Bono took a look around the cluttered recording studio, filled with Coke bottles and laptops and vinyl records, and turned to a reporter.
“I’m not sure where we put the crack pipe,” he deadpanned, pretending to riffle around a coffee table. “We usually leave it out for guests.”
A moment later the U2 frontman had cranked up a track from the band’s work-in-progress album, an anthemic number about leaving one’s hometown titled “Invisible.” As the song played, he spiritedly played air guitar to it, also belting along with the track’s vocals — Bono performing a duet with himself.
The 53-year-old rock star’s self-mocking demeanor is enjoyably at odds with his self-serious public image, a sign of an icon who knows when not to be iconic. But similarly surprising is his approach to the music, a kind of boyish giddiness suggesting that, even after 12 studio albums and thousands of shows, that’s what matters, perhaps more now than in a long while.
After years of being known as much for activism as rock-and-roll — the day after the studio session, Nelson Mandela will have passed away, and an essay from Bono recollecting his impressions of the South African leader and close friend will have appeared on Time.com — U2 had perhaps its most commercially disappointing album in decades with 2009’s “No Line on the Horizon.” So now they’re shaking things up.
The band, which includes guitarist the Edge, bass guitarist Adam Clayton and drummer Larry Mullens Jr., came up with the concept of a collection of songs told partly from the perspective of an innocent and partly from a seasoned veteran. And they brought on the electronic dance music producer Danger Mouse to help them craft it. The album is set for an April release.
Told that some fans were still puzzling over how that collaboration would work, Edge, 52, laughed. “I think we’re still figuring that out ourselves,” he said.
On this December evening the band moved between studio rooms. In one, engineers tried different mixes as Bono sang along and gave notes in equal measure. In another, Mullens, Edge and several others were tinkering with some rhythms. “You’re seeing a little bit of creativity as it happens,” Mullens said. “Like penguins in the wild.”
The first salvo in the Irish megagroup’s latest musical phase has already happened. U2 recently released its first new song in nearly three years, “Ordinary Love,” an ode to Nelson and Winnie Mandela that appears on the soundtrack to Justin Chadwick’s newly released biopic, “Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom.” The song was nominated for a Golden Globe last week and it’s likely to get an Oscar nod next month.
“Ordinary Love” is a throwback, mid-tempo number that would not have been out of place on one of the band’s 1980s albums, and a song that walks the line, as it has for U2 so many times before, between the personal and the political. “We can’t fall any further if we can’t feel ordinary love,” it goes, narrating the tremulous relationships both among its citizens and its symbolic First Family.
“It’s a plea for common decency among the people who’ve been oppressed,” Bono said at dinner earlier in the evening about the song. “And it’s a plea for common decency in a marriage as it starts to fall apart.”
U2 hoped to portray the complexity of the Mandela relationship, according to Chadwick, who called it “a film that deals with apartheid but is really about love.” The film’s producer, longtime Mandela friend Anant Singh, sent Bono love letters Nelson Mandela wrote to his wife from his prison cell on Robben Island, and the band set about turning its poetry into song lyrics.
“We thought it should be a love song, a very human song. Not epic, not earnest in dealing with world-changing political shifts,” Edge said, “but personal in two people trying to hold on to one another in the face of dreadful mistreatment and heartbreak.”
Mandela was a huge influence on the members of U2, who played early anti-apartheid shows. Bono and Edge said that, though it was his political leadership that the world knew Mandela for, in person it was Mandela’s dry wit that would win you over.
“He would always turn on the humor, mock you a little and then mock himself. Mostly himself,” Bono said.
And if he wanted the rock star to undertake a cause, he would convince him in an unconventional way — with a little reverse psychology.
“He’d say ‘You shouldn’t do this; it’s a complete waste of your time,’ ” Bono recalled, rendering a spot-on impression of the South African icon’s mellifluous, halting speech pattern. “‘A man like you with such responsibilities? Why would you want to be at a concert to celebrate an old man like me?’” Bono laughed. “And suddenly you were putty in his hands.”
Added the Edge: “That’s his philosophy of dealing with the world.”
It’s a similar approach for the band these days.
A natural extrovert, Bono in person comes off as much as a comic presence as an activist. “If you have any sense as a band that you could be not just a sop but a salve, you have a moral duty to respond,” he said, describing the band’s approach to activism. “And that,” he added, with a poker face, “can make you a total pain” in the rear.
“The whole thing about being in a band is like being on an oil rig,” said the singer, in a green military cap, black jeans and several layers to ward off the New York chill. “Just a lot of men. We really need to change that.”
Edge, in his trademark knit hat and biker-esque facial hair, volleyed back, “I told you we should have had a girl drummer.”
From the few tracks of the new album heard that night, it has traces of the Clash and Sex Pistols and Kraftwerk — “stuff we were really listening to when we were younger,” Bono said. But it also comes laden with soul and old-school R&B, genres Bono said he and friends were listening to in the 1970s “but once punk came along, no one admitted it.”
Lyrically, the record will center on the collision between hard-earned wisdom and youthful hunger. For U2 at the moment — at once trying new experiments even as it returns to its roots, still vital even as it stands barely two years shy of its 40th anniversary — that tension couldn’t be more fitting.
The band has reportedly been entertaining corporate suitors for a Super Bowl ad to introduce the record. But Bono waves aside a question about those plans. There’s still the album to fine tune. So engineers continued to tinker with Bono’s vocal-chord-straining falsetto that has defined him as far back as albums like “War” and “The Unforgettable Fire.”
“There’s just something about a bloke who sings like a chick,” Bono said. And then he turned, took the mike and unleashed another one of those vocals.