In a piece written for Rolling Stone 20 years ago this month, producer Brian Eno identified why the rock band U2 is singularly enduring and enervating. “Cool,” he wrote, “sums up just about everything U2 isn’t. The band is positive where cool is cynical, involved where it is detached, open where it is evasive.” For 35 years, rock journalists, culture’s self-appointed guardians of cool, have monitored U2’s ups and downs, smash hits and embarrassments. The relationship between critics and the band was fraught from the start, with their anthemic, highly emotive music winning them millions of fans but just as many skeptics. The rock of rebellion and decadence seemed allergic to a band this earnest, emotive, inclusive, politically engaged, and, worst of all, openly Christian. You couldn’t invent a more mock-worthy outfit.
Cool or not, Bono and co. have done quite well for themselves. They’ve sold a gazillion records, have been the no. 1 live act for a few decades, were elected into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in their first year of eligibility, and are globally unavoidable—advocating for U2 is like telling someone to pay more attention to Steven Spielberg. This fall marks the 20th anniversary of their best and most important album, Achtung Baby. A remastered, deluxe box set of the album drops this week, and Showtime will debut the Davis Guggenheim documentary From the Sky Down, which revisits that album's tumultuous recording sessions. With R.E.M. recently giving up the ghost, U2 is basically the last band standing from the Album Oriented Rock era. Inspired by punk but drawn to pomp, suckers for abstract textures but addicted to pop, the band has straddled the realms of art and commerce more audaciously than any other in rock's history. They've sincerely tried to change the world and have strived to remain the best band in the world—differently ambitious, equally dubious pursuits. Yet for the moment, let’s put aside Bono's blathering public persona—his extra-musical forays into politics, policy, and wraparound-specs addiction—and just talk about the music and its impact on the culture.