“Invisible” seemed like the beginning of a new album cycle for U2 – it debuted in a Super Bowl ad and was performed on the first episode of Jimmy Fallon’s Tonight Show – but now it seems more like a very expensive false start. Not long after “Invisible” came out they announced that their next record wouldn’t be out til 2015, though it was widely assumed to come out in April of this year. It’s unclear whether “Invisible” will appear on their next album in some form, or if it’s just a stand alone single in their discography.
U2 have ostensibly been writing and recording their 13th studio album on and off since 2009, but they seem particularly insecure and indecisive about what the record should be. Their creative process for the majority of their career has been to write in the studio and endlessly revise material until it feels right, or they’re literally forced to stop working and put something out so they can go on tour. Given that this method has birthed the majority of their best work, it’s hard to argue with results. But it’s not a very disciplined way of working, and this extended gestation for the new record is evidence that they probably should figure out a new way of doing things.
It likely would not take so long for them if they weren’t so paralyzed by the desire to write a few surefire mega-hits. I’m sure there is some pressure on them from their label et al, but it can’t possibly be as much as the pressure they put on themselves. I really admire that U2 want to be a relevant force in pop culture, and I think this drive kept them big after a lot of their peers – R.E.M., Pearl Jam, Radiohead, Depeche Mode – completely gave up on having big hits to play to their cult and follow their muses. But the reality is that U2 haven’t had a major hit since “Vertigo” in 2004, and ten years later there isn’t much of a space for them in mainstream culture. They can’t get on pop radio, and rock radio – the thing they need most to score a real hit – basically shrugged off “Invisible” in favor of younger acts like Bastille, Imagine Dragons, Passenger, and Lorde.
U2′s previous album, No Line on the Horizon, sold over a million copies in the United States alone, which shows that the band can sell a LOT of records to their faithful core audience even if they have no hits. It’s safe to say that whatever they put out next will sell about the same. And frankly, they should be happy with that. In this day and age, any record that can sell a million copies is a minor miracle. And let’s be really really real: Everyone knows that a U2 record is just a peg for an extraordinarily lucrative world tour that will sell regardless of whether they have new material or not. U2 are understandably afraid of being a nostalgia act, but they really need to be at peace with the reality that most of the audience thinks of them that way no matter what they do, and realize that this situation gives them license to be as weird and indulgent as they want to be with their new music.
“Invisible” is a pretty good U2 song, but it’s very obviously the sound of a band hedging their bets and desperately hoping that being familiar is enough to inspire excitement in their audience. This strategy paid off in 2000 when they released “Beautiful Day” after a decade of fairly arty material, but it makes no sense now. If they’re going to recycle a strategy from their past, it has to be the Achtung Baby gamble. They need to make a record that sounds distinct and uncompromising. It has to be something that sounds like them being “hey, we’re all over 50 and we’ve got tons of hits and we don’t give a fuck anymore, we’re gonna do whatever we want.” Ideally, it should be something that allows The Edge to truly cut loose and remind people that he’s one of the most inventive and influential guitarists of his generation. This is what would excite their base and attract the interest of lapsed fans and younger people who may have never taken them seriously. They need to stop sounding desperate for approval, it is very unattractive. No one wants to hear the musical equivalent of a combover.