U2 dropped a new single amidst the gaudy commercials on Super Bowl Sunday.
The band, now in its fifth decade, was selling its continued relevancy.
The song, “Invisible,” was featured on an ad during the game and offered for free with an added incentive: Bank of America donated $1 to fight AIDS for every download. By week’s end the bank said it had donated more than $3 million to the cause.
Bono called the cut a “sneak preview” of their upcoming album, offered up to “remind people we exist.” He worried that "we were on the verge of irrelevance a lot in our lives."
Bono wasn’t joking.
The band’s last album, 2009’s No Line on the Horizon, was among the poorest selling of its career. Too experimental and moody for the purists and too conventional for the risk seekers, it barely registered. The much derided music for the Spider-Man musical followed and is best forgotten. Since then the band has gone through fits and starts, promising a new record at various points, only to pull back into relative silence.
In 2002, Bono announced that U2 was “reapplying for the job of the best band in the world.” It would appear that application is pending once again.
Has U2 hit the Rolling Stones stage, selling out stadiums but no longer making vital new music? Or does the band still have another great album up its sleeve?
Based on “Invisible” the jury is still out. The cut is basically a paint by numbers U2, with some electronic flourishes, presumably added by new producer Danger Mouse to freshen things up. It’s punchier than the songs on No Line on the Horizon, but it’s not the kind of effort that will attract many new fans or encourage old ones to anticipate hearing it in concert.
U2 has faced this challenge triumphantly before. Achtung Baby's ironic astringency was a successful reaction to Rattle and Hum's gauzy sincerity. All that You Can't Leave Behind's classic sound closed the door on Pop's excessive experimentalism. When confronted with failure in the past U2 has rebounded by shifting directions. Bono is a born politician with a rock star's voice; one ear tilted up at the muse and another towards the ground, always aware of what the audience wants.
And let's give Bono credit for caring. The band could easily rest on its laurels—it has made some of the greatest albums in rock history and its legacy is secure. Concert ticket sales won't depend on the new album’s quality—their last tour set sales and attendance records despite coming on the heels of an album that sold relatively poorly. U2 will make their money either way.
Bono’s ambitions have always extended beyond dollars and cents anyway – to make U2 the best band in the world, to feed the poor, to conquer disease, to change the world. No Line on the Horizon may not have been the band’s best album, but its title most accurately describes Bono’s limitless vision.
At their best—on Unforgettable Fire, Joshua Tree, Achtung Baby—U2 managed to satisfy both art and commerce. At their worst they lean too far in one direction or another. We will soon know whether they have found the sweet spot yet again.