John Waters pens a scathing indictment of U2’s sad decline over at First Things:
U2 were not natural-born rock ’n’ rollers. Raised in middle-class estates in an area of Dublin where the rivers had been concreted over to build houses, they went in search of the roots of this music that entranced them, scrambling in the mud of the Mississippi for the blue notes that would resonate with the ineffable parts of themselves. They had no particular skills, just raw instinct, street smarts, and five loaves and two fishes’ worth of inchoate talent. They couldn’t play other people’s songs, so they wrote their own, strange lolloping tunes that sounded like they had been made by teenagers from outer space.
They were gauche and naïve. The British rock press hated them, so they went to America, read their way into the spirits of the originals, finding tones and harmonies to match their hearts’ desire and writing songs around them that were like the missing links of the rock ’n’ roll story. Within a few years, they fetched up on the cover of Time as the Greatest Rock ’n’ roll Band in the World. The four Dublin neophytes became the darlings of the dinosaurs, like Bob Dylan, Johnny Cash, and B.B. King. And they really had broken the code, producing two of the greatest albums to grace the pantheon, The Joshua Tree in 1987 and Achtung Baby four years later.
In the beginning, three of them had been born-again Christians. The exception was Adam, at the time the band’s Dionysian token, now the saintly one abed with his cocoa while Bono burns the candle down the dens of Bacchanalia, his arm around Noel Gallagher.
It’s hard to say where they stand with Jesus these days. He’s still there in (some of) the lyrics, but sometimes you get to thinking that the U2 trajectory looks more and more like a belated discovery of the delights they eschewed in youth, a front-loading of the piety of age followed by an eruption into delayed adolescence.
In the beginning they wore their hearts on their album sleeves, unabashedly proclaiming their faith in songs like “Gloria,” “Tomorrow,” and “40.” After their third album, War, the Christian element became more subtle, and remained so. With Achtung Baby, they went ironic, adapting the Berlin industrial harmonic clangor developed by Bowie and Eno for Low, Heroes, and Iggy Pop’s masterpieces The Idiot and Lust for Life.
But Achtung Baby was the beginning of a Faustian pact, struck at the end of a very tricky tightrope. Next, U2 entered an experimental phase that threw up numerous distinct possibilities. Pop, their 1995 album, was too diverse to be a popular hit, though it contained some of their finest work, and possibly their best song, the psalmsesque blues hymn “Wake Up Dead Man,” a blast of rage at God in the hope He might show Himself in His own defense. And perhaps it was the lukewarn response to that album that caused U2 to steer back into the mainstream in search of the essence of whatever it was that had worked for them in the first place. Panic set in, leading to U2’s creative descent into self-pastiche, while commercially they surged forward in leaps and bounds.
In the end, all you could say is that they settled for less than they promised. Having become themselves by remaining aloof from rock’s narcotics and narcissism, they gradually settled deeper into the embrace of the vacuity they had eschewed. More and more, their public stances seemed to be about attitude, about being cool, about remaining top of the league.
U2 has settled so determinedly into the mainstream of contemporary rock culture that it has now finally waived the role of re-evangelizing the music’s sacred roots, and is accordingly all but redundant. Once a band uniquely capable of standing against the seduction of the material, U2 has become indistinguishable from the herd it has latterly so assiduously courted, volunteering for enslavement to fashion, cool, and emptiness.