On Sunday, U2 stands a good chance of taking home the best original song Oscar for “Ordinary Love,” a tune written for and featured in the biopic “Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom.” I’m hoping the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences denies the band this honor. It’s not deserved, and it will only encourage U2 to continue down what appears to be a path hellbent on mediocrity and redundancy.
I’ve been a major U2 fan for more than 30 years. The albums “The Unforgettable Fire,” “The Joshua Tree,” “Achtung Baby” and “Pop” were all game changers for me, records that still number among my most treasured. U2’s blend of minimalism, experimentation, eclecticism, the progressive side of punk rock, lyrics brimming with yearning and a sense of compassion, and forward-looking production made a deep and lasting impact on me, musically, philosophically and metaphysically. They are part of who I am, how I think, how I feel and how I judge music made in idioms similar to the one U2 occupies.
But I am worried that U2 now stands on the cusp of complete irrelevance. And I fear that the band’s undoing will be a direct result of its desire for massive commercial appeal at the expense of the experimentalism that was a necessary ingredient of all of its best work.
“Ordinary Love” is, despite the poignancy of its Mandela-themed lyric, an ordinary song. It sounds like a Coldplay B-side. We, the Academy included, should not offer U2 the impression that this is acceptable. We should and must demand more from them. As the peak moments from the band’s last studio album, “No Line On the Horizon,” made abundantly clear, U2 has not run out of creative steam. Rather, the band’s apparent desire for worldwide mega-stardom is stripping the U2 sound of its full potential. For the first time in its career, U2 seems desperate, as if purposely chasing a hit.
If “Ordinary Love” was simply a soundtrack song, a one-off, that would be a different story. Standalone soundtrack tunes often are tailor-made for films, and don’t represent any specific artistic statement or sea change within a band. But when U2 arrived Feb. 17 to help Jimmy Fallon launch his reign as host of “The Tonight Show” with a rooftop performance of “Invisible,” the first song from its upcoming new album, such an idea became tough to espouse. “Invisible” sounded like the work of a very tight and very professional U2 cover band. It trotted out what are now becoming abused motifs within the band’s vernacular – the Neu!/Kraftwerk-influenced electronica sprinklings, the grandiose chorus, the driving, anthemic propulsion of the groove – and crammed them into a confining pop song format. We might have been watching Coldplay or Arcade Fire perform their latest U2-inspired hit. (That’s not a compliment.)
Earlier this week, Bono told the Los Angeles Times that U2 was not particularly happy with its last album, “No Line On the Horizon,” that much of it was “too esoteric” and bordering on self-indulgence. He promised that the upcoming U2 album, which the band is working on with producer Brian Burton, aka Danger Mouse, would right these perceived wrongs. Ugh. Great.
None of this is encouraging nor was Bono’s further blathering about the “awful progressive rock lurking around,” which he apparently has “enough of a memory of 1977 not to surrender to.” Good god, man. Please stop talking! OK, OK, we get it – you’re still punk rock. Except, of course, for the inconvenient fact that you’re totally not punk rock, and never really were, which is why you were actually interesting! U2 once did its own thing!
Let’s compare this L.A. Times babble with an earlier quote from Bono, offered back when the band was crafting its first true masterpiece, the decidedly esoteric “The Unforgettable Fire” with producers Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois.
“We knew the world was ready to receive the heirs to the Who,” Bono is quoted in Neil McCormick’s book “U2 by U2.”
“All we had to do was to keep doing what we were doing and we would become the biggest band since Led Zeppelin, without a doubt. But something just didn’t feel right. We felt we had more dimension than just the next big anything, we had something unique to offer. The innovation was what would suffer if we went down the standard rock route. We were looking for another feeling.”
Well, then. There you go. The innovation has most definitely suffered. Clearly, “Ordinary Love” and “Invisible” are audio snapshots of U2 going down “the standard rock route.” And that route is a highway to a mediocre hell.
If “Ordinary Love” and “Invisible” represent U2 discovering what they were looking for all these years, well, I for one long for the days when they still hadn’t found it.