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What if your job was to follow the world’s biggest band around for 18 months…

Well, for The Guardian’s Sean O’Hagan, it was. For 1.5 years, from Morocco to Dublin to New York and beyond, he rode shotgun to U2 as they recorded their forthcoming album No Line On the Horizon.

u2

He’s chronicled his amazing experience in an expansive, insightful article that includes two short documentary films, two lengthy interviews and an examination of the important eras in U2’s evolution with songs that represent each era. The feature covers Bono’s political involvement and the band’s reaction to it, a very personal look at their faith and, of course, plenty about the development and recording of the new album.

O’Hagan manages to capture really wonderfully much of what it must be like to in U2. The fame, the glamor, the lack of privacy, the platform, etc. It includes quotes from the guys about their favorite things about recording, about their disappointments – including, at times, in their own music – and the value of being on such a grand stage.

Per usual, the U2 haters will find a great deal to avoid. But for the U2 fan – or anyone interested in the complexities of celebrity and art-making – O’Hagan’s article is a valuable and worthwhile read. Like a good critic, he examines U2, their music, their fame, their influence, their innovation in the context of modern times and in the broader context of art as something of “greater meaning.”

In fact, he writes the following:

Initially, I had little time for U2, their songs, their haircuts, their Christianity. My epiphany occurred when I was sent to Rome by the NME in the summer of 1987 to interview Bono after the first gig of their European tour – The Joshua Tree tour. Put simply, it was a revelation: a rock group whose music made sense in a stadium, whose songs retained – and inspired – a kind of communal intimacy in a crowd of 60,000 people. And, boy, did Bono work that crowd. He was one part rock star, one part showbiz trouper, one part preacher man. In America, where cool is not such a reductive currency, U2 were embraced with open arms. The rest, as they say, is history.

By Achtung Baby, as Bono famously put it, they “discovered that irony was not the enemy of soul”. The Zoo TV extravaganza was, and remains, the most technically innovative – touring rock show of recent times. And anyone who still thinks U2 don’t have a sense of humour obviously missed the Pop Mart tour, where they emerged nightly out of a giant lemon dressed like some postmodern version of the Village People.

This is the version of U2 that I prefer, the one that challenges our preconceptions of U2. It has not been around for a while, but now it has popped out of the closet again on (most of) No Line on the Horizon, which is a world away from the two traditional sounding, good-but-not great albums that preceded it. They seem to me, at times, to be the last of something: the last rock band that insists rock music has some greater meaning at a time when the form seems dogged by a lack of cultural resonance.

O’Hagan’s article is a vivid reminder that, like them or not, U2 has been, and doubtless will continue to be, one of the most influential and important bands of this, or any, generation. As he wrote in the above mentioned excerpt, U2 is not ” just another post-punk band.” On the contrary, they are a band whose sound(s) and whose passions(s) will, and should, be long remembered. It has been said that Bono has a messianic complex and perhaps he does, whatever that means exactly. But sometimes an age, an era, a zeitgeist need someone with a little bit of messiah in them – or at least a passionate desire to do meaningful, world changing things. This is one of those ages and Bono and co. are the right band for it. You may not dig the glasses, you may not agree with the politics, you may find the sound worthless. You may even think he does what he does for a bit of cheap pub. But at least things are being done, at least people are being fed, at least the music and the glasses and the politics and the cheap pub are doing some good, some real, lasting, life-saving, world-changing good. And to that I say: Strap on those boots!

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