U2: a punchline for a couple of decades now, reviled for their singer’s messianism and (more pertinently) tax affairs. And truth to tell, never favourites of mine. I always preferred Michael Stipe’s enigmatic mumbling to Bono’s chest-beating. But you don’t get to their level of success without writing a good song or two along the way. Here’s a piece about one of their best.
Not every band that has a good year or two can turn that into sustained success, in which they plough on for a two or three decades, outlasting all challengers while the music scene changes endlessly around them.
It’s really hard. Even U2 – who did put it off – had their difficulties for a few years in the mid-1990s.
Over the course of their career, it’s probably fair to say U2 have been more of a people’s band than a critic’s darling, but for a few years at their peak they managed to pump out records that were both critical hits and a wildly popular with the public – chief among them 1987’s The Joshua Tree and 1991’s Achtung Baby. When the band released the latter, punters fell hard for One, Even Better than the Real Thing, and Mysterious Ways*, while critics responded positively to the band’s embrace of irony and European-style Po-Mo. After Rattle and Hum, on which Bono’s fetishising of all things American and rootsy and “authentic” had run out of control, Achtung Baby‘s hyperreality and gleeful inauthenticity was the absolute best way to repair their dented critical rep.
The band’s Zoo TV tour continued this new obsession with spectacle and knowing self-parody. The shows were elaborately staged to satirise television and media oversaturation. Bono made prank phone calls to local and national politicians. Giant screens showed constantly shifting images: video confessionals, a belly dancer and live satellite footage from Sarajevo, then under siege.
Conceptual and arty and maybe a little pretentious? Sure, but U2 leavened it with a level of self-deprecation they’d seldom seemed capable of up till that point. Bono played down his rock ‘n’ roll messiah act to portray a literal devil instead, singing a portion of the set in character as “MacPhisto”, complete with devil horns and a gold lamé suit, possibly borrowed from ABC’s Martin Fry.
Zooropa, the 1993 follow-up album to Achtung Baby, played with thematically similar material to its predecessor and the Zoo TV tour. But despite this, it was received more coolly by the public, selling only half as many copies as Achtung Baby. In hindsight, it set the stage for 1997’s even more disappointing Pop, which saw U2 encase their music within so many quotation marks it was hard to know how to take them or their songs. After which, the band dropped the flirtation with irony, costume and surface, and went back to foregrounding reliable old passion and authenticity (cue Beautiful Day, and their best sales figures in 10 years).
A shame, as Zooropa at least still contained good music. In fact, Stay (Faraway, So Close) – written for Frank Sinatra, and featuring in the Wim Wenders movie Faraway, So Close! – may just be the band’s best song. It’s certainly in the conversation, and it definitely has one of Bono’s best lyrics. He’s not a lyricist I’ve ever cared for particularly, but I remember being really struck by the line “a vampire or a victim, it depends on who’s around” when I first heard the song in 1993; it sounded very adult and complex that a person could be neither a goodie nor a baddie, but sometimes one thing and sometimes the other. The best part of 30 years on, I still think it’s a good line. As I got older, I found other lines well observed too, particularly: “Dressed up like a car crash, your wheels are turning but you’re upside down”. We’ve all, I’m sure, seen people go through rough periods when they insist they’re absolutely fine, but everything they do seems like a cry for help they’re unaware of.
That’s what’s great about Stay (Faraway, So Close). For all that he’s spent the bulk of his career dealing in grand gestures, Bono is good – perhaps better – when he’s working at a small scale and not reaching for the cheap seats.** In 1993, they felt brave enough to write a small song, keep it (fairly) small in recording and arrangement, and then release it as a single. But the relative failure of their Zooropa singles set the stage for a few years of declining sales and relevance. Few bands reascend to the top of the heap after losing their way like that; I don’t think it’s been done since.
*The first single from Achtung Baby, The Fly, was a huge hit in Europe, but stalled at 61 in the US. Possibly the American audience didn’t see the need for a U2 that sounded like Jesus Jones fronted by a chipmunk on helium. The American audience got that one right.
** Another U2 song I’ll go into bat for is The Joshua Tree‘s stark Running to Stand Still, for the same reasons that I like Stay (Faraway So Close).