Nobody likes U2: The band that’s disappointed fans and annoyed others

A string of questionable decisions has put the Irish band at the center of the musical debate. Are they finished?

Honorees Adam Clayton, Bono, The Edge and Larry Mullen Jr. of U2
One of the quartet's last public appearances, on December 4, 2022, at the 45th Kennedy Center Honors Ceremony in Washington, where the band was honored. From left to right: Adam Clayton, Bono, The Edge and Larry Mullen Jr.Paul Morigi (Getty Images)
Carlos Marcos

The search is on for someone who liked U2′s latest album. It has been so widely panned that The Edge and Bono have begun to offer interviews to try to lessen the impact of bad reviews. Bono noted that they were working on a “noisy, uncompromising, unreasonable guitar album,” while The Edge declared that he’s “absolutely convinced that the guitar is going to be front and center within mainstream music culture in a year or two, and I want to be part of that revival.” And, jumping the gun, they share that “it’s going to be very difficult to break up U2.” Break up? Who said anything about that?

Songs of Surrender, an album that rewrites 40 of the band’s old songs (two hours and 46 minutes of music), is at the center of the controversy swirling around the band. In an article titled “U2 Revisits Its Past in the Name of... What, Exactly?” the New York Times said that “in Songs of Surrender, less is simply less” and that the songs convey “not intimacy, but distance.” The Guardian noted the “varying degrees of success” of the “muted acoustic treatments“; Pitchfork found it to be “a frustrating missed opportunity”; and the ever-enthusiastic NME said that it “isn’t quite the disaster it initially threatened to be.” Unlike most, Uncut liked the album and said “U2 revisits” its “songbook and discovers itself.”

Fans are similarly perplexed. Xavier Balart (Barcelona, 51 years old) is the author of U2 in Spain and has been to over 50 of the band’s concerts (all of the tours in Europe and the United States since 1993). “The biggest problem with the new album is that the original versions were excellent, and we all tend to compare. If you move away from that comparison, you might find some songs interesting. But yes, there are [only a] few. I think the album was unnecessary, and it doesn’t add up. Clearly, the band is going through a creative dry spell,” he said. Mikel Aranguren (Bilbao, 56 years old) has attended 30 U2 concerts and runs East Link, a well-informed website dedicated to the band: “I don’t need [the album]. I’m convinced that releasing it is a bitter pill for them to swallow. They’re promoting it because it’s their songs and they’re not going to talk badly about them. But I honestly don’t think it’s what they wanted.”

Criticism of the album focuses on the cover songs’ lack of soul and the fact that the band has rewritten some of the lyrics of beloved songs like “Sunday Bloody Sunday.” “It doesn’t make sense. If you have something new to say, write a new song. Bono says that you have to adapt the song to the times. But why? ‘New Year’s Day’ was written when it was written, it’s the same with ‘Sunday Bloody Sunday’… They’re right there, with that context and with those lyrics. The song doesn’t talk about now; it talks about then,” Aranguren said.

The Edge, Larry Mullen Jr.,Bono and Adam Clayton of U2
The Irish band, during their last tour, in December 2019, in Seoul.Chung Sung-Jun (Getty Images)

These days, some compare the Irish band with Depeche Mode: U2 debuted in 1980 with Boy, while the English band premiered in 1981 with Speak & Spell. In these comparisons, Dave Gahan and Martin Gore’s band — which just released its new album, Memento Mori — comes out on top.

Songs of Surrender is linked to Bono’s November 2022 book, Surrender: 40 Songs, One Story, a 700-page text in which he tells his life story. He went on tour to present the book in different theaters. Everyone consulted for this article enjoyed the book; they believe that it is one of the band’s few positive aspects now.

To record the album, Bono, 62, relied on the rest of the group: guitarist The Edge, 61, actively participated, while the contributions of bassist Adam Clayton, 63, and drummer Larry Mullen, 61, were scarce. In the documentary that has just been released to support the album, Bono & The Edge: A Sort of Homecoming with Dave Letterman (Disney+), Clayton and Mullen do not even appear in it.

The band’s poor decisions don’t stop there. The group has announced that it will do a residency in Las Vegas; in the music industry that’s considered to be a sign that something is wrong or that a musician is in the doldrums. Balart doesn’t think that’s the case here: “Make no mistake about it. They are going to do 12 or 14 concerts and that’s it. It’s not like a Céline Dion-type residency, which is three years in Las Vegas. U2 wants to inaugurate a venue that looks spectacular. If [they] were [doing it] in London instead of Las Vegas, people wouldn’t be saying that they’re done.” Indeed, Sphere is an avant-garde, sphere-shaped building that promises spectators a feast for the eyes and ears, or what they now call “living the experience.” And U2 wants to take the lead in inaugurating it. But once again problems have emerged. At the Superbowl, amid great fanfare, they announced that the concerts — at which the band will perform its unimpeachable 1991 album Achtung Baby — would take place at the end of September, but the dates have still not been finalized and tickets have not gone on sale yet. The problem? The venue is still under construction and may not be finished by September.

While this episode is a bit disconcerting, it is not the most serious issue. Fans find it stranger and more hurtful that one band member, Larry Mullen Jr., will not be there. The drummer is suffering from bone injuries; secrecy has made his condition a great mystery. Is he in such bad shape that he needs almost a year to recover? Perhaps we should remember that one of U2′s most unique aspects is that the band has had the same members throughout its 45-year career; the group’s tight core has seemed unbreakable. Officially, Mullen can’t perform because he’s recovering from surgery. The drummer is the least talkative member of the quartet and almost always manages to dodge speaking with journalists. In a recent Rolling Stone interview, The Edge was asked, " Are you hopeful that Larry will be back onstage next year [by 2024]?” The guitarist’s response sowed further doubt: “As soon as he is ready to rejoin us, we would love to see him on the drum stool. We’re just being guided by what he lets us know about. We’re waiting eagerly to hear about his progress and how things are.”

“Of course, I’m bothered that Larry is not [going to be there], but they didn’t have a choice. The Las Vegas concerts have been booked since before he was injured, so they have to honor their commitment,” said Oscar Puchades, 48, of Vertigo Radio, a radio program dedicated exclusively to U2, which has been on the air for 18 years. Puchades has attended 39 U2 concerts and met his partner through the band’s fan club. “I don’t think they are finished by any means. Good bands have a peak of excellence; that is already behind U2, but I’m hopeful about what they’ll do after Vegas.” In particular, fans are looking forward to the announced 2024 guitar album and a rumored big-venue tour in 2025.

Bono performing live onstage at Giants Stadium, Meadowlands
Bono performing with U2 in New Jersey on the Amnesty International tour in June 1986. Ebet Roberts (Redferns)

U2 already has a replacement for the Las Vegas fall shows: Bram van den Berg, a 40-year-old Dutch drummer who doesn’t have much major band experience. Meanwhile, Mullen was recently spotted in photos on social media looking well and enjoying a beer with friends. English journalist Neil McCormick, who is the best informed about U2 since he knew them as teenagers and has a direct line with them, offered valuable information in an online chat with fans: “I know Bono and Edge are keen to progress [on] new music, but I don’t have a timeline. They are (honestly) waiting for their drummer to get back. My guess? [It will be in] 2025.″ On the band’s current inner workings, he noted: “U2 still have a democratic vote on all major decisions, which means Larry has signed off on the latest album and signed off on the Achtung Baby dates. But Bono and Edge have always been the creative leaders of U2, pushing the agenda forward. Since they no longer all live in the same country and interact on a daily basis, it can mean that things progress without certain members (well, Larry) being intimately involved with all the intermediate steps, so he can understandably feel a little pushed into positions and decisions. But I asked the Edge about that quote, and he admitted that the thing he misses most is the everyday interactions that made decision making easy, but, he also said ‘if it’s a dictatorship, there’s four dictators.’”

The criticism of U2 and, more specifically, Bono, is nothing new. Surely, he must be one of the most disliked pop stars (though he’s in a fierce battle with Coldplay’s Chris Martin). Some of the reasons why: his desire for the limelight, his involvement in political affairs (and sometimes his appearance alongside reactionary leaders, like the ultraconservative Republican Jesse Helms), his bombastic rhetoric... And because of his success, which rubs some people the wrong way. Bono himself is aware of the animosity toward him. In the documentary with David Letterman, he admits that he “tested [the band’s] patience.” He went on to note that “if you are in a rock and roll band, you don’t want to be in the photograph with some people who might have polarizing opposite values [from those] you hold dear, and I did that to them.” As Aranguren jokes, “The group has a lot of haters… It’s also because they put themselves out there to get beat up. It must be something to do with Christian guilt [he laughs]. They seem to like it, [it’s] Irish sadomasochism. But, all joking aside, I think they also laugh at it themselves.”

Bono appealed to that same sense of religious forgiveness in one of his most recent interviews (on Apple Music) in a statement that sums up the U2 universe: “I apologize for having the unreasonableness of youth as I enter my 60s. I apologize for being a singer who will get in your face whatever direction you’re looking. I apologize for not being shy or retiring and for loudly giving thanks for where I go to work. I apologize for stretching our band to its elastic limit. I apologize for wanting to make an unreasonable guitar record that rattles my cage and others. I apologize for repeating over and over, that rock and roll is not dead, it’s just older and grumpier, and occasionally makes fireworks out of its mood changes. But most of all, I apologize for apologizing.”

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