Published in The Sunday Business Post, 13th September 2015 by Nadine O’Regan
Don’t hate me for saying this, but I think I’m warming to Bono again. I’ve been trying to figure out quite when this strange development came to pass.
It’s not a recent thing; it’s not just because U2 have finally resolved, after much indecision and bellyaching about suitable venues, to bring their Innocence and Experience world tour to Ireland.
And it’s not because – after years of being seemingly the only music journalist in the country not to have my own personal U2 anecdote – I finally had a brief encounter with the band. I had the good fortune to find myself at a fancy dinner in Dalkey last summer where I sat within spitting distance of the Edge; I can confirm he did not remove his hat for the duration of the meal.
It certainly has nothing to do with the patchy quality of their newish album, which they inserted into everyone’s iTunes last year without permission, leading to all manner of jokes about everyone needing better firewalls against Bono.
No, the truth is I started to like Bono again when I heard something bad had happened to him. Last November, Bono came off his bike in New York’s Central Park and hurt himself seriously, requiring surgery on his arm. And that was it: I heard the news and I felt awful for him. I felt that quiver of alarm that you get when you hear something terrible has happened to one of your relatives, who happens to live in a foreign country, but who you keep in tangential contact with through your folks.
Bono is family. He’s your annoying uncle. He’s your dad when he drinks too much and spouts off. He’s your entrepreneurial cousin who made a fortune in an internet company and who everyone pats on the back while secretly resenting. Sure, he’s on a TV screen instead of on the settee in the front room, but he’s there nonetheless, being annoying, being talented, being in your face, then rushing off and meeting the Pope on you.
Suddenly I was listening to the radio for updates and worrying about the state of Bono’s joints, and trying to remember how much guitar he played in the band. The answer to this is: very little. Edge is quite the capable sort, it transpires. Who knew?
The thing is, U2 have got it wrong over the past few years. Badly wrong. And not just in relation to their deals with Apple or their handling of the public resentment over their tax affairs.
Musically they’re an old band who have been killing themselves trying to sound like a young band. A hit like Vertigo was whip-smart and catchy, sure, but could have been penned by a bunch of twenty-year-olds and, in truth, should have been left to be penned by twenty-year-olds. But if Vertigo was at least a tune, the later single Get On Your Boots was an unmitigated disaster, the sound of a band boarding a train going in the wrong direction.
U2 have staged partial recoveries ever since, both in their music and on the public relations front (they apologised for the Apple misstep). Their most recent album could best be described a calculated safety-play, reaching into Dublin-set nostalgia as they try to figure out their place in music anew, amid current worldwide trends for empty hip-hop and tinny electro-pop.
But calculation isn’t everything in the fickle pop world. And with Bono’s injuries comes a display of something U2 don’t usually put to the fore: vulnerability. This act of God suggested, finally, that Bono was human – something that occasionally he himself seemed to have forgotten. With Bono’s surgeries and recovery time, U2’s tour had to be postponed. Their plans were derailed. And in their giant mess, the band became loveable again.
Last week, after Electric Picnic, I hung out one evening with a friend to indulge in a post-Picnic breakdown. We started listening to music while we were chatting. What did we put on? Not Hot Chip, who played a blistering set at the Picnic. Not Blur, who delivered an immense string of back catalogue hits. Not Grace Jones or Shamir. We played U2’s The Unforgettable Fire. And we fell into silence as we listened, soaking up the majestic chord progressions, Edge’s shivery, ambient guitar work, Bono’s aching vocal – and contemplating anew how brilliant the song still was.
Stick with us, Bono. We may be your begrudging Irish audience, but we’re also your family. Which is why, when we tell you you’re being an absolute idiot, we still love you – even if we’ll only admit it when you’re in the hospital.