“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.”