If you walk away, U2 will follow. At least they will if the destination is Las Vegas. Hot on the heels of the announcement of the dates of Adele’s delayed residency — she’ll be performing 32 shows at Caesars Palace between November this year and March next year — come reports that Bono and company are to be the next global music franchise to set course for the bright lights of Sin City.
The Irish band will be the first act booked at the $1.8 billion, 17,500-capacity MSG Sphere when the venue opens, next to the Vegas strip, next year, according to Billboard magazine. U2 will pitch their tent at the Sphere for a “multishow” residency that will be “spread out over several months and be performed on non-consecutive days”.
Vegas might seem a strange fit for U2. With its erupting volcano, Venetian canals, Eiffel Tower and glut of themed hotels, including one in the shape of a pyramid, the resort city is synonymous with artifice and a particular type of glamour: the goal is fun, not earnestness or authenticity. U2 may have gone in for big mullets and big mirror shades in their time, but they’re also about big gestures, about an enduring emotional connection.
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From another angle it makes perfect sense for U2 to do Vegas, however. They’ve been trying for years to hold on to the yearning, striving quality that was a signature of their early music. Yet a lot has changed since Bono, Edge, Adam Clayton and Larry Mullen jnr were four scampish outsiders from the northside of Dublin. They’ve been millionaires for longer than Ed Sheeran has been alive. And their bloodless recent albums appear to have demonstrated that, when you hit a certain level of success, it’s nigh on impossible to tap into the emotions that drove you in the formative years of your career.
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Far better, perhaps, to focus on the music that made you famous — even if the danger is that the best-case scenario ends up being that you bash out acceptable pastiches of the songs so beloved by your audience, with the worst case being that you tumble face first into self-parody. Fans will agree to disagree about which category best defines U2′s most recent LPs, Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience, from 2014 and 2017. But they will surely accept that these were U2′s worst records by some distance — followed closely by the epic dud that was No Line on the Horizon, from 2009. No Hits on the Horizon might have been a better title.
Terrifyingly, the last really decent U2 long player, How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb, is nearly 20 years old.
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With their creativity seemingly hollowed out, artists of U2′s status have two choices. They can follow the REM route of calling it quits, to avoid inflicting further damage on their reputation, or they can look to The Rolling Stones and become a living jukebox. U2 already took a step in that direction by building an entire tour around The Joshua Tree, their 1987 masterpiece (a high point for U2, for records named after desert shrubbery, and for Bono’s mullet). So a Vegas residency where fans will flock to hear the U2 equivalents of Jumpin’ Jack Flash, Gimme Shelter and Start Me Up is perhaps just the logical next step.
It certainly has the potential to earn them a huge amount of money. Celine Dion broke records with her two Las Vegas residencies, selling more than 4.5 million tickets — and grossing $681 million, or about €665 million at today’s exchange rate, in ticket sales — between 2003 and 2019. That makes the $330 million Elton John reportedly generated with his Red Piano and (aptly named) Million Dollar Piano residencies seem feeble in comparison.
Those artists performed in Vegas hundreds of times — in fact, Dion put on 1,141 shows there. U2 won’t be doing anything like that, at least not yet. And although some of their fans might regard this move as a tragedy, it does suggest that U2 have found a solution to their existential quandary, finally prepared to accept that their days as a living, breathing creative entity are drawing to a close. The new U2 will never be as good as the old U2, so why persist with the fiction that they are?
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As U2 will doubtless recall, Nevada was also the starting point of their patchy Pop-Mart tour, in 1997. They rushed into those dates without a set list nailed down and with the odd idea of parodying capitalism while zipping around on private jets and earning millions. That was a low point for U2, and their subsequent recovery is a reminder that they’ve overcome daunting odds before.
So they may look on Vegas not as a glorified retirement but as an opportunity to reinvent themselves as Stones-adjacent living icons. This deep into their careers, maybe it’s the best that they and their fans could hope for. And if it’s an opportunity to hear timeless postpunk delights such as I Will Follow, Sunday Bloody Sunday and Bad over and over, who’s complaining?