U2: Hold on, it's coming! The companion piece to 2014’s Songs Of Innocence is on the horizon. Well, that’s the “current thinking”, insist Edge and Adam Clayton.
The best laid plans and all that… In July 2015, U2’s Larry Mullen,Jr told Q that the band would never take five-and-a half years to write and record an album again. Reflecting on the lengthy incubation of their 13th studio LP, 2014’s Songs Of Innocence, he said firmly, “Those days are gone.” His wasn’t a lone voice either. “We’re all culpable for taking a while,” agreed Bono.“But that can’t go on. That’s just not right.”
Eighteen months since those words, the long-mooted successor and companion piece to Songs Of Innocence has yet to appear. When that album was released in September 2014, Bono was already talking about a follow-up called Songs Of Experience, drawn partly from leftover material from those earlier recordings. If the clock started when he first began writing again while convalescing from the cycling accident he suffered in New York’s Central Park in November 2014, U2 are now at least halfway towards making a mockery of their drummer’s deadline. Tick-tock.
Coming up with material hasn’t been the problem. “We’ve an abundance of great ideas and it’s really about identifying what to finish and how to finish it,” bassist Adam Clayton tells Q today. "That's the gift and the curse of this record,” agrees Edge,stating that at one point they had 50 songs –or bases of songs – they were working seriously on. That’s been whittled down to 18 tracks, which are being finessed, finished and recorded before selecting 10-12 to make the final cut. “The ordeal,” says Edge, “is getting all four members to agree on the same dozen songs.”
Producers confirmed to have worked on the album thus far include Jolyon Thomas (Slaves, M83) and Andy Barlow of electronica duo Lamb. In September, long-time collaborator Steve Lillywhite revealed that he’d been asked to mix “the new U2 single”. The following month, Clayton told Irish radio station RTÉ that the completed album would probably arrive in March or April 2017. Now he’s not so sure.“In all likelihood we would not go for a spring release,” he says. “We would probably hold it back until later in the year.” He pauses. “That’s just the current thinking at the moment.”
Current thinking has been dictated by U2 introducing a new way of working into the recording process. Some tracks have long been close to completion, and Bono even played Q’s Dorian Lynskey four of them as far back as July 2015. Instrument Flying, he reported, had “a sleek, motorik quality”. The Little Things That You Give Away was “vibrantly anthemic”. Much More Better was “a deeply personal acoustic demo” about Bono’s bike accident and Civilisation was “a sure-fire album opener with a drum roll in the middle that Bono had called ‘my favourite bit on aU2 album in years’.” However,the band recently resolved to do something they’d always planned to with previous albums but, in Edge’s words, “never got round to”: road-test the songs together before setting them in stone in the studio.
Accordingly, last autumn U2 booked themselves into a rehearsal space and played the tracks as a four-piece. It pushed back the record’s ETA but has been a valuable catalyst in getting the songs into the best shape possible. “It was really telling" says Edge.That rehearsal room becomes like a crucible: you bash away and you start to realise where the weaknesses and where the strengths are in a song. Any imperfections become obvious and you purify the work in that context. There’s nowhere to hide. I think it helps Bono when he’s coming to final vocals: is this lyric bulletproof? Is this the right structure? Is it the right melody, even? Sometimes, at the 11th hour, really fundamental things can change.”
It’s a process that also fits snugly with the vision they have for Songs Of Experience. The long-term plan has been to release the record and then quickly seed the new songs into a second leg of their Innocence + Experience tour, currently paused after 76 dates between May and December 2015. So not only does the new material have to be arena-ready – many of the tracks have taken inspiration from the tour thus far. “We learnt a lot from Innocence + Experience,” explains Clayton. “In the first 30 minutes of the show, we played what was essentially the punk rock part of our story. There was a visceral energy to that material. That sort of energy is rare these days and we thought we’d really like to do something with that. So that’s one of the things we’ve been trying to capture with this record and figure out the best way to get it. The band, from that tour on, have been playing better than ever. It’s a really good time to record us.”
Songs Of Innocence drew on their upbringing in 1970s Dublin, but Songs Of Experience will be more broadly about the world they’ve seen since then. As much as it may look back, it’s also informed by the current day. As Bono told Brazil’s Radio Cidade in September 2014: “William Blake’s Songs Of Innocence And Of Experience gave us a device to be able to write about the past, while at the same time writing about what’s going on now.”
Increasingly, though, you can write a song that reflects the world around you now only to discover that that world has changed immeasurably by the time you finish recording it. Clayton suggests that some late changes to Songs Of Experience may be prompted by recent political events.“There are some shifting sands [in completing this record] and perhaps the US Election has created some uncertainty,” he admits.
During times of political and social upheaval, we often look to our politically savvy rock’n’roll bands to help us make sense of the world. In the year of Brexit and Trump, did U2 sense a Bat Signal going up to draw them out of the studio darkness?
“I don’t know if we feel a responsibility so much,” says Edge. “Just that there are these moments where you just feel like, ‘Wow, someone’s got to write a great song about this and hopefully it will be us, so let’s have a go.’ Coming out of the post-punk era, we were inspired by The Clash, Patti Smith, Television – innovators who also had one foot in the worlds of poetry and literature and the other in political activism. That’s deeply embedded in our band. One of the reasons we write a song is to crystallise something of significance for ourselves and, hopefully, other people.”
There are few things harder to crystallise than modern politics though, and Clayton is wary that doing so leads you into sloganeering about issues too complex to be distilled into a three-minute rock song. “I think the world has changed a bit,” he says. “I’m not sure that within the culture that music is the best medium any more.There’s so much noise out there anyway, people saying this,that and the other, that I think music is a little bit insecure as regards what its role is in these situations.”
“What is does leave us with is feeling like it’s a lot more difficult to know where you stand and where your government stands – one of the principles society should be based on,” continues Edge. “It’s like the foundations have been given a shaking and it’s moments like this that I think art can come through and steady the ship. I don’t know if we can, but we’re certainly trying to write some tunes that can connect and, beyond that, who knows?”
One day soon, maybe some time after the spring, we’ll find out just what those tunes can do.Tick-tock.