Anyone hoping that 2023 will bring a tour from U2, which last hit the road in 2019, may be in for some disappointment. Drummer Larry Mullen Jr. says in a new interview that if U2 did tour next year, it would be without him, as he faces surgery that he expects to take him out of commission for a while.
Mullen was interviewed, along with the other three members, by the Washington Post for a band profile tied to the quartet’s acceptance of a lifetime achievement award at the Kennedy Center Honors this weekend. The piece says the usually press-shy drummer was doing his first interview in seven years. Although he is paraphrased and not directly quoted about the band’s immediate future, what he was described as saying — buried in an aside deep into the article — immediately piqued the interest of U2 fans awaiting announcements or even hints about their return.
“He’s blunt,” Post staffer Geoff Edgers writes, noting that Mullen “says if the band plays live in 2023 it will probably be without him, as he needs surgery to continue playing.”
That statement is not elaborated on and the kind of surgery the drummer requires is not described.
This diminishing of touring expectations comes even as the band is described in the article as having two albums in the wings that are either completed or close to it. The album of all-new originals is the long-discussed “Songs of Ascent,” described in the piece as “nearly finished.” The other is the much-rumored “Surrender,” which is said to include 40 stripped-down versions of U2 catalog songs written about in Bono’s new memoir of the same name. Of “Ascent,” the article says that “Bono and the Edge aren’t sure when to release it” (and adds, “They aren’t sure about a lot”); neither is any date given for the “Surrender” album.
In describing the “blunt” posture of Mullen, who is “the least public of the group’s four members, by far,” Edgers says that the drummer “admits the dynamics in the band are not the same as they were decades ago. As the ’80s wore on and U2’s stature grew, band decisions would be made by what they called the ‘Politburo,’ named after the policymaking committees in most communist systems. In Mullen’s view, the system that served the band well for so long has now become more of a benevolent dictatorship.”
The story quotes Mullen as saying, “You only do this if you’re having the best time. And not everyone is going to make it because the price is so high. So I think the challenge is for more generosity. More openness to the process. I am autonomous and I value my autonomy. I don’t sing from the same hymn sheet. I don’t pray to the same version of God. So everyone has their limits. And you only do this if it is a great time you’re having, you know?”
It’s not altogether clear whether Mullen is emphasizing these feelings as current, historical or both, as the Post piece is largely a retrospective one that looks at all the hurdles U2 faced in staying together in decades past, leading with “an almost-breakup story” set in 1990, as they switched approaches and began to find a new footing with the making of “Achtung Baby.”
“We come close to breaking up much more often than you’d think,” Bono told the Post. “Usually after the really good albums, because they cost you in personal relationships because you’re pushing each other and get really at your elastic limit.”
(Amusingly, Jimmy Iovine describes the album that preceded “Achtung,” “Rattle and Hum,” as his own personal career tipping point. “I stopped producing recordings because ‘Rattle and Hum’ almost put me in a box,” the producer-turned-mogul tells the newspaper.)
The sound of “Ascent,” which Bono and the Edge were describing as a work well-in-progress a year ago, is further characterized by the singer as “this unreasonable guitar record that we all want to make,” and possibly harder-edged than other late-period records in U2’s career. He also admits that the importance of the album format itself has lessened. “I don’t know if you can capture people for a whole album. But what if it was just an EP or just one song that could burst through? We don’t need it on the pop charts. We don’t. But we need people to pass it around.”
Bono has stayed busy during band hiatuses, not only releasing the highly acclaimed “Surrender” book but doing a very limited number of solo tour dates behind it, in which he recites passages while acting them out and sings snippets of relevant songs backed by a three-piece band. His U.S. one-nighters in small halls recently wrapped up, and the singer is doing a European leg now. Bono says in the story he has no interest in a solo album.
U2’s last new album, “Songs of Experience,” came out almost exactly five years ago — on Dec. 1, 2017. Following the tour for that album, the group’s most recent outing in 2019 was themed as a retrospective “Joshua Tree” tour.
After being filmed this weekend, the Kennedy Center Honors show in which U2 is being celebrated will air on CBS Dec. 28.