Monday, December 18, 2017

Rock & Roll in the NEWS: Where New Rock Meets Old Rock...December 18, 2017 (U2 - American Soul)

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U2 on 2017's 'Swing to Extremism' and Why Unity Is As Important As Resistance 

 (l-r) The Edge, Bono, Larry Mullen Jr., Adam Clayton of Musical Guest U2 performs "American Soul" in Studio 8H on Dec. 2, 2017.  (l-r) The Edge, Bono, Larry Mullen Jr., Adam Clayton of Musical Guest U2 performs "American Soul" in Studio 8H

As a Saturday Night Live stagehand warns him that it’s almost showtime, Bono methodically taps on the side of a megaphone painted in the stars and stripes of the American flag. He flashed a demure peace sign to the studio audience when he took the stage a few moments earlier, but now he’s at stage left, waiting in the shadows during the silence before the commercial break ends.

Saoirse Ronan, the Irish-American star of the recent film Lady Bird, is hosting SNL for the first time, and sneaks a thumbs up at the band. The Edge smiles and returns the gesture, but Bono appears not to notice. Tap, tap, tap on the megaphone.

“Ladies and gentlemen, U2.”

The audience roars, the song starts -- and Kendrick Lamar’s voice rings out. “Blessed are the filthy rich,” he sermonizes as an animated lyric explodes onscreen, “for you can truly own what you give away... like your pain.” This is how U2’s new song, “American Soul,” starts: with a monologue from the most important rapper of his generation. Bono stays quiet until the last word, then raises the device to his lips and echoes a drawn-out “paaaain.” He lingers in the darkness a few more beats before walking to center stage, and before long, he’s shouting the chorus: “You! Are! Rock’n’roll! Came here looking for American soul!”

U2’s first SNL appearance in eight years doubles as the live debut of “American Soul,” a message of unity from the group’s just-released 14th album, Songs of Experience. The performance was put together in characteristically painstaking fashion. According to The Edge, the bandmembers made multiple trips that day to the SNL control room to perfect the sound balance, and they were repeating their riffs in their dressing room moments before being ushered onstage. It’s a big performance for U2, and the members want it to mean something. They’re headed for another No. 1 album and just grossed over $300 million touring behind one of the biggest rock albums of all time, The Joshua Tree -- but they want more, as they always have. “Put your hands up in the air, hold up the sky/Could be too late, but we still got to try,” sings Bono. Making money is all well and good, but U2 would rather change the course of world events. And the band believes it can.

“Not just for America, but for Europe and all over the world, there’s a swing to extremism,” says Bono during one of several phone conversations between Billboard and the members of U2. “I sense that that’s the time we’re in, and we’re the right band [for it].” There’s zero doubt in his voice. The group partly reconstructed Songs of Experience following the Brexit and U.S. presidential elections in 2016 because the members felt they had to: healing the world is part of their mission.

Bono wielded his red, white and blue megaphone on the band’s recent tour, in which U2 played its landmark 1987 album, The Joshua Tree, in its entirety. The device “takes the whole vocal to a different place completely,” notes The Edge, “with shades of street protest and activism, in a song that’s putting a spotlight on America, and our take on America.” That tour reminded fans what a pissed-off political album The Joshua Tree is: Songs like “Bullet the Blue Sky” and “Mothers of the Disappeared” found Bono, an ascendant rock star in his mid-20s, using his lyrics to excoriate Ronald Reagan and U.S.-backed strife in Central America.

“Sometimes the arrogance of youth is actually an essential part of moving forward,” says The Edge. “The clarity of being a 22-year-old and having such strongly held views now is more difficult, because you realize the thing holding you back is yourself. You are your own worst enemy.”
U2 was borne out of the conflict that surrounded the bandmembers. When the band formed in 1976, Ireland was in the middle of a decade of intense ethno-nationalist dispute, trying to recover from the most violent period in its history. “Our band came out [during] punk rock in the ’70s, in a very miserable Dublin,” says Bono. “A lot of people had to leave their towns to find work. Where I grew up in Dublin, it was a pretty angry place, from memory. What punk brought to us was that things don’t have to be the way they are -- you can fight back.”

The members of U2 -- Bono, The Edge, bassist Adam Clayton and drummer Larry Mullen Jr., who first traveled to America as 19- and 20-year-olds on the 1980 Boy Tour -- have gone on to define and redefine the band against the background of world events of the past 40 years. This is the group that cried out against Ireland’s sectarian violence in 1983’s “Sunday Bloody Sunday”; that used 1992’s “One” to meditate on Germany’s reunification and support AIDS research through the song’s proceeds; that watched its 2000 single “Walk On” become an unofficial post-9/11 anthem.

The United States continues to be extremely kind to the Dublin natives, who moved 186,000 equivalent album units of Songs of Experience in its debut week, according to Nielsen Music, an impressive start in 2017.

The stats tell the story of their longevity: The band is just the fourth act to earn No. 1 albums in the 1980s, 1990s, 2000s and 2010s, and has the third-most No. 1 albums among groups behind only The Beatles and The Rolling Stones.

“They give hope to other bands that are starting out,” says Ryan Tedder, the OneRepublic leader who co-produced nine Experience songs. “If you write the type of songs that reflect the internal mechanisms of humanity and life, you can last as long as you want to.”

Thirty years after The Joshua Tree, the bandmembers are elder statesmen, figuring out how to relate to an America presided over by Donald Trump. “I don’t think [Experience] would have been the same album, strangely, without Trump threatening to blow up the world with a tweet,” says Bono. When the group speaks about the president and modern politics, there’s a sense of struggling to effectively respond to the inexplicable.

Bono’s lyrics do not contain the focused fury with which Lamar pounces upon social injustice on DAMN., now nominated for album of the year at the Grammys. Months before “American Soul” was released, Lamar used a sample of the collaboration on his own song “XXX,” which grapples with the cost of violence and American hypocrisy. (“But is America honest or do we bask in sin?” he raps.)


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