For me Bono’s most likeable – if sometimes excruciating – trait is how candid he is about his ambitions and excitement over each record his band makes. The Wikipedia pages for U2 records are always breadcrumb trails of aspirations, as one of the most interviewed, and most garrulous, men in rock lets us know just how things are going at every stage in the process.

Many of the group’s quotes are outrageously hyperbolic, the kind of thing young British bands used to say when goaded by the NME. So the demo that became “Vertigo” was “the mother of all rock’n’roll songs”; on it The Edge was “exploring rock’n’roll guitar and what it means in the 21st century”. But others strike a rather different note – “after 20 years it’s our first rock album”; “we’ve never been more contemporary”. Press lines like this from a 25-year old act are revealing. They’re not outright saying the words “return to form”, but the idea hangs in the air like an understood promise, and there’s an obvious insecurity around whether the group, all well into their 40s now, have the juice to deliver one.

There’s a stage a band hits where perpetual ‘returns to form’ might be the best you can hope for. The previous U2 record, All That You Can’t Leave Behind, was also very much presented as a back to basics deal, the group abandoning their experimental 90s directions in favour of a crowd-pleasing version of Classic U2 with the original gangly enthusiasm tamped down a bit. Turning their pastichist’s eye back onto themselves worked very well for one song, but the LP also signalled the beginning of a gentle slide into legacy act status. And from the tone of those Bono comments in the run up to “Vertigo”, there’s clearly some status anxiety. Shouldn’t the ‘biggest rock’n’roll band in the world’ be a little more relevant? Shouldn’t U2’s artistic peers be Interpol and The White Stripes, not the Red Hot Chili Peppers?

“Vertigo” tries dreadfully hard to feel spontaneous, a party rock anthem with Bono counting off in awkward Spanish and the band driving hard, grinding away on a stadium post-punk bass riff. But this is deceptive – read up on the song and you realise it had as agonised a birth as “Discotheque” or the Achtung Baby sessions, coming to the point of release under different titles before caution pulled Bono back. It’s manifestly unfair to suggest U2 weren’t ever risk takers, but even when making bold leaps from record to record they were a notably self-conscious band, always feeling, as one of Bono’s celebrity mates put it, the hand of history on their shoulder. “A feeling’s so much stronger than a thought” he sings – their working methods had belied that idea for decades.

Of course it doesn’t matter how calculated “Vertigo” was – far more important was whether it does the intended job, and the fact it’s become a staple for live U2 ever since rather suggests it did. In function if not quality it’s their “Start Me Up”: an ageing band kicking over the traces and making something hard and direct they can play with no embarrassment or awkwardness for decades to come. It’s not great art, it’s not stretching anybody, and the lyrics are a burble of Bono fridge poetry (“Bullets rip the sky of ink like gold”!!), but it’s a good band song. If the band had been taking notes from the garage rock revival, they were accurate ones. There’s a muscular core to “Vertigo” which makes it work as a stadium-scale rock song, and if it’s a little slick sonically it also pops enough to come out of radios hungry for airplay. It’s hard to get excited about, but it’s also hard to really fault. There was no convincing way Bono and company could have aped the new rock’s dissipated attitude as well as its sound.

In other words, “Vertigo” is as good as a 2004 U2 single with no new ideas could possibly be. If that sounds depressing, Bono’s ever-inflated expectations are probably more to blame than the track. You’re listening to a rousing, highly professional rock single of the sort the World’s Biggest Rock Band might play with no shame. It’s better than “Desire”, its mid-career equivalent, and it’s better than anything most of U2’s Q Awards peers could muster. The only thing it can’t do is what Bono most desperately wanted it to: matter.

Score: 6

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