This review previously appeared on Alt Philanthropy, an online music publication active from March 2016 to April 2020.
For as long as U2 has been in existence, the band has been intrinsically linked to raising awareness of social issues. Their first number-one album was War (1983), a harsh plea for nonviolence. Smash-hit tracks off of War include the protest-anthems “Sunday Bloody Sunday” and “New Year’s Day” – both subtle odes to resistance movements.
Late last October, I had the opportunity to attend the final show of U2’s eXPERIENCE + iNNOCENCE tour at the O2 Arena. I was not surprised that with such origins, the show was political since its first moment.
An audio-visual display featuring a voiceover by Adenoid Hynkel, a character from Charlie Chaplin’s famous film The Great Dictator, ushered the audience into the action. In the voiceover, Hynkel spoke of peace and tolerance while the visuals displayed a war-torn European city. The audience was immediately immersed in this through the use of a massive LED screen surrounding an interior walkway that connected stages at either end of the arena. By the end of the introduction U2 was revealed to be already positioned behind the screen, ready to sing “The Blackout”.
The set carried on with stunning visuals and vaguely autobiographical storylines, detailing the progression that propelled U2 from school-boys to international superstars. The design thrived graphically and continually offered stunning videography and animation that brought new life to classic tracks. I was particularly taken by the audio-visual elements that introduced “The Fly” and “Even Better Than The Real Thing”. Mid-show, there was an intermission where the political symbolism of the eXPERIENCE + iNNOCENCE tour only intensified. Taking centre stage on the main screen was a visual of a female solider, the same solider that was featured on the cover of Songs of Experience, along with an accompanying acoustic cover of Ivor Cutler and Linda Hirst’s “Women of The World”. The song urged women to play a role in social change “because if [they] don’t the world will come to an end and it won’t take long.” The presentation ended with a message of support for Bono’s Women of the World Takeover campaign and an outcry against the sexism of poverty.
In what was perhaps the most poignant moment of the night, Bono dedicated “One” to Brexiteers while standing in front of a massive European Union flag. He addressed Britain on behalf of the other European Union member states, proudly proclaiming his love for the United Kingdom and his belief that the UK would be greater if it retained European Union membership. The European Union flag became the pulpit of the O2 Arena and three-levels of seating echoed in rebellious song. I soon found myself singing lyrics that I had heard countless times before with new, revitalised meaning.
In line with this political critique there was an ode to MacPhisto – Bono’s devilish alter ego. After gracing a smaller stage and being nearly one with the general admission crowd, Bono donned his MacPhisto persona through an augmented reality device. The performance was strikingly similar to that of the 1991 Zoo TV Tour (albeit without the grandeur of MacPhisto’s trademark platform boots). My only criticism is the lack of true activism in this performance. With the grandeur of MacPhisto’s past, I expected an impassioned telephone call instead of a nostalgic accessory, but the authenticity displayed in the rest of their performance made this easily forgivable.
Even though technology was interwoven with every aspect of the show, it never felt as if U2 was grasping for relevancy. With the days of iPhone stunts behind them, they delivered an excellent performance that was as focused on social issues as it was showmanship. The band stands by their convictions and commitment to easing global suffering, no matter the political sphere, which may be their most endearing quality in the modern age.
U2 is charmingly socially aware, talented and just a hint hedonistic. They don’t just know that they’re good, they indulge it. In a moment of well-deserved narcissism, Bono shouted “Paul is dead, I’m fucking Bono” as the audience screamed his praises. It was a justified acknowledgement of success from the frontman of one of the greatest bands of the last century, and in that moment, I felt as if I too could be something.
You can purchase the Songs of Experience album here.