U2: Hymns for the Future
Rolling Stone Magazine by Brian Hiatt (2009-03-19)
IT SHOULD HAVE BEEN ENOUGH, EVEN FOR BONO. Lincoln behind him, Obama to his right, a crowd of 400,000 stretched to the Washington Monument. A chance to quote the “I have a dream” speech from the very spot where Martin Luther King Jr. delivered it. “Not a bad gig,” U2’s singer says with a grin, shaking his head afterward in the band’s cramped backstage trailer. Bono’s eyes are hidden under orange shades; his close-cropped hair has a section shaved to the scalp on each side, like racing stripes for his brain. “That crowd! I suppose the fact that I thought I could bond with every single one of them is early — or later — signs of megalomania.” But Bono can’t help thinking about his original plan: King on the video screens, his 1963 speech ringing out again on the National Mall — and when the crowd heard “Thank God almighty, we are free at last,” U2 would have slammed into “Pride (In the Name of Love).” Instead, the song got a muted intro from Samuel L. Jackson. “They pulled the speech last night,” sighs Bono, still wearing a black scarf from his stage outfit, with a Rilke poem about God and nature printed on it. “We were out with [David] Axelrod and Rahm [Emanuel] and the Obama team, and they said it was a modesty thing. They thought it was presumptuous. Do you get that? I mean, it’s great that they’re being cautious — but it would have been great for the King family to see that.”
The Edge, uncharacteristically giddy-after the performance’s adrenaline blast, chimes in. “I can see how they were thinking,” he says. “I’m not sure I agree. Obama is a modest guy, and he’s really careful about being presumptuous and self-lionizing.” The guitarist pauses and smiles, eyes gleaming beneath his black ski cap. “We don’t suffer from these problems. We just go for it.”
A few weeks earlier, U2 finished their 11th studio album, No Line on the Horizon — which fuses the spiritual uplift of their Eighties work with the future-shock sonics of their Nineties albums. The result is some of the most moving, adventurous music of their career, from the churning polyrhythms of the title track to the ghostly minimalism of the closer, “Cedars of Lebanon.” And despite living in a time where, as Bono puts it, “only teenage girls and very, very honest people” pay for music, they spared neither time nor expense in pursuit of their vision.
“It is now easier and more adordable to record a song than at any other time in the history of recorded music,” says bassist Adam Clayton. “Unless you’re U2.” It was a superstar album-as-art project, with no deadlines on the horizon: During two years of scattered sessions, they recorded in France, London, New York, Dublin and Fez, Morocco. Longtime producers Daniel Lanois and Brian Eno were along for the ride, with the pair emerging as full song-writing partners for the first time — it was Lanois, for instance, who came up with the chorus melody for a key track, “Moment of Surrender.”
On their first two albums this decade, U2 reclaimed their core sound and their mass audience — but along the way, they started to feel like they were playing it safe. So despite the successes of the past eight years, the band went into these sessions feeling like everything was on the line. “We were fighting for our relevance,” says the Edge. “We felt like we can’t really afford not to be innovative.”
Adds Bono, “There is the defy ing-gravity aspect of it. There’s this fear that this might be the one where the nose of the plane starts to dip down. It’s very hard when you see talents and prolific imaginations that are so great, and wonder, ‘Where’d it go?’ And then you think, ‘That can happen to us! In fact, it’s likely to. And what might stop it?’”
BONO ROUNDS A CORNER onto a narrow Dublin street, boots crunching on old cobblestone, sleek, black double-breasted overcoat flapping in the January breeze. The street’s only occupants, a flock of fat pigeons, wobble into the air to get out of his way. Bono stretches an arm to try to touch one of them as it flutters overhead. “One beak to another,” he says with a laugh. His enthusiasm and charisma are such that it’s hard not to laugh with him, even if you don’t quite get the joke. “The Dublin walk, by the way, is called ‘the pigeon,’ “ Bono says. “You probably haven’t seen it yet.” He demonstrates, breaking into a thuggish pimp strut, and laughs again.
He’s running late for his next appointment, which is not unusual in what must be one of the most overstuffed lives on the planet: “part-time” rock stardom; global advocacy for Africa’s poor that’s won him nominations for the Nobel Peace Prize; various multinational business and charitable ventures; an op-ed column for The New York Times; and four kids with Ali Hewson, his wife of 26 years. “I find it very hard to leave home,” he says, “because my house is full of laughter and songs and kids.”
Earlier, he had also been late for lunch. “My wife is out of town with her clothing line, and I had to get the kids off to school,” he apologized. Of his multitasking, he says, “I wanna squeeze every drop out of the day. But it’s also the tyranny of good ideas, y’know, because if you spot one, or if you have one, then you think you have to follow through on it. And that might be a psychosis — I may have to get that fixed.”
Psychotic or not, he’s in an ebullient mood. This is his town; these are his streets. And with the Obama inauguration looming, he’s hopeful about the future — though he is as worried as anyone about the global financial crisis, which is hitting Ireland hard. “Very serious matter,” he says. “I get really nervous when some of the smartest people I know — some of the smartest people in the world — don’t know what’s about to happen. I believe, in the end, creativity thrives in difficult conditions. I think we’ll see some amazing things come out of this, though my heart goes out to people losing their jobs. And in my work as an activist, we were finding out how hard it is to get people to keep their promises to the world’s poor in good times. You can imagine how difficult it’s going to be now.”
Interviewing Bono is like taking an Alaskan husky for a walk — you can only suggest a general direction, and then hold on for dear life. Over an 80-minute lunch at a favorite Dublin restaurant, Eden, he repeatedly goes off on wild, entertaining tangents, which tend to include names such as Bill Clinton, Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, genomic researcher Craig Venter and Archbishop Desmond Tutu (Bono calls him “the Arch”). He tosses out one killer sound bite after another, blue eyes moving like tropical fish behind today’s pinkish-purple shades. “I was never much good at throwing a television out a window of a hotel,” he says, musing on his failings as a rock star. “Now, I look at a television, and I want to buy the company.”
He eats his chicken breast in big bites, avoiding the potatoes, talking with his mouth full — and when the chicken is gone, he dips a finger into the sauce and licks it off”, more than once. “We began this decade well — I think we’ll end it better,” he says, sitting on a white chair at a white table in a restaurant that’s otherwise empty — apparently because management has cleared it out for him. “Wouldn’t it be great if, after all these years, U2 has their heyday? That could be true of a painter or a filmmaker at this stage.”
Early on, Bono was both blunt and bold about his intentions for No Line on the Horizon: He wanted it to be far more than just another hit album. “The initial conversation was about future hymns,” Lanois says. “He thought that we should go to Morocco and write a body of work that would qualify as hymns for the future — songs that you can sing that will last forever.” In Fez, they rented a riad and jammed in its open courtyard, with drummer Larry Mullen Jr. playing an electronic kit and Eno and Lanois joining in on synth and guitar. The North African sun was blazing, and they could barely hear each other without proper monitors, but they managed to improvise the beginnings of several songs that ended up on the album, including “Magnificent,” FEZ-Being Born” and “Unknown Caller” — on the album you can hear birds chirping in the courtyard. The trip coincided with Fez’s annual Festival of World Sacred Music, and the band spent time taking it all in. “They’ve got Hindu music and Jewish music and this incredible Sufi singing and these jou-jouka drums,” Bono says. And somehow, even before arriving in Fez, the band had tapped into those sounds. “We knew by the time we were heading to Fez that we had found a new sound that was legitimate,” says Clayton. “It had a primitivism — it had a rock & roll element to it, but there was an otherworldly feel, there was that connection with that Arabic scale.”
The tracks they were recording were lengthy, ecstatic, vibe-heavy — not the stuff of stadium tours and hit singles. “We needed to get back to something that was gonna inspire us to take more risks and not to be afraid,” says Mullen. “The last two records reinforced the idea that U2 is a rock band, and by doing that you give yourself a license to tear it all down again. But at a certain stage, reality hits, and you go, ‘What are we gonna do with this stuff?’ Are we going to release this sort of meandering experimentation, or are we gonna knock some songs out of this? And that’s where the real labor starts.” So U2 spent months tearing tunes apart, then reassembling them bit by bit. The band’s third longtime producer, Steve Lillywhite (who goes back to their first album, Boy), joined the process, and other sounds started to emerge — the giddy pop of” I’ll (Go Crazy If I Don’t Go Crazy Tonight,” the electro-riff rock of the first single, “(Jet On Your Boots.” “We went so far out on the Sufi singing and the sort of ecstatic-music front,” says Bono, “that we had to ground it and find a counterpoint.” U2 finally turned the album in to their label just before Christmas and then pulled it back at the last minute to rejigger the track order. They had planned to start off with its most jarringly experimental moment, “FEZ-Being Born,” but decided to switch to the catchier title song. “I worked out the math — there’s something like almost 40 million possible running orders,” says the Edge (he’s almost exactly right). “It was a conscious thing for us, to make a collection that was a whole. It’s part of why it all took so long: We were fighting to hold up the idea that an album can still be a sacred art form.”
A MONTH BEFORE THE album’s release, U2 are onstage at the Grammys, hurtling toward the end of their first-ever live version of Get On Your Boots,” when Bono does something weird: He pulls off’his shades. And underneath — hey, is that eyeliner? “I thought I looked very sexy in eye makeup,” he half-jokes afterward. The look, he explains, was meant to be more Elvis than emo. It turns out to be the beginning of a new character he’s trying out, in the spirit of the Zoo TV Tour’s leathered-up Fly and devil-horned MacPhisto: “I was calling him Elvis’ dead brother, Jesse — which maybe is in poor taste. It’s still in development! I started just messing with it a few weeks ago.” Judging by online chatter, the only thing that confounded the public more than the sight of a glam Bono was the song he was singing. Few seemed to know what to make of a U2 song that combines a Zeppelin-y fuzz riff with electronic beats and lyrics about sexy boots. The single was not an instant smash, and Bono acknowledges some doubts. “I was going off the song myself for a minute,” he says. “And then the Grammys really put me back on it. I really enjoyed performing it. It’s gonna take a little longer to stick. It was never an obvious first single because it’s not straight-ahead rock or straight-ahead anything. But it is sly and charming and sexy and playful… and serious. It’s an earnest love song. That’s what’s beautiful about it.” If “Boots” feels somehow lightweight for U2, it’s only because it’s meant to ease listeners into one of the band’s deepest albums. “If we’re going to bleed all over everyone on the album, we always try to distract people from that,” Bono says, citing the Mel Brooks-inspired title of Achtung Baby as an example. “For this album, I thought, ‘What could be useful for U2 at this point?‘And I think I had probably two words in my head: ‘reverie’ and ‘revelry.’ “ Bono worked as hard as he ever has on this album’s lyrics, typing out draft after draft. When they’re not packed with epigrammatic punch lines (“Stand up to rock stare/Napoleon is in high heels/Josephine, be careful/Of small men with big ideas”), they’re laced with allusions: to James Joyce, to the documentary Man on Wire and especially to the Bible. “Unknown Caller” references Jeremiah 33:3 — “Call unto me, and I will answer”; “Breathe” is set on June 16th, the same day as Joyce’s Ulysses; and “Magnificent” was inspired by the Magnificat, a passage from the Gospel of Luke (in the voice of the Virgin Mary) that was previously set to music by Bach. “There’s this theme running through the album of surrender and devotion and all the things I find really difficult,” Bono says. “All music for me is worship of one kind or another.”
That idea will come to the forefront on U2’s next album — a sister release to No Line on the Horizon, Zooropa to its Achtung Baby, which the band plans to put out in the next year. Bono already knows the title — Songs of Ascent — and the first single, a surging anthem called “Every Breaking Wave” that was left off No Line at the last minute. Songs of Ascent will be quieter than No Line; in many ways, it’s that ghost album of hymns and Sufi singing. “We’re making a kind of heartbreaker, a meditative, reflective piece of work, but not indulgent,” Bono says. “It will all have a clear mood, like Kind of Blue. Or A Love Supreme would be a point of reference, for the space it occupies in people’s lives, which is to say, with that album, I almost take my shoes off to listen to it.”
IN THE BASEMENT OF LONDON’S Olympic Studios, armed only with a MacBook and a Nord keyboard, Brian Eno is leading a doomed, one-man insurgency. It’s early-December and U2 are wrapping up their sessions for No Line, the track listing almost finalized, but Eno is still pushing for prayerful, moody songs that were long ago abandoned. lie’s most passionate about “Winter,” which sounds like no other U2 song. It begins with fingerpicked, chiming acoustic guitar and falsetto backing vocals, and once Bono hits a key line -“Summer sings in me no more” — Eno’s dramatic strings kick in. “Listening to the silence, the deaf and dumb roar of white noise/Your voice,” Bono sings at one point, followed by a choral chant. “Beautiful, isn’t it? They’re bonkers to leave it off’,” Eno says with real sadness, as the tune winds up with soaring, dissonant strings — they’re synthesized, played on his little keyboard down here in the basement.
Well before Barack Obama thought of it, U2 embraced Abraham Lincoln’s idea of a team of rivals. “Brian’s job is basically to take everything and destroy it,” says Lillywhite. “And I suppose I come in after he’s destroyed it, and I listen to what he’s done, and to what was there before, and I sort of get some middle ground, and try and bring it back to a place where art and commerce live side by side.” Adds Edge, “That tension is important to the process. But I think we’re pretty much always right.”
Eno, whose fearlessly arty vision has shaped some of the best rock of the last 30 years — from Roxy Music to his experimental solo albums to Bowie in Berlin to Coldplay’s Viva la Vida or Death and All His Friends — is bald, professorial and unexpectedly genial, with Prada glasses hanging on a cord around his neck. “It’s too long, it needs a bit of work,” he says of “Winter.” “But, you know, they won’t spend time on it. They’ve spent months working on the ones that are supposed to be the radio singles. Months! This: played, put aside.”
“Winter” didn’t make it, but another ballad, “White as Snow,” came in at the last minute. And Eno is all over the record — the squiggly synth sounds are his, and many of the songs had their seed in the atmospheric loops he records using the program Logic Studio, giving them titles such as “Grunge Beatstorm Gate.” “You can hear Brian in the sort of Germanic krautrock feel of the title track,” says Clayton. “You can hear his brain there.”
Eno and Daniel Lanois both pick the hypnotic, seven-minute-plus “Moment of Surrender” as a favorite track, and the one closest to the original concept of the album. It came out of what the band and its producers describe as a small miracle: They all stood together one day and improvised its entire structure from scratch, all at once. That original backing track made it to the final album, complete with a trance-y bass line Clayton was figuring out as he played it — you can hear him imitate the bass part from Grandmaster Flash’s “White Lines” and then switch to another idea altogether — and Mullen’s uneven high-hat work, thanks to a busted electronic drum kit. (“Adam is the star of the show on this album,” Bono says. “No one knew he could move from his rock & roll pulse thing to the jaw-dropping bass part on ‘Moment’ or the sort of neo-Motown bass on ‘Magnificent.’ “) Eno fought hard to keep the band from messing too much with the original track. “These fucking guys,” he says with a smile, “they’re supposed to be so spiritual — they don’t spot a miracle when it hits them in the face. Nothing like that ever happened to me in the studio in my whole life.”
Eno’s iTunes library is a U2 superfan’s wet dream, with what seems to be hundreds of discarded songs and alternate takes. In some cases, Eno has written critiques in the “Comment” field, such as “This song needs faster and more urgent singing.” lie demonstrates the evolution of one potential single, “Stand Up Comedy”: It began as a tune driven by Middle Eastern-sounding mandolins, with Bono singing, “We don’t know what the future’s gonna bring.” From there, it took on a “You Really Got Me”-like riff and a chanted chorus that revolved around the words “for your love” — a little too close to the Yardbirds for comfort. Then it shifted again: new riff, new melody and a chorus that retains only the words “for your love” — upstairs, Bono and Lillywhite are still working on it. “Get On Your Boots,” which began as a Garage Band demo by the Edge, went through a similarly complex progression. At one point, it was called “Four-Letter Word.” And at some stage it lost its central riff, leaving it sounding like what Lilly white describes as “a Beck B side” that was in danger of being dropped from the record altogether.
Eno ducks the question of whether U2 have an artistic as well as commercial justification for focusing on potential hits. “You should ask the band that,” he replies. And it turns out Bono has strong feelings on the subject. “We grew up on the rock & roll 45,” he says. “It is, in an evolutionary-way that Brian should, but doesn’t, appreciate, the Darwinian peak of the species. It is by far the most difficult thing to pull off’, and it is the very life force of rock & roll: vitality, succinctness and catchiness, whether it’s the Sex Pistols, Nirvana, the Pixies, the Beatles, the Who, the Rolling Stones.
AS BONO GIVES ME A LIFT TO U2’s headquarters in his gleaming, ethanol-burning Maserati Quattroporte, he declares a “world exclusive” and pops a burned CD into the stereo. Over the past few years, the Edge and Bono have written 20 songs for a musical called Spider-Man: ‘Turn Off the Dark — which will hit Broadway in January 2010 — with Julie Taymor, who worked with Bono on her Beatles movie musical, Across the Universe, directing and Evan Rachel Wood playing Mary Jane Watson. Though Edge and Bono are far from comic-book geeks, the superhero association may not be as crazy as it seems. If Stan Lee hadn’t written the line “With great power comes great responsibility,” Bono would have stuck it somewhere on The Unforgettable Fire. “Peter Parker is the nerdy kid who gets bullied and finds a way to reinvent himself,” says the Edge. “That’s the story of every rock star, in some way.”
The first song Bono plays on the Maserati’s more-than-adequate sound system is called “Boy Falls From the Sky,” with Across the Universe star Jim Sturgess singing as Peter Parker. It sounds a lot like a U2 hit, especially when Bono sings along in the car with the line “I used to use a single thread to cross the sky.” “Killer!” he shouts as the song wraps up, and then he plays a choral, operatic segue. When Bono’s assistant calls on his cell, he cuts the conversation short: “We’re in the middle of an opera here!”
Clayton and Mullen haven’t even heard what Bono calls the “spider songs” yet, but the singer is hopeful that he can convince them to release the tunes in the form of a U2 album. “If we do, it’ll be a monster, ‘cause it’s the most accessible music we’ve probably ever written,” Bono says. “It could be our Tommy. We could do it with guest stars and everything.”
“And when rock music forgets about the 45, it tends toward progressive rock, which is like a mold that grows on old, burned-out artists who’ve run out of ideas. We have a soundtrack/Pink Floyd side of our band, and it has to be balanced by fine song-writing. And it’s an infuriating thing for me to see indie rock & roll give up the single to R&B and hip-hop. And that’s why I love the Kings of Leon album or the Killers album: These are people who have such belief in their musical power that they refuse to ghettoize it.” Bono pauses, and returns to the subject of his friend Eno. “What he’s listening for is a unique feeling, a unique mood and a unique palate. And he doesn’t get hits — I bet he told Coldplay to leave ‘Viva la Vida’ off’ their album. Brian would listen to ‘(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction’ and say, ‘I love that song, but can we get rid of the guitar bits? You know, the part that goes duhnt-duhnt-dunna dun?’”
It all seems very promising, but there’s already a dissenting vote: Larry Mullen Jr. “Yeah, I’m not convinced about that,” Mullen says. He’s dressed all in black, still as lean-cheeked and handsome as in his Rattle and Hum days, somehow managing to project an alpha-male swagger even while leaning back on a fluffy couch pillow at the band’s waterfront headquarters. The place is bright, modern and airy — it could pass for, say, Google’s Dublin branch, save for the Elvis memorabilia on the walls. We’re on the ground floor, where a door is open to let in the breeze from the River Lifley. “I think it’s a Bono and Edge project,” Mullen continues, “and I think that’s really valuable and really good. But I wouldn’t have chosen Spider-Man as my theatrical debut. I would have loved to have worked with Cirque du Soleil or something more left field. And that’s not a criticism. So this was Bono and Edge’s choice, and fair play to them and I wish them the best in the world. It’s not my project, so I’d have to come in on it and become a session musician, and I’m not good at that.”
Mullen can’t help smirking when he hears that Bono has taken to comparing Turn Off the Dark to Tommy. “I think that’s great,” he says, but then holds out both hands, palms up, as if weighing two objects. “Spider-Man … and Tommy? It’s a big jump, I think.” So is there any chance he’ll do it? “I’ll listen to a good argument any day,” Mullen says. That’s what U2 has been doing for over 20 years; we’ve argued our way to the top, you could say.”
Mullen and the silver-haired Clayton — who has a gentlemanly air, as if he’s permanently carrying a nice cup of tea — have pushed for a larger role in the band’s song-writing and often end up on the same side of disagreements within the group. But the harder-edged Mullen is the one most likely to say, “No.” “I don’t give it up easy on any level,” Mullen says. “People think we’ve all got beepers on, and it’s like, ‘Bono’s had a thought! Oh, fuck! Get out your beeper!’ “ Mullen laughs. “I think if Bono had his way, we’d probably be recording and playing for Africa, and that’s how he thinks. Just take everything and give it all. It doesn’t work like that. We spend a lot of time trying to hold Bono back from doing the maddest things possible. I just don’t understand where he gets the energy.”
After this discussion, I develop a new theory about Bono’s activism: He does it because convincing George W. Bush to give $15 billion to Africa is easier than getting Larry Mullen Jr. to do anything. Presented with this idea, Bono explodes with laughter. “I love him so, but that’s an understatement,” he says.
BACK IN OLYMPIC, THE EDGE AND Bono are alone behind closed doors in a dark control room. They’re in deep discussion over a couple of lyric sheets, deciding together between two entirely different sets of words for an exhilarating song called “Breathe.” One version is about Nelson Mandela; the other is far more surreal and personal. (In the end, Mandela loses out.) “With the lyrics, I act as a sort of critic, editor, sounding board,” Edge says. “It helps Bono be more productive to have somebody to bounce ideas off.” (Bono is quick to point out that it was the Edge who wrote a line on “Magnificent” that some critics are already-finding a trifle too messianic: “I was born to sing for you/I didn’t have a choice/But to lift you up.”)
After the lyric discussion, the two of them plop down on adjacent couches in the studio’s lounge, which has blond-wood floors and a ceiling made entirely of skylights. In the center of the room is a white board with the names of the songs they’re working on. Bono and the Edge start discussing the greatness of Jimmy Page, who recently played with Edge in the documentary It Might Get Loud — and recorded here at Olympic with Led Zeppelin. After comparing Page to Wagner, Bono looks over at Edge, making the case for his band’s own guitar god. “I would argue that there are colors in the spectrum that you own, that weren’t there before you painted them, and that your lack of dependence on blues scales sets you apart,” Bono says. Edge is concentrating so hard on what Bono is saying that the moment starts to feel uncomfortably intimate — it seems like they don’t have this kind of discussion often.
“In Edge, we have a proper guitar genius and a monumental talent, and the only reason that the world isn’t as celebratory of that fact as it should be is his own modesty,” says Bono. “And it takes some strength of character to bring in such a level of sophistication into the studio and have the rest of us, you know, trample all over it.”
In his own way, the Edge is as intense as Bono — his gaze is warm but so penetrating that it feels like he should be the one who wears sunglasses indoors. In contrast to Bono’s flamboyance, he is self-contained, maintaining an almost eerie calm. “When I’m nervous, I tend to just get quiet,” Edge says. You can talk to him for a long time — we have an almost two-hour lunch — without ever feeling he’s let you in very far. He hints that if you really want to understand him, you should just listen to him play: “The guitar is so expressive, and so eloquent, in being able to deal with things you couldn’t possibly put into words.”
Edge is as excited as ever about his instrument these days, especially after jamming with Page and Jack White for the documentary — their influence can be heard on the elemental, heavy riffs of “Stand Up Comedy,” “Get On Your Boots” and “Breathe.” He’s also inspired by the current crop of young guitar bands, from Arcade Fire to Fleet Foxes (who were a touchstone for the intimate, pastoral sound of the No Line track “White as Snow”). Edge has a particular affinity for the fuzzed-out experimentation of Benjamin Curtis, the young former guitarist for the indie-psychedelic act Secret Machines, now with School of Seven Bells. “I love what those two bands are doing,” says the Edge, who cites their sound as an influence on No Line’s droning, tribal side. “It brought me back to some of the music that I would have been listening to when U2 first formed, bands like Magazine, Joy Division, Neu! and Can.” Curtis, in turn, was heavily influenced by the Edge, and the two struck up a friendship — Curtis turned Edge on to an over-the-top new fuzz pedal by a company called Death by Audio, which ended up defining the grinding rhythm-guitar sound of both “No Line on the Horizon” and “FEZ-Being Born.” “ ‘No Line’ blew my mind — he’s using that pedal in a textural way that it wasn’t intended to be used at all,” says Curtis. “The Edge makes the guitar seem like such a beautifully simple instrument.”
BONO WAKES UP EARLY THESE days. Six a.m. — an hour when he used to drag himself home from the pub. The morning offers his only real moments of peace. lie prays, meditates and writes — catching the muse on her way home, as he puts it. “She’s bleary-eyed and draggin’ her high heels, and I’m sharp and ready to take advantage of her.”
Even other rock stars find Bono’s energy somehow superhuman — “He can walk in space without a helmet,” Eddie Vedder once told me. But the truth is, it all does wear Bono down. “I can get bent out of shape, you know, just by busyness,” he says one night in mid-February. Case in point: He’s calling from his car, which is parked outside his daughter Eve’s high school in Dublin. Our initial appointment was to speak almost 12 hours earlier. “I thought this would be over at 8:00,” he apologizes, sounding comically frantic. “My daughter’s in a school play, but it’s not just that — it’s a face off between all the plays in the region. There’s judges and there’s speeches, and I have to go back in soon to see how she’s done.”
Bono worries about losing track of himself in the chaos of his life — that’s part of what his quiet, solitary mornings are about. “My meditative life feeds my soul,” he says, “and it’s a wonderful thing for me to have time to reflect upon things and spend some time to myself.”
The lyrics of No Line on the Horizon are full of characters who have lost track of themselves. “You could have called this album The Pilgrim and His Lack of Progress,” Bono says, “because all the characters are struggling to stay true to their values or want to realize their potential. And without getting all self-help on your ass, I do think that at the heart of U2 is the idea that the problems we face in the world start and end with the human spirit. And our music, I would like to think, reminds people what the human spirit is capable of. The greatest obstacles to people realizing their potential are of a spiritual nature — and I’m speaking personally.”
On “Breathe,” the second-to-last track, the narrator finds the redemption that eludes many of the album’s other characters. “Every day I die again, and again I’m reborn,” Bono sings, with all the considerable joy he can muster. But the final track offers a darker epilogue. “Cedars of Lebanon,” a stark, finely drawn tale of a war correspondent preoccupied with his personal problems, ends with some of the most chilling lines in U2’s catalog: “Choose your enemies carefully, cause they will define you,” Bono speak-sings, his voice echoing as the music behind him drops to silence. “Make them interesting, ‘cause in some ways they will mind you/They’re not there in the beginning, but when your story ends/Gonna last with you longer than your friends.” The lines are, in part, a condemnation of the Iraq War, a topic that Bono largely avoided while he hail to work with George W. Bush and former British prime minister Tony Blair on aid to Africa. “I think of all the energy that went into that,” he says quietly. “And the bravery of the men and women who served, and I think of what those resources could have achieved, if only the lives of the poorest of the poor were as valuable as the idea of bringing democracy to the desert.”
“Moment of Surrender” tells the tale of a lost soul, borrowing an Alcoholics Anonymous term for the moment an addict admits helplessness. “The character in the song is a junkie, so that’s where I got it,” says Bono, who has written about heroin addiction before, most famously on “Bad,” from The Unforgettable Fire. “I’ve been surrounded a lot in my personal life by addiction — in the last few years, in particular,” Bono says. “I know a lot of people — not least the bass player in the band — who have had to deal with their demons in courageous ways.” (In the Nineties — around the time he was engaged to Naomi Campbell — Clayton grappled with alcoholism, and went to AA himself.) “And maybe there’s a part of me that thinks, ‘Wow, I’m just an inch away,’ “ Bono continues. “There’s no doubt about the fact that I have a wild streak and I’d be very capable of setting fire to myself. So, you know, I don’t go to church for the view.”
“Moment” includes a phrase that’s close to sacred for Bono: “vision over visibility.” Until now, he never found a home for it in a song, but he used it as a title for a painted self-portrait in the Eighties, placed it in poems and essays, and even squeezed it into a live version of “Rockin’ in the Free World.” “It’s an idea that I’ve held on to quite tightly over the years,” he says. “It’s like Martin Luther King’s speech — the moment when you see the place, but you can’t see yet how to get there.” The slogan stands for an insistence on looking past what you can see in favor of what could be. For Bono, the world as it is will never be enough. “I’m not the tattooing kind, but if I had a tattoo, that would be it,” he says. “Elvis had ‘taking care of business.’ I’ve got ‘vision over visibility.’”