The Skeptics Guide to U2: The Pros and Cons of U2

In celebration of U2’s headlining 2017’s Bonnaroo festival, BTRtoday presents a series on how our editor-in-chief learned to stop worrying and love U2. Read part one here. Want to see Bono and the boys at Bonnaroo? BTRtoday is giving away tickets. Click here for info.

I never had a guilty pleasure until I became a U2 fan. I never had to feel bad about liking stuff I liked. My favorite things have always been inherently cool, like Devo, James Brown or “Appetite for Destruction.”

U2 doesn’t make it easy. If you’re thinking about getting into them, you have to take a deep breath, look at yourself in the mirror and compromise a little. I’ve made peace with my fandom, but for everybody else, here’s a cost-benefit analysis.

Cons

Bono’s Hard to Take

If you subtract his humanitarian/political issues, Bono is a cartoon of a rock star. His self regard borders on sociopathy. Even when he’s trying to be modest he’s ego monster, like when he said U2 was reapplying for the job of best band in the world in 2001. U2 is good as hell but they got blown out of the water that year by the White Stripes, Daft Punk and others.

The Edge is Kind of Hard to Take as Well, Honestly

Watching “It Might Get Loud,” it’s hard to take the Edge. He’s a guitar effects master and can write a catchy tune but he struggles a rudimentary blues riff. It’s like watching a millionaire stockbroker (no joke; he drives a Mercedes to meet with Jimmy Page and Jack White) who needs a calculator to do subtraction.

Their Status as a Global “Brand”

Being a fan of U2 feels like rooting for Microsoft sometimes. And that’s barely hyperbole. When you consider the money sloshing around their international touring and marketing organizations, U2 is a corporation the size Twitter or Costco or something. And they lean into corporate culture by making strategic partnerships with Apple or Bill Gates and employing tax dodging accounting tricks. It sucks the joy out a lot of their music, honestly.

Their Greatest Hits are Either Inherently Terrible or Overplayed to Death

“With or Without You,” “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For, “Pride (In the Name of Love),” “Where the Streets Have No Name, “One” and “Sunday Bloody Sunday” are like a murderers’ row of songs I never want to hear again. I have no idea if it’s because the songs suck or because I’ve heard them a billion times.

The Lyrics are Distractingly Terrible

It must have rained a lot in Ireland in the mid-’80s.  “Unforgettable Fire and “Joshua Tree” lyrics are like teleprompter copy for the Weather Channel. Everything’s about howling wind, the sky or the rain. The weather report is occasionally interrupted by nonsequitur Biblical allusions and fear of walls and blindness. Or maybe it’s just weird statements or oddly curated quotes like “a woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle” or “in New York summers get hot.” (also: weather.)

Pros

Songwriting 

Bono and the boys don’t just write choruses. They write anthems. From “I Will Follow” on and up to “Beautiful Day,” their best songs big-blast off in the refrains in ways songs by other artists can’t match. The melodies effortlessly soar. It’s uplifting music in an almost achingly literal sense.

Bono’s a Great Singer
It’s really weird that Bono is able to find a vocal melody over all the chiming guitars at all. The Edge’s guitar parts are usually comprised of three or four notes at the most. Bono’s singing doesn’t follow the chords. They’re often a counterpoint or a barely connected melody that floats over the rest of band. It makes an otherwise minimalist band seem really full. And beyond musical value, he broadcasts charisma and emotion. When he waves a big stupid white flag/mullet combo on stage it’s something that’s almost earned.

Unassailably Dope Influences
The members of U2 must have amazing record collections. Their influences are an encyclopedia of cool 20th-century sounds. Siouxsie and the Banshees? Roxy Music? Kraftwerk? Johnny Cash? Lou Reed? I’d let them DJ in a heartbeat. They’re not skillful mimics and they filter everything through their own sound. U2’s early new wave records sound indebted to post-punk bands like Magazine and PiL, but the Irish quartet defined themselves so clearly, it’s not accurate to say they were thieves.


Unrivaled Consistency
There’s no “classic period” of U2 music. They don’t have a classic album run like Rubber Soul through Sgt. Pepper or Beggar’s Banquet through Exile on Main Street. A U2 playlist of hits would span 30 years. “Out of Control” and I Will Follow” are great songs. So are “Zooropa,” “Lemon,” and “Beautiful Day.” As a point of comparison, in the same amount of time, Paul McCartney went from “I Want to Hold Your Hand” to “Give my Regards to Broad Street.” The Stones went from “Satisfaction” to “Waiting on a Friend.” Jimmy Page went from “Communication Breakdown” to the Honeydrippers.

Infinite Headphone Depth

The Edge and his producers Daniel Lanois and Brian Eno are master engineers of three-dimensional sounds. It’s only after hearing a U2 song three dozen times that you’ll notice some weird little chiming sound clicking off in the mix. The guitar tones are impeccable and impeccably recorded. You can feel the precision with which they placed a mic to capture the exact texture of how the pick scraped against an exact string. It’s like early Roxy Music, only direct to the heart instead of hiding ambition and sincerity behind irony and a sheen of theatricality. Or like Steely Dan without the fussy musicianship.

It’s Just a Good Vibe Overall
U2 has a specific mood. It’s not party music, it’s not mopey music, it’s not dance music, it’s not even really rock music, a lot of times either. If you’re in the right mood, it’s cheesy as hell. But sometimes you want to feel feelings and keep it positive. When U2 hits one of those spiraling into the vortex of the universe face-melting headphone moments, it’s friendly and hopeful.

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