There was no record store or any place I could buy new CDs in the small northern Maine town where I grew up. My dad worked in the next town over, though, and they had a Kmart… nay, a Big Kmart. So, on the night of November 21st, 2004, I gave my dad some money, so he could get me a copy of U2’s How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb on its release date the next day.
I was twelve years old then, so how I had money is beyond me — I probably swiped it from the kitchen counter one day and just gave dad his own cash back. Sorry, dad. The point is that How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb was my first new album as a hardcore U2 fan, and when my dad brought that red and black jewel case home that late afternoon, I eagerly popped the CD into my Walkman, put on headphones, laid on my bed, and had a personally meaningful listening session. When I came back downstairs 50 minutes later, my family asked how it was with what seemed like genuine interest, because they knew how profoundly important this experience was to me.
When I say “hardcore fan,” I mean it: From the moment my uncle lent me his copy of the concert DVD U2 Go Home: Live from Slane Castle, Ireland in 2003, I was obsessed. The transition between “All I Want Is You” and “Where The Streets Have No Name” from that performance is maybe my favorite live moment ever, even still. U2 was almost literally the only band I listened to for the next two to three years, save for the occasional Coldplay and Keane song. Again, I was completely infatuated.
I signed up for and frequented every U2 fan forum I could find — Shout out to U2start.com as the first entity to tell me “happy birthday” every year in their annual email that always comes a day early. My favorite podcast is U Talkin’ U2 To Me?, and not just because of Adam Scott Aukerman’s banter. One time in college, I stayed up until three in the morning with a lady I was into, sitting on my apartment floor and verbally taking her through U2’s entire band history from memory, from 1976 to then, by candlelight. Romantic, yes, but I think we both just wanted to see if I could/would actually do it. Just a few days ago, I made a “Miracle Drug” pun in the Uproxx Music Slack channel, and it earned the crying Jordan emoji reaction it got.
There’s far too much of this sort of anecdotal evidence in my (not sad, I promise) life. I’m sure that deep down, the seed of my music journalism career was my pubescent desire to wax poetic about Adam Clayton’s underrated bass work on Zooropa.
The genesis of my U2 fandom was nearly half my life ago, though, and a lot has happened since then. I tried growing long hair before realizing way too late in the game that it made me look like a pilgrim. I dreamed of playing in the NBA and later gave up on that when it occurred to me, also way too late, that while I was a pretty good shooter, I was also 5’11” and could barely jump over the foul line. And of course, U2 put out four albums: How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb, 2009’s No Line On The Horizon, 2014’s Songs Of Innocence, and the just-released Songs Of Experience.
The folks at Rolling Stone thought highly enough of U2’s new album to give it the No. 3 spot on their year-end top albums list, before the record even came out. After a couple listens, I’m not quite as hyped up about it. While I think “The Little Things That Give You Away” could actually be considered a great U2 song, and a couple album tracks are fine, none of the singles wowed me (“You’re The Best Thing About Me” is alright, though). Although it’s not a bad album, it’s also not a great one. On my personal year-end albums list, Songs Of Experience is somewhere in the mid-to-late 20s.
The reaction to the album’s Rolling Stone ranking — combined with the fact that U2’s Joshua Tree anniversary tour (while great) has officially, firmly, and finally cemented U2 as a true legacy act — will probably lead to Songs Of Experience being underrated; it’s not the third best album of the year, but it’s not bad. At the same time, I have a hard time calling it good (as in, better than mediocre). It’s decent.
This raises a difficult question for me, somebody whose high school yearbook quote was a lyric from U2’s “Kite“: If U2 isn’t making great albums anymore, I can’t really call them a great band at the moment, can I? Is it time for me to be an adult and maturely admit that my first favorite band maybe sucks now?
When the Boston Celtics’ Marcus Smart went 2 of 11 from three in a close win against the Mavericks last week, and I looked up his stats and saw that he was shooting under 30 percent from the field this season, I was furious (he’s over 30 percent now though, so… yay?). He was playing poorly, and although his game is largely about the gritty, unquantifiable things he does, I had a hard time calling him good in that moment. Stop shooting, man.
Of the thirteen shots that U2 took on Songs Of Experience (for the thirteen album tracks, stick with me on the over-extended basketball metaphor), I’d say that at the most, four or five were successful. That’s barely 30 percent, and while they’re still capable of putting the ball in the basket, Bono and the boys aren’t doing that consistently enough to earn significant playing time.
This downward trend has been gradual and real: I like basically every song on How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb, about 60 percent of No Line On The Horizon, and maybe half or slightly less of Songs Of Innocence. Those numbers might be high compared to more casual fans, but the negative slope at least feels accurate. I’m not Jann Wenner, both in terms of my music industry clout, and in that I won’t give U2 a free pass because I like Bono, no matter how good Achtung Baby and All That You Can’t Leave Behind were.
In a 2014 interview with The Hollywood Reporter, The Edge said the following:
“We don’t want to ever be a heritage act. It might happen, but we’ll go kicking and screaming into that mode. We feel the place for us to be is part of the conversation of contemporary culture and music and film and everything else, and we don’t see the reason why we can’t.”
Sorry Edge: I love you as much as I’m capable of loving a 56-year old Irishman I’ve never met, but there’s no denying that U2 is now a legacy act. “But they’re the biggest touring show in the country, of course they’re still relevant,” a version of me from a few years ago might attest. To that, I say this: Of the top five highest-grossing tours of 2017 (as of July), only Justin Bieber released his debut album after 1987. Guns N’ Roses took the top spot, followed by U2, Bieber, Metallica, and Depeche Mode.
Does that list scream modern relevance? Is U2 “part of the conversation about contemporary culture and music and film and everything else?” Would I characterize their descent as “kicking and screaming?” Anecdotally speaking, have I found myself bursting with youthful anticipation for a new U2 album since No Line On The Horizon?
I’m not disavowing U2 — their back catalog is still my favorite ever — but I am coming to terms with what the band is now. When somebody asks me who my favorite band is, my answer is usually something like, “Historically, it’s been U2, but…,” and that’s telling. 12-year-old Derrick would be beyond disappointed in 25-year-old Derrick for even writing this, but he’s also 12 and has a hard time doing the mental math on multiples of 11.
Trust me, in my heart, it sucks to write this. But the fact is this: U2 hasn’t had a great album since How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb in 2004, an iconic album since All That You Can’t Leave Behind in 2000, or a paradigm-shifting album since Achtung Baby in 1991. There’s a statute of limitation on greatness, and even though an excellent song like “The Little Things That Give You Away” can come along and ignite a diminutive flame in my once-ablaze heart, U2 has become a cold case.
I won’t send my dad to Kmart today to get me a copy of Songs Of Experience (mainly because I’m a functioning adult who doesn’t live at home anymore). I won’t be telling my romantic interests about “The Blackout” by candlelight long after the sun’s gone down. I don’t know if I’ll ever love this album, or any other new record the band will ever put out, the same way I do Boy or The Unforgettable Fire. Maybe that’s because my tastes have changed over the years and I spread my excitement across a bunch of different artists nowadays. But maybe it’s not just me.
What I will do is be thankful that U2 was ever U2, and in some ways, still is. I will always be grateful that they were my first favorite band, an ideal gateway to the broad and diverse music world that’s become my passion and my livelihood. I wouldn’t be me without them, and I like me.
And I will look forward to that U2start.com email on my birthday next year.