As a Saturday Night Live stagehand warns him that it’s almost showtime, Bono methodically taps on the side of a megaphone painted in the stars and stripes of the American flag. He flashed a demure peace sign to the studio audience when he took the stage a few moments earlier, but now he’s at stage left, waiting in the shadows during the silence before the commercial break ends.
Saoirse Ronan, the Irish-American star of the recent film Lady Bird, is hosting SNL for the first time, and sneaks a thumbs up at the band. The Edge smiles and returns the gesture, but Bono appears not to notice. Tap, tap, tap on the megaphone.
“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.”
The members of U2 -- Bono, The Edge, bassist Adam Clayton and drummer Larry Mullen Jr., who first traveled to America as 19- and 20-year-olds on the 1980 Boy Tour -- have gone on to define and redefine the band against the background of world events of the past 40 years. This is the group that cried out against Ireland’s sectarian violence in 1983’s “Sunday Bloody Sunday”; that used 1992’s “One” to meditate on Germany’s reunification and support AIDS research through the song’s proceeds; that watched its 2000 single “Walk On” become an unofficial post-9/11 anthem.
The United States continues to be extremely kind to the Dublin natives, who moved 186,000 equivalent album units of Songs of Experience in its debut week, according to Nielsen Music, an impressive start in 2017.
The stats tell the story of their longevity: The band is just the fourth act to earn No. 1 albums in the 1980s, 1990s, 2000s and 2010s, and has the third-most No. 1 albums among groups behind only The Beatles and The Rolling Stones.
“They give hope to other bands that are starting out,” says Ryan Tedder, the OneRepublic leader who co-produced nine Experience songs. “If you write the type of songs that reflect the internal mechanisms of humanity and life, you can last as long as you want to.”
Thirty years after The Joshua Tree, the bandmembers are elder statesmen, figuring out how to relate to an America presided over by Donald Trump. “I don’t think [Experience] would have been the same album, strangely, without Trump threatening to blow up the world with a tweet,” says Bono. When the group speaks about the president and modern politics, there’s a sense of struggling to effectively respond to the inexplicable.
Bono’s lyrics do not contain the focused fury with which Lamar pounces upon social injustice on DAMN., now nominated for album of the year at the Grammys. Months before “American Soul” was released, Lamar used a sample of the collaboration on his own song “XXX,” which grapples with the cost of violence and American hypocrisy. (“But is America honest or do we bask in sin?” he raps.)
U2 has explored similar themes for decades, most pointedly on The Joshua Tree. In a culture in which rock bands are no longer typically provoking deeper conversation, the act seems to know it is not the right messenger for the sweeping social critique that Lamar is delivering -- so instead, it is encouraging Americans to reach across the aisle. “In our worldview, something has changed since The Joshua Tree, and it’s a theme of our more recent work: ‘There’s no them, there’s only us,’” says Bono. “It’s very easy to split into political parties and demonize the other view. These are times for standing up for what you believe in, for sure. It might also be a time to try and understand what the person standing next to you is saying, rather than just trying to knock them out because they’re offensive to you.”
During their downtime, the guys like to argue: about politics, music and how Ireland was recently in the running to host the rugby World Cup in 2023 (“That was a big deal in our band,” says Bono with a laugh). The foursome also debate the future of their industry. U2 has toured extensively behind each of the albums it released this century, and Bono admits that the group has been able to make most of its hay on the road.
The band released Songs of Experience on digital platforms -- even partnering with Spotify for a mini-documentary, U2 in America, that premiered on release day -- in a much more traditional rollout than the one for Songs of Innocence in 2014. That album will always be remembered for the way the band put it out: dropped for free, by surprise, into the libraries of every last iTunes user. Apple CEO Tim Cook called it “the largest album release of all time,” but it was criticized as a colossal mistake. The uproar over the release dwarfed the critical response to the songs, a grandiose, vulnerable patchwork of the group’s childhood memories.
The bandmembers have talked about the iTunes misfire a lot during the past three years, and they look back now with a mix of regret, perplexity and defensiveness. Bono remembers the group having a traditional album-release plan in place for Innocence, then not wanting to settle for it and pitching Apple on something bold. “Of all the great human rights abuses of 2014,” he says, “I’m not sure where this ranks.”
The Edge uses a more measured tone when he points out, “As much as we sure got it in the neck for stepping over a certain line in terms of people’s personal connections with their iTunes accounts, we also got -- and [this was] much less reported on -- so many people thanking us for organizing that gift.” According to The Edge, on the band’s 2015 tour supporting Songs of Innocence, Mullen even spotted some young fans in the crowd who were unfamiliar with the catalog classics but knew all the words to the new songs. And The Edge notes that some reviews of Experience have re-evaluated Innocence in a more positive light.
Perhaps the biggest loss that the band suffered with Songs of Innocence was at radio: Lead single “The Miracle (Of Joey Ramone)” was featured in a national Apple TV ad, à la its 2004 smash “Vertigo,” upon the album’s release, but the buoyant pop-rock song still ended up as the first U2 lead single in 20 years to miss the Billboard Hot 100 entirely.
The delicate balance between radio and genre fascinates Bono. In 2017, the rock songs that crossed over to top 40 incorporated hip-hop (Imagine Dragons’ “Believer”) and funk-pop (Portugal. The Man’s “Feel It Still”). Where exactly does a new U2 album fit in at commercial radio in 2017? Recent collaborations with Lamar and Kygo, the EDM star who remixed the band’s “You’re the Best Thing About Me,” hint at its interest in new sounds -- Bono recognizes that hip-hop is in an exciting creative space right now, and says artists like Lamar and Chance the Rapper are “amazing and inspiring.” But there’s nothing on Experience that roams as far afield as a song like “Something Just Like This,” Coldplay’s hit electro-pop team-up with The Chainsmokers. Instead, U2 has bet on a back-to-basics approach: The blissed-out singalong of “Get Out of Your Own Way” recalls 2000 hit “Beautiful Day,” while “Best Thing” is a stomping dance-rock cut that peaked at No. 5 on the Hot Rock Songs chart.
“No matter how much innovation or experimentation, we just wanted to write songs that would sound great on the radio,” says Bono. “There’s a little bit of punk rock in us that remembers why we started: ‘Don’t bore us, get to the chorus.’”
The members of U2 would love it if their fans memorize a few of those new choruses by the time they launch their Experience + Innocence arena tour in Tulsa, Okla., in May. (Songs of Experience’s sales debut was aided by a ticket/album bundle promotion for the 2018 trek.) With a balance of classic hits and new tunes in the setlist, the tour has the unenviable task of following a first-of-its-kind return to the group’s most beloved album. Originally, the band was supposed to play two or three shows in 2017 to commemorate The Joshua Tree’s 30th anniversary; it ended up playing 51, to 2.7 million people, according to Billboard Boxscore. The foursome appreciated the opportunity to revisit the album on the tour -- while cautioning against the implication that their first retrospective tour makes them a “nostalgia act.”
The Joshua Tree shows included the band’s first modern U.S. festival appearance, at Bonnaroo in June -- U2 loved the experience, and may be amenable to more festivals in the future -- as well as a striking, 200-foot-wide video screen display with visuals from its longtime collaborator, photographer Anton Corbijn. “At the time The Joshua Tree came out,” says Clayton, “I don’t really remember it, because it was such an amazing year, and [we were] just getting through the days and shows and performing to the maximum of our abilities. I feel like I missed out on how important those songs were for the audience.”
On the day after SNL, the Edge is relieved that “American Soul” sounded -- and looked -- so impactful. The graphics used during the performance may end up being incorporated into U2’s next tour, based on both the positive response the band received on SNL and the effect it is aiming for with its live show. “It’s just part of the way we think about our songs: They are audiovisual experiences,” he says.
After its tour in support of Songs of Experience wraps later in 2018, U2’s schedule is wide open. “I think we will probably take a bit of time out from doing anything in terms of live shows,” says Clayton. The band might head back to the studio sooner than later; The Edge says he’s already “working on some new ideas and compositions,” although he’s not sure where those songs will end up, if anywhere. Perhaps U2 circles the year 2020 on its calendar and takes All That You Can’t Leave Behind out on the road at its two-decade mark. Maybe the band releases another project during the Trump era, and maybe it won’t.
Thirty years after the album that still defines the act for many fans, U2 is trying to record music that connects to people intuitively while also speaking to global events. The band probably always will be. “The Joshua Tree just worked so well for the time and place in a much more significant way than anyone could have ever anticipated when it came out in 1987,” says Mullen. “I’d like to believe the stars will align that way again sometime... but who knows.”
This article originally appeared in the Dec. 23 issue of Billboard.