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U2: Hymns for the Future

How the world's biggest band rebooted its soul

March 19, 2009 12:00 AM ET

Below is an excerpt of an article that originally appeared in 1074 from March 19, 2009. This issue and the rest of the Rolling Stone archives are available via Rolling Stone Plus, Rolling Stone's premium subscription plan. If you are already a subscriber, you can click here to see the full story. Not a member? Click here to learn more about Rolling Stone Plus.

It should have been enough, even for Bono. Lincoln behind him, Obama to his right, a crowd of 400,000 stretched to the Washington Monument. A chance to quote the "I have a dream" speech from the very spot where Martin Luther King Jr. delivered it. "Not a bad gig," U2's singer says with a grin, shaking his head afterward in the band's cramped backstage trailer. Bono's eyes are hidden under orange shades; his close-cropped hair has a section shaved to the scalp on each side, like racing stripes for his brain. "That crowd! I suppose the fact that I thought I could bond with every single one of them is early — or later — signs of megalomania."

But Bono can't help thinking about his original plan: King on the video screens, his 1963 speech ringing out again on the National Mall — and when the crowd heard "Thank God almighty, we are free at last," U2 would have slammed into "Pride (In the Name of Love)." Instead, the song got a muted intro from Samuel L. Jackson. "They pulled the speech last night," sighs Bono, still wearing a black scarf from his stage outfit, with a Rilke poem about God and nature printed on it. "We were out with [David] Axelrod and Rahm [Emanuel] and the Obama team, and they said it was a modesty thing. They thought it was presumptuous. Do you get that? I mean, it's great that they're being cautious — but it would have been great for the King family to see that."

The Edge, uncharacteristically giddy after the performance's adrenaline blast, chimes in. "I can see how they were thinking," he says. "I'm not sure I agree. Obama is a modest guy, and he's really careful about being presumptuous and self — lionizing." The guitarist pauses and smiles, eyes gleaming beneath his black ski cap. "We don't suffer from these problems. We just go for it."

A few weeks earlier, U2 finished their 11th studio album, No Line on the Horizon — which fuses the spiritual uplift of their Eighties work with the future-shock sonics of their Nineties albums. The result is some of the most moving, adventurous music of their career, from the churning polyrhythms of the title track to the ghostly minimalism of the closer, "Cedars of Lebanon." And despite living in a time where, as Bono puts it, "only teenage girls and very, very honest people" pay for music, they spared neither time nor expense in pursuit of their vision.

"It is now easier and more affordable to record a song than at any other time in the history of recorded music," says bassist Adam Clayton. "Unless you're U2." It was a superstar album-as-art project, with no deadlines on the horizon: During two years of scattered sessions, they recorded in France, London, New York, Dublin and Fez, Morocco. Longtime producers Daniel Lanois and Brian Eno were along for the ride, with the pair emerging as full songwriting partners for the first time — it was Lanois, for instance, who came up with the chorus melody for a key track, "Moment of Surrender."

On their first two albums this decade, U2 reclaimed their core sound and their mass audience — but along the way, they started to feel like they were playing it safe. So despite the successes of the past eight years, the band went into these sessions feeling like everything was on the line. "We were fighting for our relevance," says the Edge. "We felt like we can't really afford not to be innovative."

Adds Bono, "There is the defying — gravity aspect of it. There's this fear that this might be the one where the nose of the plane starts to dip down. It's very hard when you see talents and prolific imaginations that are so great, and wonder, 'Where'd it go?' And then you think, 'That can happen to us! In fact, it's likely to. And what might stop it?'"

Bono rounds a corner onto a narrow Dublin street, boots crunching on old cobblestone, sleek, black double-breasted overcoat flapping in the January breeze. The street's only occupants, a flock of fat pigeons, wobble into the air to get out of his way. Bono stretches an arm to try to touch one of them as it flutters overhead. "One beak to another," he says with a laugh. His enthusiasm and charisma are such that it's hard not to laugh with him, even if you don't quite get the joke. "The Dublin walk, by the way, is called 'the pigeon,' " Bono says. "You probably haven't seen it yet." He demonstrates, breaking into a thuggish pimp strut, and laughs again.

He's running late for his next appointment, which is not unusual in what must be one of the most overstuffed lives on the planet: "part-time" rock stardom; global advocacy for Africa's poor that's won him nominations for the Nobel Peace Prize; various multinational business and charitable ventures; an op-ed column for The New York Times; and four kids with Ali Hewson, his wife of 26 years. "I find it very hard to leave home," he says, "because my house is full of laughter and songs and kids."

Earlier, he had also been late for lunch. "My wife is out of town with her clothing line, and I had to get the kids off to school," he apologized. Of his multitasking, he says, "I wanna squeeze every drop out of the day. But it's also the tyranny of good ideas, y'know, because if you spot one, or if you have one, then you think you have to follow through on it. And that might be a psychosis — I may have to get that fixed."

Psychotic or not, he's in an ebullient mood. This is his town; these are his streets. And with the Obama inauguration looming, he's hopeful about the future — though he is as worried as anyone about the global financial crisis, which is hitting Ireland hard. "Very serious matter," he says. "I get really nervous when some of the smartest people I know — some of the smartest people in the world — don't know what's about to happen. I believe, in the end, creativity thrives in difficult conditions. I think we'll see some amazing things come out of this, though my heart goes out to people losing their jobs.

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