It has taken the group U2 a mere 10 years to rise from an Irish underground band to the most popular rock band in the world. And, remarkably, it has done it without ever trying to be the most popular. The group's sixth album, ``The Joshua Tree,'' is in the Top 10 after 32 weeks on the Billboard charts, and the band recently completed a world tour that included a concert here at Madison Square Garden.
U2 - and especially lead singer/guitarist Bono - has received so much adulation and media coverage that there can be no doubt the group's music exerts a profound influence on its listeners. But surprisingly, the key to that appeal hasn't been well understood.
The various interpretations have been at odds with one another and with the group's own statements about itself. Many critics have praised U2 for the social and religious ideals in its music and its emphasis on spiritual self-discovery. Time magazine, for example, called U2 ``a band with a conscience,'' comparing the group's idealism to that of the '60s and calling its music ``lyrical morality plays.'' The article went on to say, ``Without sermonizing, they have become a rallying point for a new and youthful idealism.''
USA Today called U2 ``progressive, ambitious, grounded in Christian beliefs.'' The Boston Globe referred to the band's moral integrity and ``overriding concern with spirituality.'' That same paper quoted fans who likened a U2 concert to ``a religious experience.''
Bono, however, has presented a somewhat different view. More than once, he has told the press he feels the spiritual aspect has been exaggerated. ``I've seen religion tear my own country in two,'' he told USA Today. Referring to his Roman Catholic upbringing, he added, ``People have tended to portray me as a strong man of faith. I'm a very weak man full of self-doubt.''
In an interview in Spin magazine, he stated (referring to ``The Joshua Tree''), ``That album is wrestling not just with myself, but wrestling with everything. Searching, and all that - on all those levels, I'm unhappy. There isn't a level I'm happy on, really.''
U2's other members - guitarist Edge, drummer Larry Mullen, and bassist Adam Clayton - also tend to back off from the labels slapped on the group, maintaining they're just a band - they just want to play music.
But perhaps a more serious contradiction lies between the uplifting effect U2's live concerts seem to have on their fans and the group's often-despairing lyrics.
Hearing U2's recordings and seeing them live in concert are two very different experiences. Musically, both on record and in performance, the band creates a kind of droning moodiness that is at once captivating and foreboding.
The single element that makes the difference in performance is the stage persona of Bono. At the Madison Square Garden concert, for example, he was charming, personable, even intimate - no mean feat in such a large venue. On three occasions he called audience members up on stage to join him. He projected a kind of dignified jauntiness that one sees in traditional Irish dancers.
``The Joshua Tree'' album, on the other hand, contrasts markedly with the cheery stage aura. Bono's lyrics are mostly dark images - of America, political oppression, religious questioning, agonizing relationships, war, and hypocrisy. The imagery is overwhelmingly on the side of resignation and hopelessness: ``In the howling wind comes a stinging rain/ See it driving nails into souls on the tree of pain...'' (from ``Bullet the Blue Sky''). ``I took the poison, from the poison stream/ And I floated out of here'' (from ``Running to Stand Still'').
Anthony DeCurtis has observed in Rolling Stone, ``U2's recent triumphs have raised vexing questions for Bono - artistic and personal questions all the more troubling because of the position of moral authority U2 has attained.'' Of ``The Joshua Tree'' Mr. DeCurtis said, ``The awesome, uplifting power of U2's live shows will probably obscure the fact that the album is as foreboding a record as can be imagined.''
Do U2's young fans pay much attention to the lyrics? At the concert I attended, many knew the words well enough to sing along.
To this listener, the tone of the U2 lyrics, combined with the immense appeal its music and the agonized emotionalism of Bono's singing, have a depressing effect after a while. The messages U2 seems to be sending out are conflicting at best: hope and spirituality; hopelessness and evil; joy and despair.
Members of U2 have said since the beginning that their music isn't about answers - it's about the search for answers, perhaps best expressed in a song from ``The Joshua Tree'': ``I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For.''
Maybe it's time to set aside the simplistic media labels and take a more sophisticated view of this dynamic band.