For nearly five years, the world has been U2less.
Sure, the Irish rock juggernaut has continued to play live shows, setting the record, in 2011, for the highest-grossing tour of all time. But not since No Line on the Horizon came out in early 2009 have Bono & Co. released any new studio material. No soaring choruses about faith and love and Africa. No reverby, ricocheting guitar lines. No martial drum beats. No chart-topping uplift.
Until now. Yesterday, Bono & Co. finally ended the debilitating U2 shortage of the last half-decade and delivered a new song. It’s called “Ordinary Love,” and it was written specifically for Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom, the new biopic about South Africa’s legendary anti-apartheid crusader and eventual president. It comes complete with a tasteful lyric video and limited-edition 10-inch vinyl release for Record Store Day.
The problem is that “Ordinary Love” is, well, ordinary.
It pains me to say this. I’ve been a U2 fan for almost as long as I’ve loved music. I think Achtung Baby is one of the greatest albums ever made. I think The Edge ranks alongside Keith Richards, Jimmy Page, and Robbie Robertson as one of the few guitar gods who manages, somehow, to sound like nobody else when he plays. And Bono’s boyish bombast doesn’t irk me like it irks so many others. In fact, I find it kind of endearing.
Beyond that, U2 itself is anything but ordinary. Name me another 37-year-old band that is still refusing to calcify into a greatest-hits act; that is still striving to improve; and that is still writing and releasing new material catchy enough and contemporary enough to compete on the charts with the latest pop singles by much younger acts. With all four of its original members to boot. You can’t. There isn’t one. U2 is in class of its own.
And yet there’s been a bothersome trend in U2’s music lately.
Here’s my theory. The early part of the band’s career, from Boy (1980) through Rattle and Hum (1988) was its Id Period—an era defined by big, flamboyant, irrational emotions like desire and faith and outrage (and their sonic equivalents).
The middle part of the band’s career, from Achtung Baby (1991) through Pop (1997), was its Ego Period, when U2 established an ironic distance from their earlier emotionalism—when they “attempt[ed] to mediate between id and reality,” as the great rock critic Sigmund Freud once put it.
A band that knows how it’s supposed to sound and is attempting to sound like that.
The most recent part of U2’s career, meanwhile, which began in 2000 with the release of All That You Can't Leave Behind, has been its Superego Period. To me, much of U2’s recent output sounds like a band trying to act appropriately. A band that knows how it’s supposed to sound and is attempting to sound like that. A band that is imposing concepts onto its music. A band that is calculating. Overthinking. And losing some sort of spark in the process.
Which brings us to “Ordinary Love.” On the plus side, the production by indie guru Danger Mouse is lovely and sparse: light, plonking piano; crisp drums; a subtle wash of The Edge’s signature guitar. Sometimes U2 records can sound a little leaden. This is nice and airy.
Bono’s vocals are excellent as well. As most singers age—Mr. Hewson is now 53—they begin to treat their voices with effects and bury them in the mix. But on “Ordinary Love,” Bono’s voice is clear and present and admirably bare, with a touch of hoarseness in each note. It sounds even better than it did back when he was young and invincible.
Yet “Ordinary Love” is still missing something. There’s no oomph in the melody. The falsetto hook isn’t hooky enough. And worst of all the lyrics read like middle-school poetry. Bono used to be a fine lyricist; on Achtung Baby in particular he managed to pack a lot of big emotions into very particular phrases that still sound natural when sung. “Who’s gonna ride your wild horses? / Who’s gonna drown in your blue sea? / Who’s gonna taste your salt water kisses? / Who’s gonna take the place of me? “ is about as good as a breakup song gets.
But Bono’s work on “Ordinary Love” is just awkward (as it has been for the last dozen years or so). Almost every other line calls attention to itself. “The sea wants to kiss the golden shore.” “Time leaves us polished stones.” “Your heart is on my sleeve / Did you put it there with a magic marker?” Words are shoehorned in without much regard for scansion, stress, or tone. The overall effect is of someone not trusting his gut: of trying too hard to write “good lyrics”—superego lyrics—and then forcing them onto the music.
As a result, “Ordinary Love” never really takes off. It isn’t a bad song, per se—U2 rarely releases a truly worthless track. It’s just not nearly as good as the band that made it.
Word is that Bono and the boys have a new Danger-Mouse-produced album coming out in April 2014. Sessions began in 2009. Danger Mouse joined the team in 2010. The LP was supposed to come out in early 2011. Then it was May 2011. Then, in June 2011, it was “next fall.” Then it was 2013.
I was hoping that U2 had spent all that time figuring out how to shake off their collective superego and stop sounding so calculated and correct. “Ordinary Love” suggests they may have lost the battle.