Updated: March 4, 2009
U2 has entered the fourth decade of a career that began in 1978, when its members were teenage schoolmates in Dublin; they are now in their late 40s. And U2 may well be the last of the megabands: long-running, internationally recognized rockers whose every album, from ”Boy” in 1980 to ”How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb” in 2004, has sold millions of copies worldwide. In an era when CD sales have plummeted, Top 40 radio favors hip-hop and teen-pop, albums are fractured by MP3 players’ shuffle mode and the old idea of a rock mainstream seems more and more like a mirage, U2 still, unabashedly, wants to release a blockbuster.
From its beginnings, in the wake of punk-rock, U2 made music on a grand scale. The band’s early signature sound — Bono’s ardent Irish tenor backed by open, echoing guitar chords from the Edge and the anthemic march beats of Larry Mullen Jr. on drums and Adam Clayton on bass — was suited to resound through the biggest spaces while Bono sang of boundless yearnings: romantic, social, spiritual.
Once the band reached the arena and stadium circuit in the 1980s, it stayed there. It has had no lineup changes, no breakups, no reunions and no catering to nostalgia.
Yet even as other bands mine U2’s catalog, the band defies its past. After two albums of comparatively straightforward guitar-driven rock, ”No Line on the Horizon,” U2’s head-spinning 12th studio album, takes new experimental tangents and redefines the band yet again. The album, released March 3, 2009, burbles with cross-rhythms, layered guitars and electronic undercurrents in songs the band wrote with its longtime producers, Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois. It’s not as startling a swerve as 1991’s ”Achtung Baby,” on which U2 reinvented itself after the earnest ’80s with irony and electronic beats. But ”No Line on the Horizon,” the result of a convoluted two-year process, presents a band that is still restless and impassioned, kicking formulas aside.
Bono has leveraged celebrity into political clout. Part policy wonk, part showman, part charmer, he works on causes like ending extreme poverty in Africa. While he has been mocked as St. Bono, he strives not to be too single-minded. In a interview in The New York Times, Bono mused on cathedral architecture; described encounters with presidential candidates and plans for his future columns on the Op-Ed page of The New York Times. He spoke fondly about his band mates as characters he’s still trying to figure out, about songs as bursts of serendipity and about what he wants in a performance: ”spastic elastic energy.” — Jon Pareles