In one of my favorites of his recent work, SFJ combs over U2's peculiar anti-charm. "The band has done relatively few cover versions, a tacit acknowledgment that its gift is peculiar and limited, despite its potency," he asserts, although the first clause doesn't necessarily lead to that conclusion.
As Mick Jagger has no doubt told Bono on many occasions, being a public figure is hell on your observational powers; it's difficult to concentrate on subtleties of human behavior when your fellow public figures speak in slogans and ad man propaganda. I can't discount the diminishing returns of the Eno-Lanois partnership either. While the latter is a supplicant to U2's idea of itself (rock stars who are Dublin boys Underneath It All), the former's choice of clients lately suggests a quiet panic about the currency of his aesthetic methods; it's possible that the keyboard blips and loops and illusion of endless space Eno always brings to a U2 project represent the return to first principles in which every self-styled intellectual revels, like one of those volcanic muds that spa employees smear over your pores. Ye Olde Rolling Stones have often produced compelling work at war with itself (and themselves) because the conservative forces at work in the band fulfill the late William F. Buckley, Jr.'s dictum. But U2 don't stand athwart history – they conceive themselves as history (has any band trafficked so long in pseudo-sheepish interviews about the role of thinking man's stadium rock?). Meanwhile the band's rootlessness produces gestures of rock inclusiveness like "Vertigo" and "Get On Your Boots" as hollow as the hole in the Edge's guitar.
I can't think of a band in so heartbreaking a position. Although I only started getting them with the Achtung Baby-Zooropa double shot that will likely remain their lasting achievements, it wasn't until I read Bill Flanagan's U2 At the End of the World that I was ready to give their back catalogue the benefit of the doubt. Flanagan's U2 is so self-aware yet so wide-eyed. Bono sounded like the missing link between Irish and Cuban shit-talkers. They were irresistible (then), so it disappointed me when every subsequent album failed to match the flawed, very interesting people Flanagan wrote about. Pop, All That You Can't Leave Behind, and How To Dismantle an Atom Bomb were lapidary efforts by a band on permanent holiday from itself, the work of dilettantes devoted to a work ethic that too closely mirrored the grind of democratic politicians on both sides of the Atlantic; like senators who likes to pretend they're not in safe seats, they immerse themselves in "policy" and parliamentary minutia to prove they've mastered an issue. Telling Edge to play the blues and getting away with American flag jacket linings, each incident thirteen years apart – the permanent campaign.