We reviewed their five-star masterpiece No Line on the Horizon in our last issue, and now U2 return to the cover of Rolling Stone. (Watch exclusive footage shot by photographer and filmmaker Anton Corbijn at the band's RS photo session above, and don't miss our look back at U2's epic career in photos).
Our new issue finds Brian Hiatt trailing the world's biggest band from its Horizon recording sessions in England to its Dublin headquarters ("it could pass for, say, Google's Dublin branch, save for the Elvis memorabilia on the walls" he says) to President Obama's inauguration festivities. Hiatt was also there as the world got its first taste of the Horizon single "Get on Your Boots" during a guy-liner enhanced performance at this year's Grammy Awards:
"I thought I looked very sexy in eye makeup," (Bono) half-jokes afterward. The look, he explains, was meant to be more Elvis than emo. It turns out to be the beginning of a new character he's trying out, in the spirit of the Zoo TV Tour's leathered-up Fly and devil-horned MacPhisto: "I was calling him Elvis' dead brother, Jesse — which maybe is in poor taste. It's still in development! I started just messing with it a few weeks ago."
Judging by online chatter, the only thing that confounded the public more than the sight of a glam Bono was the song he was singing. Few seemed to know what to make of a U2 song that combines a Zeppelin-y fuzz riff with electronic beats and lyrics about sexy boots. The single was not an instant smash, and Bono acknowledges some doubts. "I was going off the song myself for a minute," he says. "And then the Grammys really put me back on it. I really enjoyed performing it. It's gonna take a little longer to stick. It was never an obvious first single because it's not straight-ahead rock or straight-ahead anything. But it is sly and charming and sexy and playful ... and serious. It's an earnest love song. That's what's beautiful about it."
Bono, it seems, takes the art of the single seriously, seemingly placing him at philosophical odds with producer Brian Eno, who brought his experimental sensibility to Horizon.
"It is the very life force of rock & roll: vitality, succinctness and catchiness, whether it's the Sex Pistols, Nirvana, the Pixies, the Beatles, the Who, the Rolling Stones. ... When rock music forgets about the 45, it tends toward progressive rock, which is like a mold that grows on old, burned-out artists who've run out of ideas. We have a soundtrack/Pink Floyd side of our band, and it has to be balanced by fine songwriting. And it's an infuriating thing for me to see indie rock & roll give up the single to R&B and hip-hop. And that's why I love the Kings of Leon album or the Killers album: These are people who have such belief in their musical power that they refuse to ghettoize it."
Bono pauses, and returns to the subject of his friend Eno. "What he's listening for is a unique feeling, a unique mood and a unique palate. And he doesn't get hits — I bet he told Coldplay to leave 'Viva la Vida' off their album. Brian would listen to '(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction' and say, 'I love that song, but can we get rid of the guitar bits? You know, the part that goes duhnt-duhnt-dunna dun?' "
True to form, Bono already has a plan for the first single from the band's next album. RS uncovered details of that project, described as "a sister release to No Line on the Horizon, a Zooropa to its Achtung Baby," which could arrive within the year.
Bono already knows the title — Songs of Ascent — and the first single, a surging anthem called "Every Breaking Wave" that was left off No Line at the last minute. Songs of Ascent will be quieter than No Line; in many ways, it's that ghost album of hymns and Sufi singing. "We're making a kind of heartbreaker, a meditative, reflective piece of work, but not indulgent," Bono says. "It will all have a clear mood, like Kind of Blue. Or A Love Supreme would be a point of reference, for the space it occupies in people's lives, which is to say, with that album, I almost take my shoes off to listen to it."
In addition to the seemingly endless studio sessions and the unprecedented push for No Line on the Horizon, Bono and the Edge are moving ahead with their contribution to Julie Taymor's web-slinging musical "Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark," which Bono previewed during a brief drive.
The first song Bono plays on the Maserati's more-than-adequate sound system is called "Boy Falls From the Sky," with Across the Universe star Jim Sturgess singing as Peter Parker. It sounds a lot like a U2 hit, especially when Bono sings along in the car with the line "I used to use a single thread to cross the sky." "Killer!" he shouts as the song wraps up, and then he plays a choral, operatic segue. When Bono's assistant calls on his cell, he cuts the conversation short: "We're in the middle of an opera here!"
Clayton and Mullen haven't even heard what Bono calls the "spider songs" yet, but the singer is hopeful that he can convince them to release the tunes in the form of a U2 album. "If we do, it'll be a monster, 'cause it's the most accessible music we've probably ever written," Bono says. "It could be our Tommy. We could do it with guest stars and everything."
Mullen, however, isn't sold on it, calling the whole thing "a Bono and Edge project."
The complete story behind No Line on the Horizon can be found in the new issue of Rolling Stone, on newsstands now.
And for an exclusive look at the band's upcoming stadium tour, check out Bono Previews U2's Innovative No Line on the Horizon Tour