There’s something shifty about U2 these days, don’t you think? Ever since they snuck onto everyone’s iPhones in September 2014 and left their latest album ‘Songs Of Innocence’ there like a burglar’s turd on the kitchen floor, they carry around the air of suspicion that they’re always up to something. Even the title of this current tour – Innocence And Experience – makes you suspect that they’re subliminally trying to align themselves with the literary greats, or conniving to inherit the estate of William Blake. You trust them as far as you could throw them or, in diminutive figurehead Bono’s case, about half as far.
A better title would have been The Road To Contrition, because this is surely U2’s grovelling make-up tour. Kicking off a six-night run in London, Bono arrives at the far end of a ramp that runs the entire length of the O2 Arena to the tune of Patti Smith’s ‘People Have The Power’. The 55-year-old is applauding us, bursting his ego bubble from the off. But even this seems disingenuous. ‘What are you after?’ you think, wary that he may well be providing a distraction while you’re surreptitiously injected with Bono-loving hormones by minions disguised as drunk banker types.
He reaches a bare stage with a single light-bulb hanging overhead and launches into a run of voracious canyon rock-outs – ‘The Miracle (Of Joey Ramone)’, ‘The Electric Co.’, ‘Vertigo’ and ‘I Will Follow’, peppered with lines from The Pistols, Oasis and The Who. At first it doesn’t look like the Facebook billions and international tax savings have been put to very good use on U2’s first indoor arena tour in 14 years. At most, from the sound of it, they might’ve shelled out to have all of The Edge’s bodily joints enhanced to emit stadium reverb every time he goes into a guitar god spasm. But when Bono tells us about losing his mother and how she “left me an artist”, what sounds like an attempt to pity-fuck his way back into our affections is actually the start of U2 wowing us into submission. A gigantic screen stretching sideways down the arena lights up with constellations and old family videos for ‘Iris (Hold Me Close)’ and come ‘Cedarwood Road’ Bono actually climbs up inside the screen, merging with an animation of his childhood street like he’s just been sucked into CBeebies.
Bono is a powerful force, championing refugees and the “forgotten” victims of Dublin car bombings in 1974. During ‘Bullet The Blue Sky’, he even argues via megaphone that very rich men should still be allowed to join the struggles of the 99 per cent. Even so, the screen is the star.
It becomes a makeshift Berlin Wall flashing with Nathan Barley-esque slogans: “EVERYTHING YOU KNOW IS WRONG’, “UNEXPECTED ITEM IN BAGGING AREA”, “BE-LIE-VE”. When the punchiest riffs hit, it fills the arena with a 93-foot-long shot of The Edge’s guitar. During ‘Until The End Of The World’ the guitarist wanders inside it while a huge video Bono spits water over him or holds him in the palm of his hand, before both are swept away by a Biblical cartoon flood. During the catchy synth-pop of ‘Invisible’ the entire band is inside, glimpsed through holes in the visuals that open in response to volume. It’s a retina-frying spectacle, and just about the only thing that could draw attention away from an unfortunate bleach job that makes Bono look like a leather-trousered Freddie Starr.
So they’re pushing technological envelopes, even if they’ve long-since become stylistically safe. The new songs are an aging stadium rocker’s idea of ‘edgy’ – ‘Cedarwood Road’ apes Arctic Monkeys’ sultry funk; ‘Raised By Wolves’ is a puppy-dog take on gutter blues rock – but they do help give the U2 canon a welcome variety, and you’ve got to give them credit for effort tonight. They’ve hired Stephen Hawking to give a pre-recorded encore speech about humanity’s need to get along. They pull a Canadian audience member Trish onstage to dance as mysteriously as she can to ‘Mysterious Ways’ and film a live global link-up of ‘Elevation’ from the stage, an attempt to bring their fans into the band. And once the monster hits arrive – ‘Where The Streets Have No Name’, ‘Pride (In The Name Of Love)’, ‘With Or Without You’ – they come with an inescapable cultural gravity, even if some are wincingly mawkish (‘One’) or made up of vacant bluster (‘Beautiful Day’). If you can trust U2 on anything, it’s to put on a show.