Every battle ends. (Except the Korean War.) One way or another, every conflict in the history of mankind has come, or will come, to some sort of conclusion. Some end in a spectacular clash, some end in a formal ceremony, and some just flicker and fade out of existence.
Some battles, people just get tired of fighting. Personally, I’m tired of trying to defend U2’s better days, but I’m going to try anyway.
When I was younger, in my college years and the immediate aftermath, I held three bands in esteem above all others: R.E.M., U2, and Red Hot Chili Peppers. In my mind, these bands had longevity and greatness beyond what anyone could possibly expect, while still remaining vital, releasing exciting new music nearly 25 years after each was formed.
Clearly, I was mistaken. In some cases more so than others.
In hindsight, you could make a very real case that the entire trio had peaked by 1992, even if they all did blip back on the radar, ever so briefly, around the turn of the millennium. Now, though, they’re all long gone from my present day. R.E.M. remains beloved, because they walked away; U2 remains controversial, because they ambushed our iTunes; and Red Hot Chili Peppers are still a thing, or so I’m told.
Years after I stopped thinking of those bands as some sort of holy trinity, they all returned to my mind this week. Michael Stipe appeared on the final episode of The Colbert Report last December, which I re-watched the other day. The Chili Peppers’ “Don’t Stop” inexplicably appeared on the stereo at an otherwise enjoyable drinking establishment, and I wound up in a discussion about U2, wherein I once again asserted that Achtung Baby was one of the Top Ten Albums of my Lifetime, and that a reasonable case could be made for it as the absolute best.
Which is insanely impressive, when you consider that I think U2’s best song—itself a contender for Top Ten Songs of My Lifetime—came four years earlier.
Can we talk about “With or Without You” for a moment? (Of course we can. This is my blog, dammit.) U2’s career path from a little too sincere to delightfully ironic to painfully-sincere-in-a-post-irony-world has been well documented, especially by Chuck Klosterman, but in the modern era, where even whispering the name Bono is enough to make most millennials eyes roll uncontrollably, the majesty of those first two incarnations has been forgotten. U2 was the biggest band in the world because they earned it. Because they deserved to be. They were a band that made breakup songs so beautiful that they were mistaken for love songs, created a guitar tone that’s been replicated by every indie band since, and somehow managed to pack minimalism and the infinite into the same pop song.
Maybe that’s the problem with U2. Maybe they were too great for their own good. Maybe they lost themselves somewhere along the way, in trying to maintain that level of majesty.
All I can say for certain about the band’s shifting place in our culture is this: In 1987, U2 topped the charts with a song that repeated the line, “And you give yourself away.”
Last year, people hated them for doing just that.