Last Thanksgiving weekend, families across America gathered around the TV to watch 60 Minutes and wonder the same thing: What the hell is up with U2? As Bono and the Edge previewed songs they wrote for the Broadway musical Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark, your parents probably asked you some tough questions: “Wait, these guys are still famous, right? Didn’t they just make an excellent album in 2009? Aren’t they in the middle of the highest-grossing tour in the history of showbiz? Why are they doing this?”
But that’s the thing about U2: “Why are they doing this?” is their favorite question. They love to try crazy moves nobody would expect, just to see if they can get away with it. Sometimes that means trying to boogie with a single called “Discotheque.” Sometimes it means letting the Edge rap. Sometimes it means emerging onstage from a 40-foot rotating lemon. That’s always been a key element to U2’s greatness: These lads have no fear of looking absurd on an epic scale.
Everything about the stage production of Spider-Man has been tinged with mythic disaster, from the $65 million budget to the way it poses the biggest health threat to arachnids since Raid. But if you’re hoping for train wrecks on the soundtrack, you’ll be disappointed, because Bono and the Edge know their songwriting, even as they tone it down for the ill-fitting medium of the Broadway show tune. For the most part, the songs come off as slightly vague sketches for U2 songs. The theater-trained singers sound stiff when they try Bono-worthy emoting. Reeve Carney, in the role of Peter Parker, has some passable growls in “Boy Falls From the Sky,” but he keeps reminding you of who he isn’t.
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Bono and the Edge appear on “Picture This” and “Rise Above 1,” which unsurprisingly are the best tracks here by a mile. The distant third-place honors go to “A Freak Like Me Needs Company,” a theme for the Green Goblin. It has the album’s only moments of humor, making a camp joke out of the show’s backstory: “If you’re looking for a night out on the town, you just found me/I’m a 65-million-dollar circus tragedy.”
Several moments on Spider-Man — the chorus of “Rise Above 1,” the guitar figure of “Bouncing Off the Walls” — remind you of U2. Sometimes they remind you of a U2 song you already love, as in the gorgeous coda to “Picture This,” which revamps “The Three Sunrises” from Wide Awake in America. But there aren’t any emotional climaxes — and those are what really make a U2 song.
No matter what happens with Spider-Man, it can’t hurt U2 — even though this gamble makes that giant-lemon tour look like a play-it-safe move. Hell, they could have banked easier money doing Achtung Baby: The Musical, with giant puppets bouncing around to “The Fly.” But U2 never seem satisfied taking the easy way, do they? And that’s why we love them.
Listen to “Rise Above 1”: