Let's start by getting the bias out in the open: U2 happens to be my favorite band. I'll understand if you're prepared to write off anything I might have to say about their new album, Songs of Innocence. I'll also understand if you just don't really care what I have to say about it — in fact, I anticipated that, and I wrote another blog post about something that's totally not U2. Go read that one.
I'm not going to talk about how the album was released or how it found its way to listeners; I'm only interested in talking about the music. And after sitting with it for a few weeks, I'm prepared to say that this is the most interesting album the band has released in 19 years.
As objectively as I possibly can, I'm going to try to explain why. (Note: I read through this after I wrote it; it's not that objective. I swear I tried though!)
The first time I played How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb, I loved it. It was the same way with The Joshua Tree and All That You Can't Leave Behind (the "Beautiful Day" one). The first time I played Songs of Innocence, my impression was a resounding…
Honestly, I didn't even really like it that much. It sounded weird, it didn't sit right, like it was off-balance or something. It sounded like a geriatric attempt at a pop album — like U2 had finally, dare I say it, sold out in a last ditch attempt to appear relevant. I was, unreservedly, disappointed.
The fact is, I'd been waiting for this album for a long time. No Line on the Horizon (which was aggressively mediocre) came out in 2009, and with the exception of the odd one-off track here and there, it had been literal radio silence for almost 5 years. All the rumblings pointed to the in-development album being one of the band's most ambitious albums ever, and this… well this didn't sound ambitious at all. To me, it didn't even sound like U2.
But not sounding like U2 might not be a bad thing. I reminded myself that the group had, for all intents and purposes, reinvented themselves three times since they started making music in 1976. Fresh perspectives are good and all that (and for a band of U2's vintage, producer Danger Mouse is pretty fresh). So I decided to give it another listen, and then another, and then another.
And then I got it.
Sound and Fury
While the music on Songs definitely has more of a modern "pop"-y vibe than most of U2's music, that wasn't what sounded foreign to me. In fact, it's one of the most interesting things about this album: almost every single track references the musical vocabulary of a different album in U2's discography, tweaked and nuanced ever so slightly to make a modern, cohesive new album. In my track-by-track review below, I call out which album I could see each track "belonging" on; go ahead, listen for yourself, see if you hear what I hear (or maybe a cigar really is just a cigar).
But no, what sounded weird were the lyrics.
You could accuse U2 of being a little bit… bombastic. And rightly so. Half of the songs they've ever written are soaring anthems with grandiose language and righteous vigor that, when you really stop and listen to it, kind of just makes you go "oh brother." It's Bono being Bono. It's something that turns a lot of people off of U2, but flowery language and uncomfortably large metaphors are something that fans have learned to expect from the Irish quartet. But on Songs of Innocence, it's just absent.
OK, sure, it's not gone completely — "I woke up at the moment when the miracle occurred" sure sounds like good ol' Bono — and a few of the tracks definitely retain the traditional U2 "swagger." By and large, though, the songs on this album are some of the most direct the band has ever written.
U2 has always tried to address very personal issues in their music, but it usually happens behind a wall of brashness. In this album, the wall comes down. Maybe it's a sign of age, or maturity, or what have you, but for the first time, U2 is talking about their feelings without mincing words. Bono is singing like an actual person. For 48 minutes and 11 seconds, a mere 38 years into his career, he isn't Bono; he's Paul Hewson.
And maybe that's what Songs of Innocence is really about. Catchy as it may be, this album is raw, it's direct, and it's personal, more so than anything since before The Joshua Tree. It's about losing innocence, finding innocence, trying to hold onto innocence — the band's, their childhood friends', their lovers'.
It certainly reminds me why I love U2.
Note: I've included some backstory along with some of the tracks, but there's more to be grok'd out of the album's liner notes (you can go get 'em in the iTunes Store on your computer, they're a free download if you've already got the album — which, let's face it, you have). Be warned, though, it's mostly Bono in over-indulgent stream-of-consciousness prose (must be an Irish thing).*
The Miracle (Of Joey Ramone)
Belongs on: How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb (2004)
If you're listening to this album after reading that introduction I just gave it, this is the part where you decide I'm full of shit. This one's as loud and brash as anything else they've ever done. Personally, though, I like it a lot — it's happy, it's exuberant, and it's miles better than "Get On Your Boots."
For context, the band has always described themselves as being "born out of punk music," but unless you listen to their early demos (and some of Boy, but to a much lesser extent), it's hard to see how. This is the track where they finally pay homage. It's inspired by the first time the band went to see a show by the Ramones, and while it still sounds like U2, you finally get a chance to hear a little punk among the reverb. A solid lead single, if you ask me.
Every Breaking Wave
Belongs on: All That You Can't Leave Behind (2001)
To be honest, when this track started playing the first time, I thought I was listening to a Killers B-side. It sounds like a track off Flamingo; it certainly emotes like Brandon Flowers, and it comes complete with a gambling reference inside of the first 30 seconds. (See "Playing With Fire")
But once this track takes off, it really takes off. It's an unguarded cry, complete with classic Bono "I'm givin' er' all she's got, captain" wailing into a microphone (like in the "Artists" icon in the iOS Music app).
It's different from something like a "Beautiful Day," though — the emotion, the idea of throwing it all away and making something new from the scraps is there in both songs, but here we're allowed to see the cracks. The same kind of façade isn't there, and it's the first, refreshing taste on the album of the unguarded emotion to come.
California (There Is No End To Love)
Belongs on: The album it's on
This might be my favorite track on the album, and it's also the hardest to place in the U2 discography.
Leading off with a nod to the Beach Boys by way of a "Santa Barbara"/"Barbara Ann" soundalike chant, this track is (on the surface) about the band's awakening trip to California that ultimately led to the recording of The Joshua Tree.
The difference here is that when U2 visited California in the 80s, it kicked off a procession of love–hate, roots-rock–tinged, "yea America, nay America" songs where for the longest time it seemed like the band couldn't decide whether they were head-over-heels in love with the country (the Edge was; he wore a cowboy hat for years) or disgusted by it (Bono might have been; see "Elvis Ate America"). Here, though, as with most of this album, the reflection is cohesive and mature. The song is less about California than it is about what their wake-up call in America meant to them as a group.
Musically, it doesn't really fit into any of their previous albums. Lyrically, it doesn't really fit anywhere either. This song is a new trick from a 38-year-old dog; and yet it isn't, because just about every song they've written since 1987 has its roots in this song's message. It's just never been expressed so clearly before, or in isolation, and it's part of what sets Songs of Innocence apart.
The song then, I think, is emblematic of U2's songwriting career as a whole. Even though it sounds almnost nothing like most of what they've written, if I had to pick a song to summarize what U2 is "about," this might just be the one I'd pick.
As Bono puts it in the liner notes, "we can spend our whole lives searching for cohesion, and in not finding it, turn the world into the shape of our disappointment. Or not. There is no end to grief… that's how I know there is no end to love."
Song for Someone
Belongs on: Zooropa (1993)
This song is beautiful. The harmonies, the guitar setup, the percussion, the pacing — all of it is straight out of Zooropa, and this song wouldn't be a stranger as a bonus track on a re-release. In fact, if you told me that this was written on the road in 1992, I'd believe it straightaway. (See "Stay (Faraway, So Close!)")
The fact, then, that it appears on an album in 2014 and still sounds right is what makes this song special. It's simple, clean, and emotional, and it does it all while showing impressive restraint for the band that wrote "Where the Streets Have No Name" and "With or Without You" (both beautiful in their own right, but hardly what you would call "intimate").
I'm really glad to see a track like this on the album. It's everything I love about U2.
Iris (Hold Me Close)
Belongs on: The Unforgettable Fire (1984)
When this song first started playing, I thought I was listening to a slowed-down version of "Indian Summer Sky." At first, it was weird. Several plays later, it's exciting.
I think The Unforgettable Fire doesn't get enough attention in U2's discography, but more than any other album, it's the one that most defined their signature sound. Still, they haven't referenced the sound itself in any album since, and this is just another example of the band taking this album as an opportunity to reconnect with their roots.
This song is significant for a bigger reason, though. Bono has written a lot of songs about the loss of his mother — which happened four days after his father's funeral — and every single one of them has been uncomfortable. "Tomorrow" (on October) is a heartwrenching cry from the perspective of 14-year-old Bono on the day of his mother's funeral. "Lemon" (on Zooropa) is half foreign experience with old home movies, half critique of modern media, all weird falsetto.
But "Iris," the first song to actually reference Bono's mother by name… "Iris" is beautiful. It's the first song in U2's history that I can think of where Bono seems to finally have come to terms with his mother's death. There's nothing surreal or disturbing about this track at all; it's a celebration of life, not misdirected mourning packaged into musical form. Like the rest of this album, this track shows U2 being mature about things they've to date been unable to be mature about.
If I had just one musical criticism of this song, it's that it never really seems to take off. The chorus skirts an almost danceable "Sky Full of Stars"-esque crescendo, but never really gets there. Oh well, baby steps I suppose.
Belongs on: No Line on the Horizon (2009)
Well, I suppose every album needs a dud. Maybe someday I'll like this track, but for now, I'd toss this one in the bin with "Get On Your Boots." Much like that track, this song has a slick bridge and a proper "rock" ethos, but it just doesn't really work. Musically, I suppose it's kind of cool, but this one's not my cup of tea.
Raised By Wolves
Belongs on: War (1983)… sort of.
This song is nearly great.
Lyrically, the song finds it closest kin in "Sunday Bloody Sunday:" it's about the Dublin and Monaghan bombings during the period in Ireland's history commonly referred to as "The Troubles." It's a sharp-tongued track at that, with delivery and styling like that on No Line, and turns-of-phrase characteristic of U2's angrier songs going back through most of their catalogue.
Musically it's pretty great as well. In terms of production and instrumentation, it reminds me a lot of Pop, even though the song itself might not really fit in best there. Any track that sends Edge back onto his "I'm going to play one note at a time" piano skills makes me a happy man.
But what keeps this from being a good song, what really drags it down to depths from which it can't recover, is its terrible — and I mean really, god-awful — chorus. "Raised By Wolves," as a phrase, makes this song sound less like a poignant and biting reflection on a dark period in Ireland's history and more like the crescendo of a rock opera. A Disney rock opera. I'm honestly surprised they haven't retroactively edited this song into Mulan.
Maybe that's just me. Maybe I'm being too hard on this track. I want to love it, the backstory is positively gripping, and very emotional and very personal (read the liner notes), but… I just can't get past the title.
Belongs on: No Line on the Horizon (2009)
Ordinarily if I said a song sounded like it belonged on No Line, that would be an insult. But not this one. This one's one of the good ones.
Like "Every Breaking Wave," this track feels like it has a little Brandon Flowers in it; but this song about the band's boyhood experiences growing up on Cedarwood Road in Dublin, with its biting guitar riffs and sharp drumbeats, is U2 in fine form.
One of the things that No Line did really, properly well was storytelling. The tracks on that album were great at making people, places, scenarios, landscapes tangible. The problem with that album, though, was that it was all fiction (Bono apparently felt like he needed a new challenge, so he invented a cast of characters in his head and wrote songs from their perspectives… yeah). This track, though, brings that same great energy to a real, personal story. A surprising favorite, if I do say so myself.
Sleep Like a Baby Tonight
Belongs on: Pop (1997)
I say this song belongs on Pop, but really it belongs on the compilation The Best of 1990–2000 — along with songs like "Electrical Storm" and orphaned tracks like "Hold Me, Thrill Me, Kiss Me, Kill Me" written for Batman Forever. I love this track because it finally touches on that period of time when U2 got weird with it. I love when they get weird with it.
Strong lyrics, a hard-edged sound and washed out vocals reminiscent of some of their more experimental days, and a really cool bluesy lead-out make this song a winner in my book. I'd love to have an album from them of just new songs like this — kind of a Pop 2.0. Oh well, I can dream.
This Is Where You Can Reach Me Now
Belongs on: Let it Bleed (1969)… oh wait, that's a Rolling Stones album.
I really did think I was hearing a Rolling Stones song when the lead-in guitar riff started. Then it sounded a bit like what would happen if the Clash tried for a Bossa nova; maybe even something off a OneRepublic album. Realistically, this song is probably more of an Atomic Bomb B-side.
I like this song, but not for any strong reason I can identify. I enjoy it as part of the album, but it's one of those songs I'll probably easily forget someday.
Belongs on: Original Soundtracks 1 (1995, as Passengers)
This is how you close an album.
Featuring hauntingly slick guest vocals from Lykke Li, this track puts the theme of innocence to bed once and for all. It's a personal, heartstring-tugging, yearning track with one of the most moving (if simple) guitar licks I think the Edge has ever written (right towards the end of the song). By the time this song comes to an end, you're ready to take a deep breath, set the album down, and go on about your day with a melanchology edge whose origin you can't quite identify.
More significantly than that, the hallmarks of this track reference in no uncertain terms that "weird period" I was talking about earlier. In fact, after several listens, the entire album contains little nuances that harken back to the outstanding (if strange) Original Soundtracks 1. No track on the album makes it clearer than this one, though, and that's important: I've always thought that the band's work on OS1 was some of their most formative for everything they did from 1995 and on (see "Your Blue Room"), and hearing it shine through on a track like this gives a person chills.
Once you've listened to it a few times, this album can dig up some emotions. This perfect closing track brings them to a head, and gives them the breathing room they need to be examined.
I was put off by Songs of Innocence when I heard it the first time, and for that reason, I was ready to call it a dud. But I was put off by Pop when I first listened to it, too, and Zooropa took me months to warm up to; now they're two of my favorite albums of all time.
Albums like How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb sound great from the first moment you hear them because they're tightly crafted, highly polished, and have songs that are catchy as all hell. But they're also boring. Joshua Tree? If I had to order all of U2's albums by preference, it'd probably land somewhere in the middle. Don't get me wrong, it's got some beautiful songs on it, and enough emotion to get Ron Swanson to feel something, but it's just too darn accessible.
I like when a song makes you work a little bit — when it doesn't give itself away too easily. I like when a band steps outside their comfort zone, and still manages to hold on to what makes them unique. Sure, it's not a weird album — like most of what they did in the 90s — but it's not a traditional U2 album either; it's something much more personal than that.
And that's why I think it's the most interesting thing they've done in almost two decades.
* If you clicked that link, I'd like to apologize for comparing Bono to James Joyce, by the way. It was just a joke, I promise.