’s guitar chugs. Images of David Bowie and The Virgin Mary (yes really) do their best to color this nondescript slowee, but the sheer gimmickry of seeing a flesh and blood Bono waltzing through a cartoon landscape erases any sense of nuance or depth.
There is a worry, as Bono sits beside his teenage self in his old bedroom, that spectacle – no matter how novel – will derail any sense of musical momentum. Thankfully, “Song For Someone” overcomes its heavy-handed delivery. Bono admits that this is track for a childhood love that he could never quite finish. It’s somewhat ironic that Bono, a songwriter critical savaged for his inability to write specific detail orientated lyrics, should lodge at 40 year quest to write a song for just one girl and instead decided to serve up a universal plea. Still, the sight of couples holding one-another close suggests that precision doesn’t necessarily facilitate intimacy.
The giant video screen does eventually hit its mark. The entire band climb inside the mammoth construct to perform “Even Better Than The Real Thing”, appearing as 50 foot pop art sprites they rip through one of their most colorful hits like overblown comic book heroes. For the final verse, the band emerge onto a runaway and blast their virtual selves into orbit. It’s a neat sight gag and a cracking anthem, but ultimately it goes to prove that, old and limping as they may be, there is no substitute for the real thing. The band soon trade modern stadium wizardy for some old fashion tricks of the trade. Bono pulls a girl from the crowd to dance along to “Mysterious Ways”. Tammy, a Belgian, helps to illustrate one of the bands many political points – that London is a global, chameleon city that accepts everyone.
Two brothers pluck from the crowd play guitar alongside The Edge during a rambunctious rendition of “Angel Of Harlem”, which nearly, just nearly, upstages the throaty roar of “Desire”. During the encore, Bono will complete his experience-speaking-to-youth narrative by exchanging clothes with a young fan during “City Of Blinding Lights”. In a contrived but enjoyable moment of stagecraft, Bono is forced to watch his younger self walk away even as he implores him to stay. These might be old (dare I say corny) tricks, but they work wonders with the live crowd. Smiles are plastered on faces and, albeit briefly, U2 seem less like hectoring stars and more like human beings who legitimately struggle to keep pace with their younger fans.
In between, the big set pieces The Edge is afforded plenty of opportunity to reassert his guitar hero chops. “Until The End Of The World” is beefed up to high heaven, riding a taught riff that forces fans who forgot the words a decade ago to leap to their feet. Not to be out done, Bono shows that his body may be battered, but his lungs are firmly intact. “Every Breaking Wave” is transformed into a piano accompanied ballad so resoundingly sung that it swells hearts all the way in row ZZ of the upper bowl. The pulverizing virtuosity doesn’t end there; “Bullet The Blue Sky” is transformed into seething invective touching on everything from Syria and the refuge crisis to global poverty and Bono’s own hypocrisy. It’s a ludicrous act of rock showmanship, complete with a megaphone and a distorted guitar line destined to split eardrums in two, but, first and foremost, it’s a glorious cataclysmic mess of noise.
Having hit led their audience, somewhat improbably, through implausible electronic spectacles, fan interaction sequences and more political causes than you can shake a stick at there is only one thing left to do: send everyone home happy. In these moments U2 do not fall short. They might have succumbed to their imitators on record, but it’s worth remembers as 20,000 hands reach for the sky that the Coldplays and Arcade Fires of this world have spent 30 years trying to rewrite anthems as perfectly as “Where The Streets Have No Name”, “With or Without You” and the Noel Gallagher assisted “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For”.
The true highlight comes from U2’s most important album, The Unforgettable Fire. “Pride (In The Name Of Love”), the ode to Martin Luther King’s ultimate sacrifice, is still the epitome of broad brushstroke songwriting. Detail would only get in the way of the ache of injustice. “Pride…” has fists pumping and voices cracking because it is so pure of sentiment. Lungs bust and pints are spilled with vigor to this rare perfect song. When recording in 1984, Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois drolly quipped “maybe a bit more passion this time Bono” after the singer had nearly worked himself into a fit singing the chorus. Today entire arena’s convulse and scream themselves hoarse to this, the slightest sketch of a song – and that depth of transferable feeling is U2’s enduring legacy. Truth be told, even to this day, no one does it better.