U2: Stuck in a moment

It has been five years since U2’s last album, and their new one still isn’t quite ready. That hasn’t stopped Bono playing it to passing holidaymakers. What’s going on?

Poor Bono. There he is in his home in southern France last month, playing U2's unreleased new album at full volume on his stereo while, quite possibly, singing along into a hairbrush in front of the mirror. On the beach in front of the home someone just happens to be standing with an audio recorder. The overheard songs get put on a U2 fan site, the band's label instructs lawyers to remove them, and the kerfuffle gets splashed across the music press.

The dreadful bad luck is that just before U2 released their last album, No Line on the Horizon, five years ago, someone else just happened to be standing on the same beach in front of the same home with an audio recorder while Bono was blasting out that as-then-unreleased album on his stereo. The overheard songs got put up on a U2 fan site, the band's label instructed lawyers to remove them, and the kerfuffle got splashed across the music press.

The fan-site link to last month's leaked music says the track recorded on the beach was Song for Someone (which Bono has already confirmed will be on the new album). It goes on to say that the beach was full of people at the time and that Bono was playing the song "really loud . . . It seems like he's trying to tell us something – that the new album is coming soon."



The person who recorded the No Line on the Horizon tracks said at the time, "Every evening he starts playing these new songs really loud. The whole beach was listening, and he knew that. I sometimes think that Bono deliberately turns up the music just to stir up the fan base a little."

Going by U2 precedent, when leaked beach songs hit the internet, a new album is imminent. Just two weeks ago the band's label, Universal, tweeted on one of its South American accounts, "The new U2 album will be called 'Sirens' and will be released in September." Universal has since deleted the tweet.

The album seems to have been coming forever. In June 2012, talking on The Late Late Show, Bono said that "the new album is going incredibly quickly. We've got great stuff. We've just had the best three weeks in the studio. Three weeks is all it should take." Since then a "definite" release date of September 2013 has come and gone, as have many subsequent dates.

Single scramble

But a music industry source now predicts that there’ll be a “single in September, album September-October, tour announced December, first date April next year.

“The album has been actually been finished for a few months, but a decision was taken not to release during the summer months because of holidays etc. There was one last, frantic scramble earlier this year to get a big single, so they got Adele’s writer-producer, Paul Epworth, into the studio.”

The band are understood to have signed off on the album and tour schedule, but they have had last-minute changes of mind before.

One person who has heard the new album is Paul McGuinness, U2’s former manager. “It’s great. It’s very different from what they have done so far but still sounds like U2. Bono sings better than ever. As he gets older his voice is even more interesting,” he said at a music conference in May.

With the album appearing on and then being removed from Universal’s release schedule more than once this year, it is believed the band will release it with little of the fanfare usually associated with a new U2 album. David Bowie and Beyoncé have both unexpectedly put up new albums overnight and seem not to have lost any sales as a consequence.

When they released No Line on the Horizon, U2 blitzed the BBC in a day of television, radio and online appearances. The broadcaster later admitted that it had given the band "undue prominence", in breach of its editorial-independence policy, and that temporarily altering its logo to "U2=BBC" was inappropriate. So expect a softer release this time.

Even if the album appears on iTunes tomorrow, it will still be the longest-delayed U2 album since they began their recording career, in 1980 – and for a superstar band, album delays can hurt. A U2 tour makes the revenue from Garth Brooks’s five Croke Park shows that never were look like loose change: their last one was the most lucrative live-music tour of all time, earning more than $700 million in ticket sales. But U2 tend to tour only when they have a new album.

No Rolling Stones

Album delays usually come down to songs not coming together strongly or quickly enough, or to disagreements in the band. It’s the songs in this case, say sources. U2 are loath to become a “heritage act” in the manner of The Rolling Stones, playing their greatest hits for baby boomers every three years or so.

U2 believe they can still, 38 years into their career, compete in the singles charts against Calvin Harris and Rihanna – a faith that has only been reinforced by their belief that it was the lack of a hit single on their last album that led to its comparatively poor sales.

It is this search for a big single that has led to so many missed release dates. Talking freely to this reporter a few years ago at Toronto Film Festival, Bono said that "the last album didn't have one pop song on it, and Get On Your Boots was the wrong single. In the last few weeks of finishing the album and selecting a single, we didn't have the objectivity."

He also spoke about how the band had come close to breaking up during the fraught Achtung Baby recording sessions in Germany in the early 1990s, adding, about the early stages of this new album, “It’s actually worse for us now than it was when we went to Berlin. If we don’t come up with a very good reason to make a new album we should just f*** off.”

As the track listing and artwork are finalised this week for the new album, it's back into the fray for the band Time magazine once had on its cover as "rock's hottest ticket".

There have been no break-ups, walkouts or writer's block. They've just spent all these years looking for a Vertigo- or Beautiful Day-style single to announce their comeback. We'll know soon enough if they've found what they were looking for.