U2’s Achtung Baby is the greatest album ever made. Okay, maybe not to you, or to most of the Earth. But to 19-year-old me – the album was released the day before my 19th birthday – it was the most amazing and important record I’d ever heard, and it was followed the year after by the most amazing tour I’ve ever seen: Zoo TV. I know every note The Edge plays, and what guitar pedals he used to get each sound. I can hammer out every beat of Larry’s drums and know every word and every note of Adam’s basslines off by heart.
I’m not such a fan any more; I fell out of love with U2 around the late 1990s and while I’ve seen them a few times since – they remain a superb live band who do interesting things in arenas – I don’t experience the same fierce joy they used to give me. Bono’s increasing Sinatra-isation of his vocals when he does the songs live is a particular irritant for me, and the band have long passed the point where the new music matches the highs of the old. But nevertheless, when U2 announced that they’d be playing Achtung Baby in full in The Sphere, a new and exciting venue in Vegas, part of me really, really, really wanted to go. I can’t possibly afford it – the affordable (and that’s a relative term) tickets went fast so the cost of show, hotel and flights would have been way past £2K, which is madness to go and see a show. But I still really want to go. I mean, look at it!
Pictures don’t do it justice; you really need to see the video to appreciate the scale of it. And that’s where reality comes crashing in (assuming you can hear anything because of the constant whooping of audience members as the visuals change) because the videos demonstrate that, as my brother put it, it’d be great if it were soundtracked by the U2 of 1991. But it’s not. It’s soundtracked by the U2 of 2023.
U2 2023 isn’t U2 1991. It’s a different band not just because drummer Larry Mullen Jr is absent, recovering from back surgery. It’s a different band because the fire and energy of 1991’s U2 isn’t there any more, and because Bono’s voice isn’t what it used to be, and because a band that was once hungry and vital has mansions around the world and hangs around with presidents. Despite the big screen and the equally big revenues, playing a Vegas residency means exactly what it’s meant from the residencies of Elvis to those of Britney Spears: the creative well has run dry. Sure, there’s new music. But it’s not great music.
This happens with every band, or at least the ones who keep going; REM avoided the same fate by splitting up. I suspect U2 never will; as long as there’s breath in Bono’s body and a crowd to play to, he’ll perform. But they’re not the band they used to be, and can’t be – any more than I can be the person who fell in love with Achtung Baby more than 30 years ago. Nostalgia is a powerful thing, but perhaps some things are best left as memories.