U2 new album Songs of Innocence – Review
1. “The Miracle (of Joey Ramone)” (4:15)
2. “Every Breaking Wave” (4:12)
3. “California (There is no End to Love)” (4:00)
4. “Song for Someone” (3:47)
5. “Iris (Hold Me Close)” (5:19)
6. “Volcano” (3:14)
7. “Raised By Wolves” (4:06)
8. “Cedarwood Road” (4:25)
9. “Sleep Like a Baby Tonight” (5:02)
10. “This Is Where You Can Reach Me Now” (5:05)
11. “The Troubles” (4:46)
It’s safe to say that no one outside of a very select circle expected to be listening to new U2 music today. The rock icons have been working on their follow-up to 2009’s No Line on the Horizon for a while now and there was some speculation earlier this year whether we would even be getting a new album by the end of 2014. The band held steadfast to their claim that their new album would be released this year though and on Tuesday they delivered on that promise in spectacular fashion. Songs of Innocence was unveiled and released free to iTunes users following Apple’s iPhone and Apple Watch media event, making the album available to millions at no cost. (A physical release will follow on October 14th.) The release is a moment that actually manages to outshine Beyonce’s impromptu album release last December, one-upping the queen of R&B with the no-cost strategy.
But headline-grabbing business aspects aside, there’s still an important question to be answered: how good is it? U2 has always been a band that marches to their own beat and comes in cycles. The group has a tendency to come back big and then go off on experimental methods, for which results will vary from fan to fan. No Line was less well-received than their previous two efforts by critics and fans both. With a five-year layoff marking the longest time between albums for the band yet, one might expect that Songs of Innocence might represent a new anthemic effort along the lines of The Joshua Tree, Achtung Baby and All That You Can’t Leave Behind. Innocence doesn’t take hold of the high bar set by those LPs, but it does represent a bit of a return to form for the group.
To be fair to the band however, it doesn’t sound like an attempt to reach those heights. There is a certain level of insecurity that you tend to find in musical acts. The conventional wisdom is that you’re only as good as your last album, but U2 has been around long enough to buck that mantra. Instead of trying to create instantly iconic songs, the band has decided to look to their past and find a new connection with, appropriately enough, the innocence of their early days. There’s a lot of their 1980s work that you can hear in the album’s sound, while Bono and The Edge’s lyrics speak back to their younger years. On opening track “The Miracle (of Joey Ramone),” Bono sings about the joy of discovering music through the titular rock icon with lines like “I woke up at the moment when the miracle occurred/heard a song that made some sense out of the world.” The song, produced by Danger Mouse and Ryan Tedder, sounds on first listen like an attempt to one-up their successors like The Killers and even Fall Out Boy with a tribal voice between chorus and verse. But the anthemic rock song is something that U2 are the unheralded masters of and at moments when the chorus expands out or Edge fires off a show-stopping riff, it’s clear that they’re following in no one’s footsteps but their own.
The nostalgia takes a much more overt tone musically on “Every Breaking Wave,” which sounds like it could have easily come from The Unforgettable Fire or perhaps Joshua Tree. With a melancholy opening riff that sounds like a close descendant of “With Or Without You,” the song still manages to stand on its own with a more current feel. The lyrics are actually less nostalgic than the sound; instead of looking back, it handles more universal themes of long-term relationships and the futility of trying to chase that next new thing. It relies quite a bit on the wave metaphor but it holds together and the classic sound of the instrumentation nicely complements Bono’s vocals. It’s a fantastic effort, saved from the period just after No Line and given an impressive rework. It also flows very nicely into “California (There is no End to Love),” which summons to mind the Beach Boys with its “Ba, ba, Barbara, Santa Barbara” fade-in. It’s a light reference though and quickly disposed of so it can go on its own into the album’s first real great song. This is the kind of mid-tempo anthem that we’ve come to expect from U2 when they’re really on top of their game.
U2 isn’t just about the anthems here, though. Part of looking back means that you remember the quieter times as well as the momentous ones, and the teasingly-titled “Song for Someone” is one of the former. It’s a retrospective tale of new love healing a wounded soul with the right arrangement to inspire a thousand lighters in the air (or cell phones these days, I suppose). The breakdown toward the end features a simple but inspired riff by The Edge that resonates particularly nicely. The album trips up a little bit on “Iris (Hold Me Close),” a song that just sounds a little too much like the band is going through the motions. It doesn’t sound bad but musically it’s uninspired and the lyrics are a bit too Chris Martin-esque to really work in a U2 song.
Fortunately the album gets right back on track on “Volcano,” a handclap-punctuated sludgy rocker that sees Bono hitting those upper reaches of his register to good effect. And on “Raised By Wolves,” the group contributes their most overtly political track to the song. With ominous whispers and huffs punctuating the background, Bono references a 1974 IRA car bombing and sings, “Blood in the house, blood on the street/worst things in the world are justified by belief.” It’s a powerful track and shows that for all that people complain about Bono’s arrogance, he (and they) can still deliver a knockout rock song with a message.
If the last third of the album doesn’t quite hold up to the middle, it’s still quite good. From the abrasive gristle of “Cedarwood Road” to the funk-laced edge of “This Is Where You Can Reach Me Now,” the album closes out on a strong trajectory right into the etheric “The Troubles,” which subtly references the IRA/UK conflict that inspired the song’s name. The only dip in the final third is “Sleep Like a Baby Tonight,” which tries to touch on the band’s best-forgotten electronica era of to Pop and Europa to minimal effect.