"Me and Mohammed Down by the Schoolyard Whilst Bono Moves the Mountain"
If music--like any other industry--is currently reaping seeds sown of poor investments, failed business models, chronic myopia, and (let's face it) untalented talent...
If pop music is no longer a meaningful barometer for American (or global) culture...
If Big rock and roll is a blackening hole of antique schtick, memory parades, and self-congratulation for the obscure and unambitious...
If Coldplay is really, truly, (seriously?), the stiffest competition...
...Then why wouldn't U2 celebrate their new record with five consecutive performances on Letterman? Why wouldn't they plant five mutant flags at the top of the mountain that all read, "Property of U2 (And Don't Nobody Else Even Bother)"? If pop music's truly in the red, why shouldn't U2 show up with an unprecedentedly bloated stimulus package of pomp and late-night circumstance? What--and who--else were you expecting?
Of the perhaps dozen bands who could currently make this gesture, only U2 actually would. Coldplay might want to, but wouldn't know how. Foo Fighters might know how, but wouldn't want to. Green Day takes their music seriously enough, but not themselves; they're a force of pop, but not personality. Pearl Jam, Radiohead, once took in the view from the top and got something resembling vertigo. Everyone else is either in a museum or on vacation, or vacationing at their museum. Only U2 has the talent, relevance, and insatiable ambition to seek out and maintain the view from the top. Then they literally and figuratively celebrate vertigo.
For all their talent (which, despite my ambivalence toward them now, is considerable), and for all their relevance (ubiquity, at least, can be one index), their ambition sets them apart. They're driven by such a singular focus to win--and there's only one winner, after all--that failure is never a real option. Their fate as King of the Mountain was sealed in 2000 when they quit 90's experimentation, quit intergenre alchemy, quit obtuse record and performance themes, and quit trying to do anything different. Whether you prefer the artfully political punch of War, or the atmospheric, spiritual grandeur of Joshua Tree, or the brash, funky, rocking swagger of Achtung Baby, or the satire of Pop, or the all-inclusive pleasure of All That You Can't Leave Behind, or anything in between, their greatest talent has always been their ability to dress any artistic deviation with a great pop song. So the second they went back to basics--recommitting to big, powerful, predictable, untouchable pop--it was game over.
Of course this doesn't make them World's Best Band. It just makes them World's Biggest Band, a title already re-confirmed by this week's release of No Line on the Horizon. A title reconfirmed by everyone with television, radio, internet access, or ears that hear, or eyes that see. If you live on planet earth, and have access to any media at all, you know that U2 has a new record out. U2's marketing strategy is a mind-boggling dedication to populism: every human alive should know. While every mortal from Radiohead to M. Ward spreads the word with a talk show performance, U2 plays Letterman five nights in a row. While everyone else harvests a new release with well-planted press and media, U2 drops a promotional A-Bomb (that only they know how to dismantle, evidently) across seven continents and prays to an even higher god that the fallout reaches as many people as possible. And if the ashes smother field after field of carefully-planted crops (e.g. anyone else alive wanting to play Letterman this week), that's alright. The victors have earned their spoils. They're U2, and you're not.
I write all of this without hearing the record. I haven't heard the entire record because it's only been out 14 hours, and has yet to track me down. Every U2 record since Pop has found its way onto my stereo and into my brain with or without my permission. I will hear No Line whether I want to or not (incidentally, I do). But until the other ten songs pin me to the wall and have their way with me, I've got the lead-off single, "Get On Your Boots" to ponder.
If this song is indicative of the record (as "Beautiful Day" and "Vertigo" were before it), this is U2's weakest effort in a long time. I say this for two reasons:
1) The song itself isn't great. It's simultaneously caffeinated but plodding, boisterous but not particularly memorable, funky but not really fun. Compared to the pop triumph of "Beautiful Day" (a truly great song, and one they're capable of equalling in the future), or the memorable potency of "Vertigo" (a silly song, but one that still made everyone else sound smaller, if not lesser, somehow), it's remarkably average.
2) I have a hunch (tipped off by early reviews) that the song is indicative of the record as a whole, which means they're branching out, which means that it will get disproportionately great press. Because who wants a band to make records from the comfort of its own wheelhouse? Who wants to call something great "great" when you can call something forgettable "classic." Who wants to give 5-stars to "Beautiful Day" when you can give 5-stars to "Get On Your Army Boots Made for Walking"?
If U2's operating outside their pre-established norm, good for them. They're hugely talented, and have every right to explore that talent. I might happen to hear the result as second-rate pop and third-rate artistry from a first-rate group of pop artists, but that's only one man's opinion. If winning is what matters, and the only guaranteed formula for winning has ever been creating bigger, better pop songs more consistently and more frequently than everyone else, and all U2 wants is to win...then what the heck is going on here?
Maybe nobody--not even U2--can have a "Beautiful Day" for each album. Maybe nobody--not even U2--can put out bigger, better pop songs with more consistency or frequency than U2. When talent takes a weekend off, and relevance is in its waning phase, only unprecedented ambition can balance the formula. Suddenly, your marketing campaign resembles a multinational, multimedia explosion. You re-establish yourself as the one and only Biggest Band on Earth, with promotional strategies that nobody else can get away with. You play five consecutive nights on Letterman when everyone else plays one. In the absence of a single weapon, you hurl the kitchen sink. Maybe U2's playing five songs on Letterman because they don't have The One.
Or maybe not. Maybe the single's misleading. Maybe it's a false front, a musical outlier. Maybe the whole thing is so irrepressibly brilliant that one night just wouldn't have been enough. As I say, I don't know. The record hasn't found me yet. It's only Tuesday.
But I do know this: even if they're not The Best, or even Their Best, U2 will find a way to be The Biggest. If you want U2 off the mountaintop, you'll probably have to move the mountain.