Monday, January 18, 2016

The lost generation of men’s tennis: or where are the freaks?

My favourite men’s tennis bit of trivia is that Bernard Tomic is closer in age to Novak Djokovic than Djokovic is to Roger Federer.

Tomic is 23, was born in October 1992; Djokovic is 28, was born in May 1987 and is 5 years and 5 months older than Tomic; Federer is 34, was born in August 1981 is 5 years and 9 months older than Djokovic.

I like it because it reminds me why whenever Federer is asked about his favourite or toughest opponent he invariably talks about three generations of players – those who where there when he arrived, like Sampras and Agassi, those who arrived at the same time as he did – Hewitt, Safin and Roddick – and then he mentions Nadal and Djokovic (Nadal is 4 years and 6 months younger than Federer).

We think of Djokovic and Federer as peers in a way which we would never think of Djokovic and Tomic.

That Djokovic and Federer, although separated by nearly 6 years, have become perhaps the greatest rivalry in the history of professional men’s tennis says a great deal about both. That Federer has been able to keep playing as well as he has for so long is amazing, and that Djokovic began playing as well as he did so early is worth remembering when valuing his greatness.

Remember as Djokovic begins his quest for a 6th Australian Open that he won his first title 8 years ago in 2008. He was 21, and it was no real shock. Sure he upset Federer in the semis, but Federer was suffering glandular fever and Djokovic even then was far too good to pass up an opportunity to beat a wounded Federer.

But Djokovic was the 3rd seed at the time, had lost to Federer in the previous year’s US Open and made the semi finals of both the French Open and Wimbledon in 2007. He was already very good, even if he was almost more known for his ability to impersonate other players than his tennis ability:

And yet now no one expects 21 year olds to win.

And the usual talk is that, well the game has changed, and older players have an advantage because the physicality of the sport etc etc.

Bollocks I say.

In my view, Federer, Nadal, Djokovic are better than the usual level of players who dominate the circuit for periods (usually 3-5 years), and the players a few years younger than Djokovic are just not good enough.

Federer, Nadal and Djokovic are freaks, those who are a few years younger than Djokovic are not.

This year, for the second year in a row my summer holidays ended with a trip to Brisbane to watch the Brisbane International tennis tournament.

As with last year, we went to see Federer. Although to be fair, we also went because we knew there was a decent field assembled.

I am admittedly a Federer fanatic, but I don’t have a great deal of need to see him play an exhibition, qasi paid practice event like the Fast4 silliness, or the pretend importance of the Hopman Cup. Always know, if it’s not for ranking points it doesn’t count. (and alas it would seem for some players, even when it is for points, it doesn’t count)

The Brisbane International is truly an event worth going to if you are a tennis fan. You are close to the play, the centre court is excellent – most of the crowd is in the shade for most of the day – and the field is very good. The women’s field this year was to be excellent, but was hit by a number of withdrawals.

Last year we saw Federer annihilate James Duckworth 6-0 6-1. It was great to be able to say we saw him play (and my daughter got an autograph) but it also felt rather hollow – like an exhibition.
In the semi finals last year he took care of Grigor Dimitrov with relative ease and then beat Milos Raonic in the final in 3 tight sets.

Those two players are always interesting to watch because they, with Japan’s Kai Nishikori, have been a for a few years now been considered the next in line.

This year we saw Federer play Dimitrov in the quarter finals and it was as enjoyable a match to watch as any tennis fan could ask for. The shot making was exciting, the play interesting – lots of net play as well as baseline rallies, and the result (for at least me) perfect – Federer winning in 3.

My daughter also got another Federer autograph (he signed probably 30-40 of them after his match, great stuff).

It is interesting that the two were playing in the quarters this year.

The reason is that last year Dimitrov was ranked 11 in the world and the 4th seed, this year he was number 28 in the world and unseeded.

So while he improved on last year by taking a set off Federer, his lower ranking indicates that he has gone backwards.

And in tennis the ranking never lies.

Federer in the post-game interview talked about Dimitrov having a great career ahead of him etc etc, not mentioning that when he was Dimitrov’s age of 24 year and 8 months, Federer had already won 7 grand slam titles. 

Federer then faced Dominic Thiem in the semis. Thiem is among my favourite of the young breed. Federer dealt with him with little ado – 6-1 6-4 –and then in the post game interview he talked about how Thiem had a great career ahead etc etc and failed to note that when he was Thiem’s age of 22 years and 4 months he had already won 2 grand slam titles:

In the final Raonic met Federer playing like a man who had been suffering from the flu and who was playing for his 4th straight day in the Brisbane heat (which of course he had been).

It takes nothing away from Raonic who despatched Federer with ruthless efficiency. Winning sport is about being physically able to do it. And if you are unable – for whatever reason – well that’s just tough.

But it does make it tougher to judge whether Raonic has improved on last year (or Federer has declined) because clearly Federer was labouring with an unusual illness, so the comparison is skewed.

That Raonic last year was ranked number 8 in the world, and this year he was 14 suggests he hasn’t improved.

In the post game interview Federer noted that Raonic had a great future etc etc and failed to note that when he was Raonic’s age of 25 (his birthday is on 27 December) he had won 9 grand slam titles.
It is evidence of the bizarre world of men’s tennis that Raonic, who is just 3 1/2 years younger than Djokovic, is considered less of a peer of Djokovic than Djokovic is of Federer’s.

And it goes to the question of whether there is a lost generation of male tennis players – players who will never get to number 1 because they were unable to crack the Djokovic, Nadal, Federer code, and who get overtaken by the younger ones of which Tomic and Thiem represent the elder stage, and players 21 years and under such as Lucas Pouille, Nick Kyrgios, Borna Coric, Thanasi Kokkinakis and Alexander Zverev represent the younger stage.

When we look at the history of the ATP tour, only 25 players have reached number 1, and only 16 have been Number 1 at the end of the year (remember that when you hear anyone suggest Lleyton Hewitt, who was number 1 at the end of both 2001 and 2002, wasn’t that great).

Jimmy Connors was the first of those 25 players who really hadn’t had a career or any note prior to the ATP forming in 1972.

If we look at the successive dates of birth  of the number ones from him (he was also the first born after WWII) we see that there is a pretty regular progression.

There are occasions where the next player to reach number 1 is older than the previous player – but mostly the number 1 is succeeded by someone younger.

On average the latest number 1 is 1 year and 7 months younger than was the previous person to attain the pinnacle.

Thus on average the next player to achieve the number 1 ranking would be expected to have been born around September-December 1988, and thus be now aged 27.

But when we look of the ages of the players when they first became number one since Jimmy Connors we see that only one player – Thomas Muster – has been older than 27 when he first became number 1:

The average age of players when they become number 1 is 23 years and 1 month – just a bit younger than Bernard Tomic is now.

On a best case scenario the quickest Milos Raonic could get to number 1 would be for him to go on a tear, win the Australian Open, win at least one of the Masters events in the USA in March, go well on the clay courts and French Open and then win Wimbledon (and even that would rest on Djokovic doing poorly). That would have him as number 1 at the age of 25 1/2 years – only Muster and Patrick Rafter would have been older.

Now Rafter was a great player. His career is one envied by 99.9% of people ever to pick up a tennis racquet. But he was number 1 for a week. He hardly dominated his era; he was at the top in somewhat of a nether period of men’s tennis. That time when Sampras was no longer at his peak, Agassi had come back, but there was also a fair jumble of players at or near the top.
It was a period defined by a lack of domination.

Mostly the tour is dominated by 3 or 4 players of around the same/similar age.

Player Date of birth
Jimmy Connors Sep-1952
Bjorn Borg Jun-1956
John McEnroe Feb-1959
Ivan Lendl Mar-1960
Mats Wilander Aug-1964
Stefan Edberg Jan-1966
Boris Becker Nov-1967
Jim Courier Aug-1970
Pete Sampras Aug-1971
Andre Agassi Apr-1970
Thomas Muster Oct-1967
Marcelo Rios Dec-1975
Carlos Moya Aug-1976
Yevgeny Kafelnikov Feb-1974
Patrick Rafter Dec-1972
Marat Safin Jan-1980
Gustavo Kuerten Sep-1976
Lleyton Hewitt Feb-1981
Juan Carlos Ferrero Feb-1980
Andy Roddick Aug-1982
Roger Federer Aug-1981
Rafael Nadal Jun-1986
Novak Djokovic May-1987

There’s always a bit of bleeding over in eras – Borg and Connors into McEnroe and Lendl’s; Lendl into Wilander, Edberg and Becker’s, Edger and Becker into Courier, Sampras and Agassi’s etc etc
And generally you see gaps: 3 years to McEnroe, 4 years to Wilander, 3 years to Courier, 4-5 years from Agassi to Kafelnikov-Rios etc or just 3 years if you include Rafter among the Sampras-Agassi era, then 4 years to Safin and Carlos Ferrero – the first of the Federer contemporaries to make it.

So this is where my thoughts on the lost generation of tennis players occurs. Nadal and Djokovic (throw in Murray, who will likely never get to number 1) is an era. Federer definitely bleeds into it, but you would expect given tennis history for there now to be a bit of a jump to a new era – a jump of 3-4 years.

That jump would take you straight to Raonic and those such as Dimitrov and Nishikori, but the jump would occur to when they are already somewhat aged tennis players.

I actually think Raonic could win the Australian Open. He has an excellent draw, would have to beat Wawrinka in the quarters and Nadal in the semi and I think he has the game to do it.

But it is unlikely, even if he were to do that, and even if he were to go on and win another slam (surely Wimbledon or the US Open), for him to really stamp out a new era.

It seems much more likely we are to see a late 1990s period, where no one utterly dominates – even if perhaps Djokovic does enough to stay Number 1 at the end of the year for another couple years.

There is no reason to think that peaking in tennis now is something that only can happen at an older age. Sure you need to be stronger, but Nat Fyfe was 23 last year; is anyone thinking he needed to get a bit older before he could match it with the mature men? But yeah, he’s a freak.

Sure technology has allowed older players to stay good for longer; but Jordan Speith won the US Masters and US Open at the age of 21. And yes, he’s a freak – but that is the point. Federer, Nadal, Djokovic were all freaks, so were Sampras, Agassi, Lendl, McEnroe, Becker, Edberg, Connors, Borg…

You don’t say the same of Raonic, Dimitrov, Nishikori etc.

I wonder if Federer – now the very elder statesman of the game – realises this, and perhaps slightly wonders if it will affect his legacy as the greatest of all time.

He has 17 slams. It is unlikely he’ll add to it. His best chances were in the 2014 US Open, and last year’s Wimbledon and US Open. In both tournaments he played his best matches in the semi finals, and in both he hit Djokovic in the final, and Djokovic was just too good.

Federer didn’t play his best in either final, but that was mostly because Djokovic wouldn't let him play his best, and Federer couldn’t stop Djokovic from playing his.

Djokovic now has 10 slams and is a legitimate entry in the debate of best 5 players ever in the ATP era; by the end of his career he is a big chance to be debated as the greatest of all time.  

He might not get to Federer’s 17 titles, and he is an outside chance to break Federer’s 302 weeks at number 1 (he needs another 121 weeks) but neither record is impossible.

The barrier to Djokovic reaching Federer’s records is not Nadal or Murray or Wawrinka but the young brigade.

Two weeks ago, Federer when talking about Bernard Tomic’s ambition to get to the top 10, said “he's been good, but then top 10 is another story. The year is not just one month long or one week long. It's 52 weeks. It's every day”. In effect - stop talking, start doing.

And that’s just to be in the top 10 – the current Number 10 is on 2,635 ranking points – Djokovic is on 16,790, and winning a Grand Slam gets you 2,000 points.

Since Connors took over the number 1 ranking from John Newcombe, there has been a new person reach number 1 for the first time every 1 year and 8 months.

It has now been 4 1/2 year since Djokovic became the 25th player to reach number 1. If we push that out to June – which would be about the earliest someone new could take over, we’re at 5 years – the second longest wait.

So who will be the next one?

Raonic would be the best bet. He has a big game, but it would require a big step up. He has only made the Quarter Final or better at a grand slam 3 times; he has only reached the final of a Masters event twice.

And time is not on his side.

Tomic is 2 years younger than he, and he is making good strides. Last year in Brisbane I watched Tomic lose to Nishikori in straight sets – the first set he lost 6-0 and the word “try” was not a descriptor you would have worn out using; he barely looked like he wanted to be there.

This year we again saw the two play and the difference was stark. Gone was the lack-lustre movement, and his forehand had changed from being one reminiscent of a stroke hit by someone almost seemingly too bored to bother, to one where effort was visible, and power evident but which still had his exquisite timing.

He won in 3, and then lost to Raonic in a tight 2 tie break sets. It all looked good.

And then he went to Sydney and pulled out of his quarter final citing food poisoning.


It merely reinforced what Federer had said just a week earlier – you gotta turn up week in week out, day in day out.

The tour is a god awful grind. You don’t get to number 1 except by turning up and winning week in week out.

Tomic has the talent; but he is a danger of also being taken over by younger players if he is not careful – Kokkinakis showed in the French Open last year, that the younger Australians certainly don’t hold him in awe on the court.

Dimitrov is one who I would love to see make it. I love his game, but again he teases – he can play well, and then not. The top line consistency is not there.

And it has nothing to do with being stopped by Djokovic or Nadal or Federer.

Yes he lost to Federer in Brisbane but he then lost to Victor Troicki in the Sydney final the following week – after having beaten him in Brisbane.

Federer in Brisbane noted of Dimitrov’s win over Troicki (which meant the two would play each other) that they were the type of matches Dimitrov needed to win if he wanted to get back into the top 10.

Troicki is a 29yo journeyman – a good journeyman, but one who has never made a grand slam quarter final. Dimitrov should not be losing to him in finals – especially when winning the first set 6-2.

But for the next fortnight it is hard to go past Djokovic. His game is just perfect for the Australian Open courts.

Federer has a very tough draw. After Basilashivili in the first round, he then will likely have to beat Dolgopolov (another one of those “young” players who is now 26, but ranked 36, so definitely a tough unseeded opponent) , Dimitrov, then Thiem or Goffin (another young player, who is now 25yo), then Berdych or Cilic, then Djokovic, just to get to the final.

Tough ask for an old bloke.

I would love to see someone new step up – even if it is someone “old” like Stan Wawrinka did in 2014. Even better though, would be for someone young – someone of whom people might start saying, cripes, he’s a bit of a freak.

Friday, September 12, 2014

U2 releases “Songs of Innocence”

Before I start, I think we should all pause to honour the many brave individuals who have taken to social media in the past few days to let everyone know they hate U2. Swimming against the tide is a very tough thing to do; I just hope their reputations can recover. But we should thank them as well – it’s not often social media in 2014 can take you back to 1988.

The reality is U2 have been hated for most of its existence. The period it went from being known by enough members of the public to then being hated was pretty short – perhaps from the time it took The Joshua Tree to sell squillions of records till the moment people saw the horrendous megalomaniacal mess that was Rattle and Hum.

U2 have never been cool. The release of Achtung Baby in 1991 and its follow up Zooropa, plus the incredible Zoo TV Tour did give them a bit of a nudge towards coolness; but fortunately for all concerned, the release of Pop in 1997 allowed everyone to go back to hating them and not having to worry about such an opinion being out of whack.

I’ve been a U2 fan for far too long really – since probably around 1984 when I think I first saw footage of them singing Sunday Bloody Sunday at Red Rocks. I was 12 at the time and not really a big enough consumer of music to be able to say I was all the way with U2. Back then I was just young enough to think Duran Duran’s The Reflex was about as good as music got.

But within a year or so U2 was it for me and so it has remained. Songs of Innocence

Back when they released their last album, I was someone who actually did blog and so I did a ranking of all the U2 albums. It would have been perhaps correct at the time to suggest U2 were done and they would be able to retire to the Greatest Hits concert circuit.

And yet the release of Songs of Innocence as part of the iPhone 6 launch sees them actually more relevant than they were 5 years ago.

Of course such a statement is absurd: U2 are not relevant. We know this because in the approximately 7,846 instant reviews of the album on every single newspaper/magazine/news website we have been told how they are not at all relevant.

Judging this album is tough because of the way it was released. It’s free and inserted into your iTunes library whether you liked it or not.

I can understand why some people don’t like that, though most of the objections are pretty stupid. The ones about privacy are easily the dumbest. I wonder if these people have ever had Windows automatically updated on their PC? How about apps on the iPhone, ever noticed how they also get automatically update now? Yes people, IT companies whose product you have agreed to use can change things on your computer.

But perhaps the thing I have most liked on Twitter is people making jokes about worrying the person next to them on the bus might see their iPhone/iPod has a U2 album on it.

Here’s a news flash, no one gives a shit about anyone’s record collection anymore.

When I was at uni I knew a bloke who had an amazing LP collection. It was jaw-dropping the great and obscure albums he had, and it was a source of pride and respect. Now I probably have almost as many albums as he does – and if you subscribe to Spotfiy so do you.

Sure everyone was given this album for free, but albums have lost pretty much all the currency they once had, and certainly your record collection has.

You got an interesting album on your iPhone? Wow, how long did you have to go round town to find that? Oh I forgot, you just clicked “purchase”. Well done you.

At this point I should acknowledge how old and get off my lawn I might sound – don’t worry in 15 years you’ll be saying the same about… err you know that band that is the biggest thing now… oh ok, not really. Bands like U2 don’t really exist anymore, unless they are carry overs from the 1990s.

Heck in 20 years time music might no longer be what it is now. Surely some computer programmer is working on an app that takes all your favourite bands and mixes their songs together in this weird mesh and jumble that spits out a computer generated songs which people will at first think is a travesty and then find bizarrely seem to work.

And bands like The Rolling Stones, U2, Led Zeppelin will make squillions from it.

(If no one has thought of this, I’m claiming copyright here and now)

At this point you can talk about how magnificent music is now, how we’re not reduced to the old mono-culture (geez, I loved using that word when I was young as well, it sounded like it meant something). And then we turn our eyes with glazed boredom to the charts and see it’s as mono-culture as it ever was.

Wow, Taylor Swift, Redfoo, Nicki Minaj, G.R.L., Paloma Faith. Talk about the full gamut…

As Redfoo said recently in response to his critics:

“People write ‘His song is so annoying, it’s No.1, I hear it every day, I hate that guy’. Relax guys! They complain about me using autotune, when I bet there are 20 songs on their iTunes that use autotune.”

Well, quite.

And so when we turn to reviews of U2 we find it has not just become a review of the album but a review of generations – perhaps in a way that has never occurred before.

Let’s go back 20 years and think of reviews of The Rolling Stones’ Voodoo Lounge.

I scarce wonder if anyone cared one way or the other – by this time even Rolling Stone magazine knew there was little interest in them. There was no need to tear them down to try and demonstrate how the younger generation had surpassed them – there was already U2 (already gettin’ a bit old), Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Radiohead, Rage Against the Machine etc etc.

There was in fact still bands making rock albums that mattered. There aren’t anymore. That doesn’t mean there aren’t the occasional good rock albums but none really that are going to take over the world.

And maybe that is good, but don’t blame my generation that the biggest concert acts are people who last wrote a good song before you were born.

And look, it’s not all bad. You’ve got Kanye riding a motorcycle with Kim Kardashian – live it up!

It’s not hard to then see the generational divide in the reviews of Songs of Innocence – mostly there are the oldies like David Fricke for Rolling Stone who gave it 5 stars (even I think that’s a bit much), then there are the younger one’s who are wondering what the hell is this whole thing with 4 guys with guitars a bass and drums.  And then there are those who seem above all just desperate to show they don’t like it.

One of the best of these is from Elmo Keep, and yet even in-between the fairly standard disparagements (yeah corporate band, yeah mention of Coldplay…) even she notes of “Songs for Someone” “that “This is kind of a great song”, and then of “Volcano” “This is also a pretty great” and of “Sleep like a baby tonight” “Where did this amazing Kate Bush song come from? Why isn’t there a whole record full of this stuff? Why isn’t there a whole record full of this stuff? Oh, there is, Zooropa.”

And thus we get to it – the most common reaction from those who have grudgingly found songs they actually like on the album, but really (really) don’t want to have to admit it, the “regardless of anything, they’re not as good as they used to be” view.

Well, yeah. Just how long have you been listening to music?

No band in their 35th year is ever as good as they were in the 5th.

It’s a bit like reading the commentary on Federer at Wimbledon and the US Open – the praise of his play, but the acknowledgment that he’s no longer the player he was from 2003-2007.

Sportsmen and women have primes and so too do music acts.

This doesn’t always have something to do with quality – it’s about that period where you can matter in a way that is never going to happen ever again.

The Roger Federer of 2014 would likely beat the Roger Federer of 2005. That sounds absurd, but the reality is Federer is the number 2 player in the world – tennis has not gone backwards in quality, to stay at the top you need to keep improving. But no one is going to watch Federer play a match this year and think he is doing things with a tennis racquet that have never been done before. 

Music is similar. Popular music is and always will be a young person’s game. You need to make an impact before you are 30. I think some of the songs on Dylan’s most recent album are among his best – “Roll on John” is one of my all-time favourite Dylan tracks. But no one was thinking that song or album was going to change our world like any of his early work did. 

In fact an artist’s music, if it is going to make an impact, pretty much needs to do so within that artist’s first 8 to 9 years.

U2 are a unique band. They are the same 4 guys who have been recording together now for 35 years. They haven’t had a member end up dead in a swimming pool or mysteriously choke on something that may or may not have been his own vomit. They haven’t lost a member who has had enough of touring. They haven’t decided to go their separate way because a lead member wants to explore different music.

And yet while their longevity is unique, their pattern of making it big is not.

Below is a chart of the yearly album releases of U2, The Beatles and The Rolling Stones. Due to size I couldn’t include more acts, but the full table is here.

From first release to last, The Beatles were run and done in 8 years. They were perhaps smart to end it then, because it is around the mark of when the decline generally begins. (My favourite bit of trivia – they were recording Rubber Soul before Help was even released, and on both albums only one song went for longer than 3 minutes, there’s something to be said for not mucking about)

To keep making good music – music that will register in the cultural consciousness – is bloody hard once you enter your second decade of recording.

Years U2 The Beatles The Rolling Stones
1 Boy (1980) Please Please Me / With the Beatles (1963) The Rolling Stones (1964)
2 October (1981) A Hard Day's Night / Beatles for Sale (1964) The Rolling Stones No. 2 / Out of Our Heads (1965)
3   Help! / Rubber Soul (1965) Aftermath (1966, UK) 
4 War (1983) Revolver (1966) Between the Buttons / Their Satanic Majesties Request (1967)
5 The Unforgettable Fire (1984) Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band (1967) Beggars Banquet (1968)
6   "The White Album" (1968) Let It Bleed (1969)
7   Yellow Submarine / Abbey Road (1969)  
8 The Joshua Tree (1987) Let It Be (1970) Sticky Fingers (1971)
9 Rattle and Hum (1988)   Exile on Main St. (1972)
10     Goats Head Soup (1973)
11     It's Only Rock 'n Roll (1974)
12 Achtung Baby (1991)    
13     Black and Blue (1976)
14 Zooropa (1993)    
15     Some Girls (1978)
17     Emotional Rescue (1980)
18 Pop (1997)   Tattoo You (1981)
20     Undercover (1983)
21 All That You Can't Leave Behind (2000)    
23     Dirty Work (1986)
25 How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb (2004)    
26     Steel Wheels (1989)
30 No Line on the Horizon (2009)    
31     Voodoo Lounge (1994)
34     Bridges to Babylon (1997)
35 Songs of Innocence (2014)    
42     A Bigger Bang (2005)

Consider that by their 9th year, U2 were doing Rattle and Hum, having already permanently entered the music firmament in their 8th year with The Joshua Tree.

By their 9th year The Rolling Stones were releasing what many consider their best – Exile on Main St.  If the Stones had pulled up stumps right there, I seriously doubt anyone would care. What, we’ve lost “It’s only Rock’n’Roll if I like it”? Well that’s ok. No “Emotional Rescue”? Can I get a “hell yeah!”?

If you go to the full chart you see by his 9th year Dylan was already putting out Self Portrait – his pinnacle of Highway 51 Revisited and Blonde and Blonde having come in his 4th and 5th years of recording.

Pink Floyd’s 9th year saw Wish You Were Here released. Led Zeppelin were perhaps the fastest to get to their peak – getting out their first 4 albums in three years – although they were an odd band – forming as they did after all members had already done significant music elsewhere. 

REM released Out of Tine in their 9th year; Radiohead put out Amnesiac, and whatever you think of In Rainbows and other releases that came after, it’s hard to argue they haven’t declined in the cultural sphere since then.

It’s easier somewhat for single artists – like Dylan – to keep going into their second decade, but even they need to make an impact early. Springsteen for example by his 9th year had put out Born to Run and Nebraska; similarly Bowie still had Heroes and Lodger to come, but by his 9th year had set his foundation as an artist that mattered with Hunky Dory, Ziggy Stardust and Diamond Dogs.

Once you get past that first 9 years, yes you can put out good albums, but it becomes damn hard to make an impact.

U2 did Achtung Baby in their 12th year and rather astonishingly All that You Can’t Leave Behind in the 21st. By that stage REM were putting out very forgettable albums like Reveal, Pink Floyd were putting out A Momentary Lapse of Reason, Springsteen was thinking Human Touch and Lucky Town were good ideas, and even someone like Madonna in her 21st year was trying her best with American Life.

Everyone, band or artist, once they get to their 15 or 20th year is no longer generating new fans in the traditional sense. When I was in my teens I became a fan of the The Rolling Stones, but it wasn’t because I heard “Dirty Work” or “Undercover” that were being released at the time; it was because I came into contact with those songs they had released in their first 9 years.

So it will be with U2. If any kids become fans of their music, it likely won’t be because of Songs of Innocence – it’ll be because they hear The Joshua Tree or War or The Unforgettable Fire

It’s not surprising that U2 have declined in importance, it’s surprising they stayed relevant for as long as they did (have?)

Much has been made of Apple using U2, and it saying something about their target audience. For me it says two things. Firstly that there is perhaps only one other band/artist that could have done it: Beyonce. Seriously think of anyone else who would have the impact – not just the masses and masses of instant reviews (for good or bad), but also in the media.

And the way it was done shows that U2 are still actually trying.

This is of course not the first time a computer company has made use of a band to launch a product. Microsoft launch Windows 95 with The Rolling Stones being paid a shirtload of money to use “Start me up”

At the time The Stones were in their  32nd year (compared to U2’s now 35th) and they used a song that was 14 years old. It would be like if U2 was used to launch the iPhone 6 with “Beautiful Day”.

Instead they put out a new album, and against all the odds it has music worth listening to.

They haven’t turned into those bands who decide to tour playing some 20 year old record in its entirety or who like the Stones pretty much just play greatest hits (great as those hits may be).

They are a weird band, because their output is more like a single artist – like Springsteen who plays his greatest hits and whole albums, but also keep putting out new, and at times interesting, albums even if (yes) “they aren’t as good as they used to be”.

And so to this album: what do I think? The past three days I have pretty much had it on repeat play, and I haven’t bothered to hit skip all that often – something I couldn’t say about their past 2 albums.

I like the opening track, “The Miracle (of Joey Ramone)” but maybe I like it because I know name checking Joey Ramone shits people the same way Bono back in 1988 said he was stealing back Helter Skelter from Charles Manson. It has a nice guitar lick; probably wish it had a bit more of it.

“Every Breaking Wave” is very U2, better than No Line on the Horizon’s “Magnificent”, which isn’t saying much, but it’s a bit safe for me.

“California (There is no end to love)” is the most annoying track for me. It starts of interestingly with the repetition of “Bar… bar… Barbara… Santa Barbara”  but then doesn’t really do much for me from then on. Oddly when reading the many reviews, there is very little agreement on which are the best tracks, and some considered this to be one of those that will get concert crowds going. I don’t see/hear it. If there is a criticism that a song sound too much like Coldplay then this one is it. 

“Song for Someone” is just beautiful. Had it been released 25 years ago, in the time since it would have featured in about 1.5 trillion weddings. 

“Iris (Hold me close)” about Bono’s mother (who died when he was 14) is another very U2 song. As Elmo Keep noted, it must be damn awful to get to point where your sound is so distinctive that your new songs can sound like old songs you wrote. But that said, it’s a good song – nice chorus.

“Volcano” is a bit too wannabe Vertigo for my liking. I don’t mind it, and it is a million times better than No Line of the Horizon’s “Get on Your Boots”, which I struggled to listen to more than once.

The second half is my favourite half – a bit like how I prefer the second side (back when there were sides) of Achtung Baby. This is the side where Danger Mouse has the most influence, and it’s all the better for it

“Raised by Wolves” is the song I’ve probably listened to the most, it has a lot of interesting things going on (oddly I’ve seen reviews complain the album songs being too much the same, while others that they’re too confused).

“Cedarwood Road” feels like it should be better than it ended up. The lyrics I think let it down, because the music is great – especially The Edge’s guitar work.

“Sleep like a Baby Tonight” Is the best song on the album for mine. It wouldn’t have been out of place on Achtung Baby or Zooropa. Do I wish the whole album was like it? Maybe, but I’ve already got Achtung baby and Zooropa, I don’t need a replay. But the chorus here is lovely – even Bono going falsetto is bearable. I’ve always liked it when U2 go dark – eg Love is Blindness – and this mines that territory brilliantly.

“This is Where You Can Reach Me” is apparently a kind of an ode to The Clash. Now I love the The Clash (I don’t think you could be a real U2 fan and not) but to me the song isn’t so much an ode to The Clash as an ode to Us during the time it recorded “War”. And I’m happy with that.

“The Troubles” has U2 ending as they always do, with a slow song. And like (in my opinion) the best song on No Line on the Horizon, “Cedars of Lebanon”, this song’s title tricks listeners into assuming it will be some political heavy rant. Instead it’s a very inward looking song. Here they bring in Swedish singer Lykke Li to assist with vocals and it works perfectly.

Her singing

Somebody stepped inside your soul
Somebody stepped inside your soul
Little by little they robbed and stole
Till someone else was in control

is rather haunting. And sure people will say, yeah thanks U2 for inserting your album inside my iTunes account, and letting us know someone else is in control.

But that’s U2 for you, annoying you while also giving you some good music.

And after 35 years, it’s damn amazing they still are able to do either.