After the unfortunate Songs of Innocence roll-out, many people questioned whether there was still a place for U2 in 2014 and beyond. U2 seems to have asked themselves the same question. As other, more grippingly consequential upheavals occurred over the ensuing years, the band found themselves touring their newly relevant 1987 classic, The Joshua Tree. For a brief moment in the hot, raw summer of 2017, it seemed like there could be a place for U2's activist uplift — for its project of unity — again.
Today, the band released a performance video for their new song "The Blackout," off their upcoming Songs of Experience. Don't bother checking your iPhone for a surreptitious download; this one you can find on their Facebook page under the auspices of Facebook Live. Director Richie Smyth filmed the band performing the song for an audience in Amsterdam, and the piece uses a similar high-contrast visual technique as in the Joshua Tree tour visualization for "Bullet The Blue Sky." As with that song, "The Blackout" is explicitly political. Out of deference to "Bullet The Blue Sky," it should be said that that's about where the similarities end.
It's as if 2004's "Vertigo" broke something; since then — with "Get On Your Boots" off No Line On The Horizon and "The Miracle (Of Joey Ramone)" off Songs Of Innocence and now "The Blackout" off Songs Of Experience — the band has formally introduced its new records with slogs of distorted guitar and stomps of drum and bass. And Bono still has an incredible voice, but his melodies on these introductory songs have had a dulled sheen, like over-workshopped polemics.
Bono, whose brand of pop stardom crystallizes most of the things detractors of the band love to hate, here hits a relative low-point, lyrically. "Statues fall / Democracy is flat on its back, Jack" he sings in one verse. This line goes beyond even "Love And Peace Or Else" in its neutering of political meaning. It's ostensibly a song about a moment of worldwide political entropy — a moment in which we look to the abyss and find that we are the light. It's a message that Bono, given his political and lyrical history, should be able to deliver convincingly. And yet, this song sells the idea that resistance is fun — "When the lights go out / throw yourself about / in the darkness, where we learn to see," he urges on the chorus. If this song had rolled out in conjunction with the announcement that the iPhone 7 would no longer have a standard headphone jack, the digital vitriol would likely have eclipsed even what Kendall Jenner's Pepsi commercial elicited.
"The Blackout" is not Songs of Experience's lead single, nor is it the first thing we've heard from the new record (they've played a promising song called "The Little Things That Give You Away" live on tour and Jimmy Kimmel Live). But this is their most official release yet — the first video that they've produced, premiered and press-released. U2 is still caught in a unique bind. Having pioneered a sound that has since become a framework for a ubiquitous, now generic, kind of rock, they can't sound like a modern version of their old selves without bringing to mind their blander imitators. And yet, they've been working with Ryan Tedder of OneRepublic, eschewing further collaboration with their longtime co-conspirators Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois in order to chase the warmed-over, U2-like sound that so dominates mainstream rock radio. There is greatness yet in this band — their bond and their legacy will never fully dissipate. But they need to be willing to break their path once again, and rise to the desperate occasion they're so keen to call out, if they're going to tap into that greatness. If they've taught their fans anything, it's that they can still hope for more.