With U2's New Album Free on iTunes, We Wonder: Is U2 Still Relevant?

One writer loves U2! The other kind of likes "City of Blinding Lights." Is the band still relevant? We hash it out in a Cocktail Crossfire.

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Proving they're always down to party with their Apple friends, U2 made an appearance at today's big show – and they brought a new album along with them. Songs of Innocence is available free on the iTunes Store right now, which would have been really thrilling back in 2004.

See, even before we knew what the band's big announcement was going to be, we couldn't help but wonder: Why did Apple recruit U2 to help, when their best moments are long past?

Among The Wire's entertainment staff, we have two staffers at opposite ends of the U2 spectrum: David Sims, who spent time in the UK as a kid and has been waiting for the bands new album for years, and Kevin O'Keeffe, a Millennial who likes that one song about the city of lights used in The Devil Wears Prada's Paris sequence. Together, they debate in a Cocktail Crossfire:

Is U2 still relevant?

KO: David, to say I don't get why we're talking about U2 right now is an understatement. I get that Apple has partnered with them in the past, but for a company all about What's Next to keep going back to this well is perplexing. Their last album came out five years ago. I guess last year they won a Golden Globe for a song for a movie that no one saw, but that's not really "relevance" as "the Hollywood Foreign Press Association starf*cking." Modern rock has moved more towards the Mumford & Sons folk-inspired sound versus their stadium rock style. Simply put: Culture has no use for U2 anymore. So why does Apple? Can you defend their choice?

DS: Well, remember, we just watched an event where Apple unleashed the ultimate dad item in the Apple Watch, so it might be cleverly on-brand to package that together with U2. But it's hard to deny that it's been about ten years since the band felt remotely relevant, when How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb won the Grammy for Album of the Year. Since then they've bounced between disappointing side-projects (Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark on Broadway) and released only one record, No Line on the Horizon, which debuted to shrugs in 2009. My argument isn't so much that U2 have remained a top-tier group. My argument is more one of potential: they've tanked in the public eye twice before, reinvented themselves with a new album, and catapulted back into the zeitgeist. Who's to say they can't do it again?

KO: I am. I am here to say that they cannot do it again. Even the idea of releasing their album for free on the iTunes Music Store feels like a step in the wrong direction. I think they're going for looking luxe, but it really looks bargain-basement. Yes, there's something to the idea of winking at Millennials, most of whom don't even buy music anymore, by releasing the album for free. But even that feels like a dad move, trying to play along with the cool kids. Seems like they're the ones keeping themselves out of the zeitgeist, especially with their stubborn lack of growth as a group. I mean, that performance felt like warmed-up U2 leftovers, no?

DS: I can't deny that the performance of that single didn't exactly send me running to my iTunes store. U2's big reinvention with All That You Can't Leave Behind was to make them a poppy stadium-rock act with shorter, catchier songs – shedding much of the plodding, meta, ironic introspection of their 90s output. The ridiculously-titled single "The Miracle (Of Joey Ramone)" sounded very much along those lines. I'm currently battling busy iTunes servers in an attempt to get the album, but it may indeed be more of the same. Still. You say mainstream rock is headed in a folky, Mumford & Sons direction. I could not imagine a more horrifying concept (and I don't know that there's a group I hate more than Mumford & Sons) so that's even bigger incentive for me to rush into the U2 camp. Of course the best they can do is occupy the middle ground in rock music, but boy, I'd much rather have them there than some groups.

KO: Well, since you're subtweeting Coldplay there, let's talk about them. During their Apple Watch demo, Apple even played Coldplay instead of U2. This knowing that they'd be giving away a full album in partnership with them. Even their best friend can't remember to not shade them! That was pretty unintentionally hilarious to me. But Coldplay definitely does feel like the current standard-bearer for the U2 mantle, right? (Follow-up question: how much do you hate that?)

DS: Coldplay is definitely in that mode, down to the Brian Eno-produced comeback album, even though half the time it feels like they don't even want to be a stadium act. But I think even a U2 non-fan would admit that Coldplay has yet to produce anything as interesting as U2's best albums, nor devise a stadium tour that captured public attention in the same way as U2's best ones did. Lord, I think even Chris Martin might admit that. There's always been something so painfully cautious about any change in sound for Coldplay, while U2 has actually proven perfectly happy to shake things up between albums. My big fear is that single we just heard. It didn't sound notably different from "Vertigo" ten years before.

KO: Right, they're still trapped in 2004. I get a creative rut, of course, but music changes quickly. The thing about Coldplay is, whether you like their work or not, they are always trying to evolve. It may be cautious, as you said, but then I think about something like "Viva La Vida." That record is fantastic, if not particularly surprising; they let the quality stand on its own. This new single isn't strong enough to do the same. I'm not sure if we can still call U2 innovative if they haven't managed to "shake things up," as you said, in ten years.

So since we seem to have settled that their relevance is in a valley, if not completely gone, my question to you is this: What does U2 need to do to launch themselves back into the zeitgeist?

DR: Perfect question (and I agree with you about "Viva La Vida"). Honestly, the easy answer is go find an awesome producer and work with them--but they did that once, working with Rick Rubin in 2006 or so but shelving whatever came of that and going back to the familiar territory of Eno and Steve Lillywhite and Daniel Lanois for No Line on the Horizon. This time, it looks like they did a lot of work with Danger Mouse and Paul Epworth. Will it have any impact? The other hit on U2, of course, is that they can get too big-picture, especially about global issues, and Bono is addressing that too in his first statements about Songs of Innocence, calling it a "personal" album. Is that going to make a difference?

KO: I would love that they could get back to a tighter focus, but I just don't quite believe they can do that. Even the album title – Songs of Innocence, coming to Lifetime Movie Network this fall – is boring me. And I know we've brought it up multiple times now, but that single, which they chose to perform live at a widely streamed event to promote their free album, was a snooze. Not bad, but totally unchallenging. If that's what they chose as their lead-off hitter, I'm concerned about what they have in the dugout.

DS: It's funny! I have the optimism of youth, you have the cynicism of someone who knows how the game is played. I'm with you on that first single and the generally lame media rollout, but I'm still going to my iTunes store hoping for something special. Now if I can just get this download to work.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.