By Kyle Anderson
Updated October 24, 2011 at 09:44 PM EDT

Though they have been working on a new album of songs they supposedly love, recently came off the most successful rock tour in history, and are celebrating the twentieth anniversary of one of their boldest accomplishments, 1991’s Achtung Baby, U2 could be packing it in.

In an interview with Rolling Stone, Bono spoke frankly about the band’s relevance and whether or not this seems like the end. “The band are like, ‘Will you shut up about being irrelevant?'” Bono told the magazine. “We’d be very pleased to end on No Line on the Horizon. We have so many [new] songs, some of our best. But I’m putting some time aside to just go and get lost in the music. I want to take my young boys and my wife and just disappear with my iPod Nano and some books and an acoustic guitar.”

Of course, Bono hedges a bit, adding “I doubt that” when asked about how realistic an instantaneous retirement would be. The Edge puts the odds at about 50/50 (“It’s quite likely you might hear from us next year, but it’s equally possible that you won’t,” he said), though as anybody who watched Davis Guggenheim’s documentary From the Sky Down knows, if U2 can survive the upheaval the led to Achtung Baby, then they probably have enough gas in the tank for another new album.

But for the sake of a reasonable argument on the Internet, let’s assume Bono wakes up tomorrow and decides to disappear to Thailand or something, taking the master tapes of whatever the band was working on and leaving no trace of music behind. All we’re left with is U2’s back catalog, ending with 2009’s No Line on the Horizon. How would U2 be remembered, based solely on their recorded output and assuming they’d never record again?

It’s actually a more loaded question than it seems. After all, we’re talking about a band who has at least three absolute stone-cold classics under its belt in 1987’s The Joshua Tree, 1991’s Achtung Baby, and 2000’s All That You Can’t Leave Behind.

Behind those, you have a pair of sub-classics (1983’s War and 1984’s The Unforgettable Fire), a handful of bold-if-failed experiments (1988’s Rattle and Hum, 1993’s Zooropa, and 1997’s Pop), and four albums that belong in the “totally fine” pile, with two competent formative efforts (1980’s Boy and 1981’s October), and a pair of late-career we’re-still-here albums (2004’s How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb and 2009’s No Line on the Horizon).

So on balance, does the greatness of those first three outweigh the stumbles on the lesser areas of the albums? If the three best albums cancel out the three worst, we’re still left with a relatively strong middle of the pack, even if only for The Unforgettable Fire.

Still, wouldn’t it leave something of a bad taste in everybody’s mouth if No Line on the Horizon was the last we heard of U2? Everybody put on a brave face when R.E.M. called it quits earlier this year, but even though this year’s Collapse Into Now was better than some of their other post-Bill Berry work, it still didn’t hold a candle to even the weakest collection during the Berry years (that would be New Adventures in Hi-Fi). If this is truly the end for Sonic Youth, 2009’s The Eternal is a reasonable but unremarkable epitaph.

Of course, it makes perfect sense that if there’s turmoil in the band that is great enough to break it apart, then the work will probably be sub-par. All sorts of seminal bands have walked out on middling releases, with a handful of them (including the Pixies and the Replacements) ending their band lives with their worst record. And did you realize that Black Sabbath’s final release was 1995’s atrocious Forbidden?

U2’s saving grace is that they have had a number of outstanding singles throughout their long career, so even the worst albums still have some killer songs, like Rattle and Hum‘s “Desire,” Pop‘s “Staring at the Sun,” October‘s “Fire,” and No Line on the Horizon‘s “I’ll Go Crazy If I Don’t Go Crazy Tonight.”

Tracks like “Sunday Bloody Sunday,” “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For,” “With or Without You,” and “One” will remain in heavy rotation on rock radio until the sun burns out and we also worship Beta Ray Bill. If this is the end, then their legacy is safe. But can you think of a band who really went out on a high note? If you can, remind us in the comments.


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