Island 2014
Danger Mouse

U2 marches back to consciousness with 'Invisible'



The fact that I noticed that U2 was releasing a new single at all is a testament to the randomness of my focus that night.

During the Super Bowl last week, a gleeful dismantling of the Denver Broncos by the Seattle Seahawks, were more than a few moments of misplaced merchandising masquerading as important pop culture. The commercials were often bizarre and, at best, forgettable. Bruno Mars and the Red Hot Chili Peppers karaoked their way through a 12-minute set aimed to please those in the middle still paying attention. Every two minutes, there was a car, a beer, an anthropomorphic animal or a pop song blaring out of the TV. Beyond that, interceptions and fumbles courtesy of the Seattle defense. I was much more invested in the food at my friend’s house.

That I was even conscious for U2’s spot promoting their new single was a minor miracle. The band will be releasing their 13th studio album later this year, and ahead of that, during the game they unveiled “Invisible” as a free download via iTunes, with Apple chipping in a dollar from all downloads towards (RED) to fight AIDS. A good cause and a free song were enough to catch my attention, apparently, and when I got home, I found the song and added it to my library.

“Invisible,” beyond it’s admirable intentions, is an excellent song. Marrying a rapturous chorus with little electronic flairs, it sounds immediate and out of time, as if it could have popped up on one of their eighties records. It displays the band’s strengths in a way that feels familiar without working in the realm of self plagiarism, and for a band that’s been at it for about 35 years, being able to mine fresh material from a familiar source is an achievement unto itself. And it’s a reminder that U2 is still a band to be reckoned with.

Myriad charitable causes aside, I tend to lose track of U2 lately. The distance between 2000’s All That You Can’t Leave Behind and 2004’s How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb was long enough that I drifted away musically; being unimpressed (and more than a little annoyed) by the lead single “Vertigo” probably pushed me farther away than I should have gone. It was significant enough that 2009’s No Line on the Horizon barely flickered across my radar.

But “Invisible” seemed like a simple enough proposition, one that was certainly worth the time needed for a free download. And it was good, so before long, the U2 albums already in my collection appeared dustier than they should, and the tour began. It started with “Bad” and The Unforgettable Fire, as it always seems to, and before long I was bouncing to The Joshua Tree, back to 1983 and War and zipping up to their 1991 rebirth on Achtung Baby.

In terms of the “anthemic return to form” that U2 has made old hat in the second half of their career, however, the gold standard might be “Walk On,” from All That You Can’t Leave Behind. “Walk On” belongs to a time and place, of course, and that time and place for me is on a sunny day tooling around Southern New England with a discman plugged into my Saturn’s stereo. But more than that, it’s a feeling one of both hopefull- and hopelessness, of being limitless and set adrift in an empty landscape.

The song conveys an authentic emotional pull, which, for someone so omnipresent as Bono, is no automatic achievement. The years of celebrity can work against a singer in this realm, but despite the years and songs and public service announcements, he sounds as sincere as ever.

It’s the dual message of “Walk on, stay safe tonight” that instills in the listener — and the song’s subject — the sensation of both being in control and sitting in need of support. Keep your head up, but watch out and don’t be afraid to ask for help. Without explicitly detailing any of these motions in the lyrics, instead all the pillars and cornerstones are laid there, waiting to be built upon by the listener’s imagination. Whatever’s going on, this song addresses none of it directly and all of it sonically.

And because of that, it shifts beyond mere time and adapts as needed. It’s been more than 13 years since this song was released, and it would easily sound as fresh as “Invisible” were it sent out to listeners today. Like “Invisible,” it retains several of the classic touchtones of U2’s sound while remaining immediate and relevant. Not quite a year after its appeared, it became an anthem in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks. It lives on in playlists and montages. It’s always there, waiting to be rediscovered. It’s not going away.

All this — the nostalgia and rediscovery and reawakening — was sparked by this new single, of course. “Invisible” is good enough that it’s sent me back crawling through the catalog and has left me feeling excited for the next album. In the middle of one of the bleakest cash-grab nights in America, U2 found a way above. Maybe it’s finally time to pick up No Line on the Horizon, too.

Feb. 10, 2014

Email Nick Tavares at nick@staticandfeedback.com