Trading a woozy tingle for a restorative jolt, Bono and Edge abruptly switch from margaritas to coffee as they prepare to leave their hotel for a rehearsal stage in downtown Los Angeles. They grew accustomed to such giddy and pronounced mood swings while recording U2's 12th album, No Line on the Horizon, a kaleidoscopic quest that rivals 1991's Achtung Baby for audacity and innovation.
"We had to learn a lot before we could do this," Bono, 48, says. "Normally, you zone in on a particular area and make it your own. On this, we seemed to be able to meander from joy to despair, from introspection to exhibitionism. And there's a lot of humor. I'm surprised, because people don't generally buy a U2 album for the laughs.
"There's fun and frolics here. Real joy, and that's the essence, the life force, of rock 'n' roll."
One of the year's most eagerly anticipated albums, Horizon is garnering raves for brazen and byzantine sonic architecture that rises from U2's familiar foundation of heartfelt rock. The 11-track disc, out Tuesday, found the Irish foursome recording in Morocco, then in Dublin and later in New York and London. The album closes the band's longest gap between studio albums, following 2004's How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb, which sold 9 million copies worldwide and generated eight Grammys.
Edge, 47, is relieved to emerge from what he calls the "oil rig" after a long spell of concentrated but isolating creativity with Bono, drummer Larry Mullen Jr. and bassist Adam Clayton. Horizon's lengthy gestation wasn't the result of setbacks or writer's block, but rather a geyser of impulses and detours.
"We would have loved to finish the album last summer, but the songs weren't finished with us," says Edge, sharing a couch with Bono in a Chateau Marmont bungalow cluttered with video gear. "Realizing there was more to this album than what we had, we kept going. We dropped two or three songs, finished up others. It would have been a darker record before."
At Mullen's urging, the band had no timetable and missed the lucrative fall release schedule.
By briefly considering a late 2008 release date, "we lost our way a bit, but when we blew out the deadline, we came back," Bono says. "When anyone said, 'Look, we have to put this out,' Larry said, 'Oh, it's going to ruin everything.' We were making music for its own sake and for each other, and Larry wanted to keep that as long as we could. It was a lovely thing to be lost in."
More cloistered than on past efforts, the band "wasn't thinking about who would be listening to the music in the future or how it would go over live," Edge says.
Second disc on the horizon
After a leisurely recording pace, the band spent a frenzied 48 hours in London rotating seven final mixes, eight vocal versions and lyric rewrites.
Tunes left behind, including the soulful Every Breaking Wave, are slated for a more meditative album due possibly by year's end. U2 also is sitting on material from early sessions with Rick Rubin, benched after the band reconnected with longtime collaborators Brian Eno and Danny Lanois, who produced Horizon with Steve Lillywhite.
"Rick is a minimalist, which is about getting back to pure essence," Bono says. "That's the theme of this album lyrically, but musically, this is maximalist. He wants to make a U2 album that is hard as nails and tender as can be but musically bare-boned. There is a place for that. This was the time for experimentation, wanderlust and finding other colors."
Edge says they aren't wed to any single formula.
"Rick is methodical, and I'm excited about working in that style as well," he says, noting that the songs he and Bono have been writing for next year's Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark Broadway musical require a more disciplined approach.
"There's no strict route to a U2 song," Edge says. "The only thing that's consistent is the search for inspiration. It can start from a drumbeat, a guitar part, a title, a lyric. An entire piece of music can suddenly arrive. We subscribe to the idea that there's no such thing as failure. There's just giving up. We do not give up. We are relentless."
U2's tenacity and artistic daring pay off in Horizon's towering splendor, says Blender editor Joe Levy.
"It combines two moments: the epic grandeur of The Joshua Tree and the experimental audio research of Achtung Baby and Zooropa," he says. "They're at a point where they can be the biggest band in the world and still be edgy, with a capital 'E' in this case. They haven't come out swinging this hard and reaching this high since Joshua. On the surface, it's classic U2. Put on the headphones, and you hear an album every bit as sonically ambitious as Achtung Baby."
Horizon's immediacy, nimble complexities and clear messages cement U2's standing as the only veteran rock band with consistent artistic relevance and commercial clout, he says.
"They don't do it by utilizing the same set of tricks or by having Justin Timberlake and Timbaland on speed-dial," Levy says. "None of their '80s contemporaries — Madonna, Bruce Springsteen, Prince or Michael Jackson — managed to continuously keep the focus on new music."
On the road, the band is eclipsed only by the Rolling Stones, whose Bigger Bang is history's top-grossing tour with $558 million, according to Billboard Boxscore. U2's Vertigo tour ranks second with $389 million, and the band will get another shot at the record book when it hits stadiums this summer, its first outdoor U.S. trek in 12 years.
"When U2 tours, it's a major global live entertainment event," says Ray Waddell, Billboard's touring editor. "Only a handful of bands have achieved that sort of international touring superstar status. Though you hate to say anyone is recession-proof, U2 is about as close to that as you can get. It's can't-miss entertainment.
"That said, any band would be foolish not to take into account economic conditions when mounting a major tour, and the U2 team is anything but foolish."
Mediocrity 'would kill us'
Sinking CD sales and the crumbling economy didn't dissuade U2 from gambling on stadiums (the band nearly went broke staging the extravagant 1997-98 PopMart tour) and plowing fresh turf on Horizon.
"The point was to get out of the comfort zone into uncharted territory," Edge says. "We love it when we don't know what we're doing. We're more alive. It has to be about discovery or we lose interest.
"Even so, no matter how far out we go, it always ends up sounding like U2."
Fan loyalty, critical acceptance and the industry's abiding support should fuel U2's nerve, but the band says its self-confidence is the first casualty during months of studio skydiving and spelunking.
"You don't get this much attitude if you're not insecure," Bono says with a laugh. "Insecurity is our best security, and the moment we lose that insecurity, we're in deep trouble. It's important to be out of our depth."
He recites a line from Cedars of Lebanon, a somber tune from the view of a war correspondent: "Choose your enemies carefully because they will define you."
It's a sly cautionary tag on a character study that reflects a collective regret and despair in today's uneasy world. And it's a U2 mantra.
"U2 never took on obvious enemies — pretending to sneer at fashion or the establishment," Bono says. "They're useless enemies. The more interesting enemies are your own hypocrisy, the obstacles to realizing your own potential."
More than 30 years after forming in Dublin, "U2 only survives as long as everyone is willing to totally commit," Edge says. "As long as our agendas are aligned and the singular band ego is bigger than our individual egos, we can go on. If that ever is no longer possible, we'd pack it in. None of us could hack turning out mediocre records. It would kill us."
Bono, the globe-trotting activist with demanding commitments worldwide, rediscovered U2's value during a spate of separation anxiety.
"Because I'm on my own in my other lives, I had an epiphany about how much I need to be in this band," he says. "Over the years, you perhaps take for granted the opportunity to make music. I'm very happy as an activist, but it's a very demanding life, a slog, and it can be dirty work. This record put me back in the place I was as a teenager, working in a gas station, dreaming of getting to rehearsal with the band.
"It was so intoxicating to hear an electric guitar or the silver sound of a cymbal. Maybe I needed to be reminded of that."