At work on their tenth studio album, U2 vow to stay true to rock & roll and themselves
Bono sits on a sofa in the center of U2's
Dublin recording studio -- a laptop on his knees, a microphone in one hand -- listening to a vocal he has just sung. The song is called, for this moment, anyhow, "Stir My Soul." As it exists at around a quarter past six on a Friday evening in May, it is delicate and beautiful, driven by a hypnotic piano motif, over which Bono murmurs a mixture of words and melody before launching into a chorus largely consisting of the phrase "stir my soul" repeated over and over. The other three members of U2 sit scattered around the studio, with producer Daniel Lanois. (Co-producer Brian Eno
prefers to contribute in short, sharp bursts; lately he's been coming in one week per month.)
U2 have an idea that "Stir My Soul" will be the song the band needs to open its new album, in the works for two years and scheduled for release this fall. "Some sort of opening gambit," Bono explains. "Sometimes you dream one up, and sometimes you find one on the floor." The Edge says that they've probably touched on a hundred different songs making this album. At the back of the studio is a white marker board that details the progress of the nineteen strongest contenders. According to the board, none of them are finished. This evening I will see just a little of the random, inspired, quick-changing process by which just one of them evolves.
A year ago, Bono says, this song was called "Jubilee," and he had it all worked out. It leaped off from the Old Testament concept of a jubilee year. "The Jews had this idea that every seven days you had the Sabbath day, the day not to work," he says. "Every seven years you let the land lie fallow, and seven times seven -- forty-nine years -- you had a year of jubilee, where the people who are indebted, you had to let go of their debts. Captives, slaves, had to be set free. It was a time of grace. Beautiful idea, really."
U2 marked it as a song they should get back to, but when they replayed it a few days ago, all that jubilee thinking was cast aside. Bono wrote an entirely new lyric. He sings me the opening lines -- "Speak to me of the supernatural things/I will listen if you can tell me why the songbird sings" -- and shows me a printout of the rest from his computer, almost as if he wants to prove that the new U2 album is not being delayed simply because the singer has failed to complete his homework. But even that version is history now. "Beautiful tune, beautiful melody," he says, "but it wasn't what we wanted it to be. We were looking for more of an invocation."
So two days ago, the song now known as "Stir My Soul" mutated once more. "We changed all the chords and increased the tempo by ten b.p.m.," says the Edge. Bono explains it like this: "Quincy Jones
said to me once, 'You're waiting for God to walk through the room, or else it's just craft.' The way you write music is at once humdrum -- there's a fridge in the corner with apples and a bottle of milk, and there's a fax machine -- and at the same time you're waiting for a miracle, or else it's just the sum of the parts. And yesterday we got this great gift of this melody, and that's what we have now." Of course, the new melody didn't work with the old chorus, and so Bono has come up with a new one. "This Dusty Springfield
one," as he refers to it. ("I'm man enough to say I've been very influenced by her," he adds. "We've a similar register in places -- since our first album, I've felt a little bit of her.")
But they're still not happy. They now worry that the chorus is too commonplace. The Edge tries to add some guitar.
"I like that," encourages Bono. "It's dizzier." Bono worries about a part of the song at the end of the chorus where it stops and regathers itself. "It's a little professional when it stops," he says to Lanois. "We might have to mess it up a bit."
Bono picks up the microphone and sings some heavenly "oh-whoa-oh-whoa's" onto the track, the conversation around him barely pausing. It is remarkable watching with what speed and with what little reverence U2 race to change, amend and evolve a song.
Right now, however, they break for dinner, which a cook prepares for them upstairs and which they all eat together around a table.
This new album will be U2's tenth in the studio. "At this point," Bono says, "it's kind of about self-respect and about wanting not to cave in to the obvious contour that you see with rock & roll bands, where their best work is always in their twenties. And our best work has been in our thirties, I think -- we did some good work in our twenties, but it's getting better." He talks about their last album, Pop
, which they had to complete in a frantic rush due to the imminent, already-booked PopMart stadium tour: "We had some fun with, you know, fine art and technology, and wrote some great songs, didn't quite finish them, I accept, but the sense of adventure that was behind that record and that tour, I really stand by."
Some of the new songs began to form while they were still on tour. The Edge remembers coming up with the rudiments of "Stuck in a Moment and You Can't Get Out of It" -- which, in the version I hear, is a glorious rush of Philadelphia soul -- in a gospel tune he wrote on a piano in a Japanese hotel room. "I suppose I was consciously looking for something in that tradition," he says. "Having been through that whole experimentation period during Pop
-- with techno and dance ideas and dance aesthetics -- it seemed like I wanted to get back to something a bit more earthy."
They began thinking about the new record soon after the tour finished, in Dublin. "We just started with the band," the Edge says. "We thought, 'Let's begin with the essence and develop it from there; we can experiment along the way.'"
"We're still playing with technology -- it's not any kind of revivalist thing," Bono points out.
Early on, they approached Lanois and Eno, whose collaboration with the band began sixteen years ago on The Unforgettable Fire
and continued with The Joshua Tree
, Achtung Baby
. Eno first suggested trying to make the record in two short weeks of improvisation, and U2 were intrigued enough to give it a go, working on three or four ideas a day. They came up with material that would be used on the soundtrack to the Wim Wenders movie The Million Dollar Hotel
, based on a story co-written by Bono, but little in the way of songs. "I think we could make a record in two weeks," notes the Edge. "It just wouldn't be a great record."
So the band has fallen back into its more usual rhythm of writing and recording and revising. I hear a few of the songs, as finished as they are: "Elevation," a buzzing electro-rock song somewhere between T. Rex
and hip-hop, over which Bono half-yelps, half-raps; "In a Little While," a more traditional melodic rhythm & blues, which Bono describes as having "a Holiday Inn-lobby-band feel"; a song provisionally called "Home (This Bird Has Flown)," which right now sounds the closest they have come in years to their surging late-Eighties sound.
"One of the only problems we've had," says Bono, "is that when you put the band in the room with no shenanigans or trickery, they tend to sound a bit like U2."
"Who would have thought that'd be a problem when we started out?" mutters Larry Mullen Jr.
After dinner, while the Edge and I remain upstairs to talk, guitar parts spill up the stairs.
"Bono, probably," he evenly replies when I ask who's playing. When we go down, this turns out to be right: Bono has overdubbed two jagged guitar parts on "Stir My Soul."
The Edge listens. "The second half, I don't buy it," he says. "It sounds very . . . clever."
Adam Clayton sits quietly at one side, picking at a bass guitar. Mullen, who has been feeling under the weather, slips home. These two seem to say by far the least at this stage of the recording process, but you get the sense that they're silently influencing events and that a very different record would be made if they didn't turn up each day. Likewise, watching the four of them, you can feel their stubborn collective determination not to settle for second best, or even for something wonderful that doesn't seem fresh, however long it takes.
The Edge listens to Bono's guitar parts again, then turns to me: "See what happens when I turn my back for a minute?" He replays some of Bono's part, without the bits he doesn't like, then he starts playing some more guitar of his own: simple, fuzzed-up notes close together on the fret board, which nonetheless start building and soaring.
Bono looks up, grinning. "That's a special part," he says. The Edge plays more, longer, getting deep into it. Bono gets more excited, kicks a leg in the air: "Oh, boy. It's just, this blue note drops in. It's not even blue, it's purple. It's moldy green. . . ." Bono leans over to me. "I remember Bob Dylan telling me once: It's OK for Edge to play solos, just about. But Edge feels he's not a man who believes in it. It's a very special occasion. . . . You have to hate doing it to be really good at it." The Edge plays on, and Bono leaps to his feet. He launches into a delighted reverie and mentions Neil Young's "Like a Hurricane," which at this moment does not seem particularly inappropriate.
They have finished for the night. "I remember what Bob said," Bono continues. "Bob said, 'What the best ones are about, it's about telling stories.' " Bono grins. "A lot of people don't have anything to say. . . . "
If U2 currently have a problem, it seems to be the opposite: too much to say. In these four hours, the song has entirely shifted again, from sweet to squalling -- and given that this is just four hours from nearly two years' work, it's entirely possibly that nothing resembling either version will appear on the new U2 album. "We're fast," Bono sighs. "The problem is, we keep doing it. We never finish." But this is their way. "What gets us to our best moments," the Edge says, "is a kind of explosive energy, where it kind of all comes together. And you can be waiting a long time for that to happen, and that's the frustration sometimes for us: That's the only way we know how." According to their current schedule, they have only a few more weeks before the album will be finished. Bono begins reminiscing about how, with three days to go, they were told they couldn't possibly finish Achtung Baby
. Gleefully, he recalls just how much that record changed in those final seventy-two hours. "That's when it gets really mental," he says.
"Nothing is sacred," notes the Edge. "Nothing is finished, literally, until the CD's in the shop."
Written by CHRIS HEATH for RollingStone.com News