U2 – Songs of Innocence: Embrace your youth. (Wait, Larry, I didn’t mean that literally!)

2014_U2_SongsofInnocenceArtist: U2
Album: Songs of Innocence
Year: 2014
Grade: B

In Brief: A lyrical walk down memory lane doesn’t mean a wholesale return to U2’s old sound or lyrical style, but there’s a good mix of classic U2 and oddball experiments here, and even if not everything works, it might be their most consistent record since the 90s.

We seemingly can’t discuss the new U2 record Songs of Innocence without first discussing two common complaints. I’ll deal with them in the order received and then get on to the good stuff (a.k.a. the actual music).

First, there’s the unconventional release strategy. We’re used to long waits with U2, and in this case it had been five years and change since the release of No Line on the Horizon, so I honestly expected to get an album title and a lot of hype for a release date that would get pushed back a few times. Instead, the very same day we all found out what the album was called and when it would be released, it was dropped straight into everyone’s laps. FOR FREE. Well, at least the segment of the population that uses iTunes. And that had the Cloud enabled. And… okay, so there were some technical difficulties. As well as a good degree of backlash from folks who wanted nothing to do with Apple products. (U2’s apparently got some sort of a lucrative product placement deal with the company… perhaps you’ve heard of it?) Oh yeah, and folks who don’t like U2 or find their new music interesting. Which seems kind of like the first-est of all of the first world problems, to complain about a free gift and all, but I’ll be honest, if I had an Eminem album or something suddenly download itself to my iPhone without my consent, I’d be kinda pissed, too. How hard would it have been to simply announce that it was free to download from the iTunes store and then let users take the initiative? Bono has copped to the idea being better than the actual execution here; he’s nothing if not aware of his own ego and its tendency to let practical considerations get away from him. He didn’t want this one to be ho-hum, business-as-usual. He wanted this thing to be an event, likely taking cues from artists like Radiohead and Beyonce who have dropped similar bombs on their fans from right the heck out of nowhere. Regardless, I was glad to have that little surprise waiting for me on an otherwise unremarkable Tuesday morning. Even under the normal circumstance where we have to pay for it, I kind of wish more musicians would just put the music out there and then advertise it instead of hyping it forever and ever ahead of time. And you can debate all you want about how this act of giving away an album for free puts unfair expectations on other musicians who can’t afford to give their music away, or who just plain don’t feel that it’s fair for people to want this from them. I don’t think it’s meant to establish a precedent. I just think it was a nice gesture from some of the world’s biggest rock stars, who can afford such a luxury. Maybe pay it forward and go buy some other struggling young band’s album if this truly bothers you.

Second, there’s the issue of the album art. For all we knew during the first month of its existence, the hastily thrown together promo sleeve that served as the digital cover image was the actual album cover. Then the physical album was released a month later with a bunch of bonus goodies, and OH FOR THE LOVE OF GOD IS THAT LARRY MULLEN HUGGING A SHIRTLESS MAN? Relax, people, it’s his son. It’s his adult son, so this one’s probably destined to be the most famous image ever posted to awkwardfamilyphotos.com, but the point is that it’s not meant to have a sexual connotation. It’s like, embracing your youth and your innocence or something like that. It’s brave, in a way, and it’s also kind of a clever callback to their earliest days as a band, when they had to change out the cover art for Boy, because apparently the original had some unfortunate homo/pedo-erotic implications. (Seriously? It’s a picture of a little kid. Jeez, people.) Now it’s like they’re baiting and switching us with those implications on purpose, in order to get us to consider a much deeper and more universal aspect of the human condition? Yeah, I’m sure the comments section of YouTube will totally pick up on the subtle message there. Moving right along!

Fortunately, Songs of Innocence has the goods to back up both of these audacious decisions. Bono and the boys certainly did their best to dig into their mental vaults and conjure up images of their tumultuous teenage years, in which the political troubles in their native Ireland served as a backdrop for overwhelming questions about what they were going to become when they stopped fighting with their own inner demons. They’re looking back at those years, sometimes with fondness and sometimes with disgust, trying to find some sort of eloquent lesson in the disarray, but at the same time knowing you can never truly go home again. That innocence was lost as soon as a few car bombs, and later their international fame, exploded. None of this sounds like the music on Boy, or even War, despite the lyrical themes mirroring some of the material from those albums, just from an older and wiser perspective. But the idea of putting it out there for mass consumption without charging us money for it (aside from those of us fanatical enough to want a physical copy, I suppose) sort of mirrors the hope of a young band, charging headlong into the spotlight without knowing whether they’ll end up famous or flat broke, just grateful that their songs are finally being heard. U2 has been trying to get back to these basics in one form or another since 2000’s All that You Can’t Leave Behind, but this time it truly seems to be more about remembering their humble origins than about winning back the crowd. It’s not a perfect attempt by a long shot, but it feels like they’ve finally struck a confident balance between honoring their past and envisioning their future.

Musically, it’ll come as no surprise you when I say that Songs of Innocence is a mixed bag. Everything U2 does is a mixed bag. There are the classics and then there are the weird outliers that exist on every single one of their albums. Even in cases like Achtung Baby and The Joshua Tree where I love nearly everything on the album, this is still true. And it can take years to figure out which experiments are now part of the U2 pantheon and which ones are best left as dark horse picks. 2009’s No Line on the Horizon had its share of clunkers, to the point where the band even expressed some regrets about not totally sticking the landing with its uneasy mix of aspiring pop hits and off-the-wall experiments, but I still enjoy that album song-for-song more than 2004’s How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb or the aforementioned All that You Can’t Leave Behind. If you can imagine the basic structure of the four singles that led off ATYCLB, with the more ambitious (and occasionally goofy) electronic rock-type material heard on NLOTH and their 90s albums showing up in the middle, leading us to a bit of a bittersweet ending in keeping with those albums, that’ll begin to paint a picture of what Songs of Innocence sounds like. The plus side of this mish-mash is that The Edge sometimes jumps out at you with a surprisingly gritty (for him, at least) guitar part in a song you’d expect to be much more reserved. The minus side is that – and I hate to keep harping on this with every U2 record, but I feel I must – Larry Mullen just isn’t up to the same level of urgency that he used to deliver on classic U2 records. It was fine for him to deviate from this path in the 90s, when the band was more cold, more electronic, more into dismantling its own image. But when the band’s back in “earnest mode”, I find myself missing the days when he would hit all of those sixteenth notes and militant-sounding snare drums with authority. A few tracks come close to bringing back that glory, but production-wise, this is not U2’s most solid outing. I can live with it because I feel like more often than not, the songs are stronger and more versatile than they were on those early 2000’s albums that I now have trouble making it all the way through.

Long story short, I don’t think Songs of Innocence is quite the capital-I “Important” event U2 wanted it to be, but it’s definitely the kind of record where its singles will get some good mileage amongst the general public while the more curious among us will find a lot to puzzle over in some of the album’s more introverted songs. I feel like I’m actually there, walking in young Bono’s shoes, and there are times when I actually find that more interesting than hearing the band deliver another universally-themed “instant classic”.

INDIVIDUAL TRACKS:

1. The Miracle (of Joey Ramone)
The lead-off track takes a pretty good stab at recapturing that teenage angst just waiting to be channeled into something life-changing. The oddly specific title is a nod to The Ramones, one of Bono’s earliest punk rock influences. Thankfully, the song makes no attempt to sound like The Ramones – you could just as easily fill in the blanks with the first band you discovered as a youth, the one that woke you up and made you notice that music could affect you deep down as it gave you words for how angry or sad or overjoyed you felt about something. “I wanted to be the melody above the noise, above the hurt”, Bono sings to Edge’s uncharacteristically crunchy guitar riff as the rhythm section gleefully bounces along. I struggled to remember the last time U2 had pulled off a song with such a slinky melody and a syncopated rhythm – I guess they gave it a good try with “Love and Peace or Else” a few albums back, but that one didn’t quite keep the energy up like this one does. U2’s past the point where they can trick us into thinking they’re young, but songs like this convince me that they’re still young at heart. Maybe the rhythm section’s a little more well-manicured than I would like, but aside from that, the song is a triumph. The second verse may well sum up Bono’s entire philosophy of songwriting: “We got language so we can’t communicate/Religion so I can love and hate/Music so I can exaggerate my pain/And give it a name.”
Grade: A

2. Every Breaking Wave
The sharp drop-off in energy after that final crunchy riff seems a bit unfair. It’s a common problem on U2 albums ever since the turn of the century – “Stuck in a Moment You Can’t Get Out of” and “Miracle Drug” are both decent songs that I felt were done no favors by moving them so far up in the track listing. No Line on the Horizon flipped the problem around by starting off with its sluggish title track before kicking things into high gear with “Magnificent”. And strangely enough, this track is a bit of a refugee from the No Line era, having originally been planned for a companion album called Songs of Ascent that was intended to be more mellow and reflective, but which U2 abandoned somewhere along the way. It’s an interestingly fatalistic reflection on life, asking if we’re better off fighting against the inevitable tide or just letting it carry us away. At times it seems like a powerful ballad in search of a more engaging musical setting – the mild-mannered percussion and the oddly poppy studio effects don’t do any favors to what could have been a powerful chorus melody. I do enjoy having this song on the album. I just wish it was further in. (Also, on the subject of that companion album? Supposedly this album has a companion called Songs of Experience already in the can. You can see why I’m not exactly holding my breath in anticipation.)
Grade: B+

3. California (There Is No End to Love)
Here’s where the pop-savvy production (provided by none other than Danger Mouse) meets up with the free-spirited, wide-open-road feel of classic U2. Adam Clayton‘s booming bass meets up with a pretty keyboard melody and a slightly goofy yet heartwarming vocal that pays tribute to The Beach Boys as the guys chant: “Bar-bar-barbara, Santa Barbara.” (The fact that I first heard this one while I was planning a weekend road trip to Santa Barbara might have something to do with my instant love for it.) Rock songs about the awesomely scenic sunny beaches of California are a dime a dozen, of course, and it seems especially strange for an Irish band to be writing such a song, but remember how they came out and visited our desert in the 80s and made the place famous? This has that same sort of spirit to it, as Bono recounts the first time he stepped off a plane in the Golden State back in the 70s, and you can really feel the star-struck newness of it all in his fervent vocals. This one hits a lot of the same sweet spots for me that “City of Blinding Lights” did ten years ago.
Grade: A+

4. Song For Someone
I feel like the front half of this album is front-loaded with would-be singles, and so far the structure of it is very much like All that You Can’t Leave Behind, bouncing back and forth between the big rockers and the sweeping power ballads. This one’s more personal and stripped down than an anthem like “Walk On”, of course, so that isn’t a perfect analogy, but it has the same effect on the overall pacing of the album. Bono is the rare rock star (or person, for that matter) who has managed to stay married to his high school sweetheart for several decades, and he dedicates this song to her, which is as fascinating in its poetic devotion as it is frustrating in its lack of specificity. The soft-spoken verses certainly set us up for a home run: “You’ve got a face not spoiled by beauty/I have some scars from where I’ve been/You’ve got eyes that can see right through me/You’re not afraid of anything they’ve seen.” But the chorus, as you might guess, fumbles the ball (much like how I just fumbled that sports metaphor). Bono means well with his potential reference to The Smiths as he urges her “There is a light, don’t let it go out”, but as he caps off the chorus by crooning “This is a song for someone”, you can see why it fails to land. He’s not writing about wanting to meet some ideal mate at some point down the road. He’s not being purposefully vague at any other point in the song. Rather, he’s being quite absolute in his devotion to this one woman, so when the best he can muster is “someone”, it really hurts the song. Edge tries to salvage it with some tasteful guitar heroics near the end – and for some reason I always picture a man gallantly riding in on a horse when he does that, probably because it reminds me of “Who’s Gonna Ride Your Wild Horses”, a long-time personal favorite of mine. This song is obviously way more happy and less cynical than that one. But it comes across like the work of a much lesser lyricist than Bono was 20-odd years ago.
Grade: B-

5. Iris (Hold Me Close)
Now, as much as I’ve picked on Larry for just sort of phoning it in throughout most of this album, I have to sail that he nails it on this shimmering dance track, one which is much like “Magnificent” in that it shows us what a non-cynical U2 might have sounded like in the 90s. Instead of religious devotion, Bono signs about his long-deceased mother here, which is a long-standing U2 tradition that began with such early standouts as “I Will Follow” and “Tomorrow”. While the melody here isn’t as instantly catchy and the song doesn’t have “single material” written all over it despite being upbeat and easy for me to like, the human emotion comes piercing right through despite all the layers of well-groomed sound and production trickery. And this one’s better off for not being a gloppy, overblown ballad – you can hear the vulnerability as he takes himself back in time to being a scared little boy looking to his mother for comfort and guidance, but the song exudes confidence and gratitude, celebrating the rock solid foundation that made him the man he is today. He’s come a long way from the bizarre and sometimes harsh laments of songs like “Lemon” and “Mofo” – though I do still love those songs.
Grade: A

6. Volcano
There’s something weird that happens when U2 tries to tap into something more primal and just do a basic rock song that appeals on more of a gut level. Something they come up with an ingenious riff, like they did in “The Miracle”. And then sometimes it feels like The Edge becomes The Dull when you take away his fancy delay pedals. Not that he isn’t trying to be energetic with the jumpy riffs in this fist-pumping ode to rock & roll itself, but something clearly went wrong here, because he gets subsumed beneath Larry’s bass, and they already did that intentionally in “Get on Your Boots”, which is one of those so-stupid-it’s-fun songs that took its time to grow on me, and I suspect this will be another one. It just seems like they need a little something “messier” than this mostly rhythm section-dominated song – if you’re going to ramble about volcanoes about to blow and entice the crowd to chant stuff like “You! Are! Rock and roll!”, then you’d better bring your A-game in the axe-grinding department. This one’s not sure whether it wants to be dangerous rock & roll or harmless fun pop music, and the lack of commitment drags it down.
Grade: B

7. Raised By Wolves
I’ve been doing a heck of a lot of comparing new U2 songs to older U2 songs throughout this review – it’s inevitable when a group has such a vast discography. But this is the first song where I can’t really do that, because nothing they’ve ever done sounds like it. I don’t want to oversell it by saying that – the song is definitely an acquired taste, with its nervous piano chords and its strange, rhythmic vocal sample that honestly sounds like Bono had the sniffles and someone remixed it. It’s interesting because it’s unpredictable – you don’t see Edge’s sharp, jangling riff coming, and it stops just as suddenly as it starts, leaving you to sit there nervously in the tension, waiting for it to show up again. it’s fitting for a song about an otherwise ordinary Friday afternoon being interrupted by sectarian violence, with innocent people being caught in the crossfire of a car bomb intended to send a message. Bono’s discussed “the troubles” in Ireland before, most notably in “Sunday Bloody Sunday” and Pop‘s highly underrated “Please”. But here it’s more personal – it describes a friend’s first-hand account of the carnage, and how that one glance back when everything within him was screaming not to look left a scar. Bono is a man of faith, but the point of view he takes in this song is of a man who has completely lost faith, who has been convinced – by the actions of God-fearing men on both sides, no less – that humanity has gone to the dogs and there’s no one up there looking out for us. It’s a harrowing wake-up call to those who think God is telling them that might makes right.
Grade: A-

8. Cedarwood Road
Nostalgia for a hometown scarred by violence bleeds over into this next song, as Bono remembers the street he grew up on in Dublin and how that peaceful place became a war zone during his teenage years, the anger over that terrifying experience in turn fueling the beginnings of U2. This sort of story should be a big deal. These sorts of honest and specific lyrics should rocket a song to the top of the U2 pantheon the way that they did on albums like War and The Joshua Tree. But what setting did they choose for a finely-written lyrics? A clumsy, mid-tempo song that can’t decide whether it’s a rocker or a middle-of-the-road filler track, unfortunately. Edge once again gives it his best shot with a muddy, rumbling guitar riff that seems designed to shake things up, but then the drum programming sets in and it becomes all too apparent how pedestrian and aimless the rest of the song is. There’s melody here, but it never seems to land all that strongly, as its pre-chorus and chorus and bridge just sort of merge together and feel like they’ve become one big, long stream of consciousness. Towards the end of it, the sights and sounds and smells inherent in the old-world geography of this song collapse into silly platitudes: “If the door is open, it isn’t theft/You can’t return to where you’ve never left”, and let’s not forget when he bellows near the end of the song “A heart that is broken/Is a heart that is open!” I’m sure that this might be one of the most deep and meaningful experiences Bono had when writing a song, but it feels like it’s self-consciously falling back on the kinds of cliches people make fun of U2 for by that point. The thing just drags on and on, reminding me of some of the lesser material in the back half of How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb, and I really just wish it would be over already.
Grade: C

9. Sleep Like a Baby Tonight
There were times when I characterized No Line on the Horizon‘s more experimental bits as a throwback to the Achtung Baby era – this became even more apparent on the 360 tour later that year. I suppose the next logical step would be to revisit the cold and alienating landscape of Zooropa, and if that’s the case, I’m glad they didn’t spend an entire album doing it, because this bafflingly weird lullaby tends to try my patience, and that’s coming from someone who found a lot to love about Zooropa. It just seems out of place with the rest of the album, and with most everything U2’s done in the last twenty years. Not that I mind at all when this group wants to experiment with electronic sounds – but the silvery synth sample that dominates most of this song feels lifeless, like a 1980s approximation of what the future of music would sound like, and despite Bono bringing back a “Lemon”-like falsetto years after I thought he had gotten too old to pull it off, and some unusual and intriguing guitar work from Edge later in the song, the whole thing is a deadweight. It takes an ironic lyrical turn that could have been riveting – “Tomorrow dawns like someone else’s suicide” is probably the most prominent example of how it ironically and cruelly twists its otherwise tranquil mood – and squanders it with far too much studio trickery. Having this one and “Cedarwood Road” back to back makes it difficult for me to stick with the album through to the end at times.
Grade: C+

10. This Is Where You Can Reach Me Now
Since I’ve talked a bit about All that You Can’t Leave Behind and No Line on the Horizon and how I don’t listen to them all that often because of how badly the pacing gets thrown off on both of them, I will say that both have penultimate tracks that bring the energy back in a satisfying way and that rank among my favorites. “New York” and “Breathe” are certainly oddball songs that won’t appeal to everyone, whereas this is a more straightforward example, taking a group vocal chorus that is way more fun to sing along to than anything with the lyrics “Soldier, Soldier, we signed our lives away!” ever ought to be, and throwing down another danceable drum beat and a bit of a reggae-inspired wah effect on Edge’s guitar to keep things brisk all the way through. It sort of bookends the album in the sense that it’s their tribute to another early inspiration, The Clash. Something in those songs inspired sleeplessness and seismic movement in their lives. And they’re clearly having a blast looking back at those formative years, not having known the insane ride they were about to embark on at the time.
Grade: B+

11. The Troubles
As much as we like to thing of U2 as earnest young upstarts, the truth is that more of their albums have ended on a downer than on a redemptive note. (“40”, “Grace”, “Yahweh”, and maybe “MLK” are the only exceptions I can think of.) Not that I mind that – “Love Is Blindness” is my absolute favorite thing on Achtung Baby despite some stuff competition. Here, a lot of the expected elements of a U2 song are stripped away in favor of a more haunting, ethereal sound, driven more by a string section and a delicious vocal cameo from Lykke Li than by any member of the band. (It’s not quite as thrillingly strange as her duet with fellow Swedes Miike Snow a few years back… but I’ll take it over the dull and half-assed album she put out earlier this year any day.) Despite a few of the earlier tracks discussing “the troubles” in Ireland with great candor, this one isn’t about anything political. It’s an honest look inside at the shell a man becomes when he lets fear and manipulative outside forces trample his spirit. “Somebody stepped inside your soul/Little by little they robbed and stole/’Til someone else was in control”, Li laments, while Bono tries to sort out his inner demons in the verses, ultimately concluding “I can live with denial/But you’re not my troubles anymore.” It’s the most God-haunted song on what otherwise might be one of the least religious albums they’ve made in a while, sneaking a prayer in their even though it ends on a note of uncertainty: “God, now you can see me?/I’m naked and I’m not afraid/My body’s sacred and I’m not ashamed.”
Grade: B+

For those who buy a physical copy of this album, there are ten extra tracks on a bonus disc. The first two, “Lucifer’s Hands” an d”The Crystal Ballroom”, are more rhythmic explorations that I haven’t fully explored yet, but that were appealing enough on first listen to make me wonder why they didn’t make the cut. Beyond that, you get several mostly stripped down versions of tracks from earlier in the album, which at best reveal some of the raw creativity that was present as these songs were being worked on, and which at worst just sound like they’re pretending to be street buskers. (No joke, there’s actually a “Busker Version” of “The Miracle”.) At the end are two alternate mixes of “The Troubles” (with the guys singing a completely different vocal part from the one Lykke Li eventually ended up singing) and “Sleep Like a Baby Tonight” (which has significantly different lyrics, but musically, doesn’t fix any of the problems heard in the album version). Finally, as a hidden track, we get an uncut studio version of the single “Invisible” that made the rounds earlier this year. It’s guilty of some of the same overproduction issues that drag down the album here and there, but I do enjoy the song and it’s nice to finally have it on an album, even if I’m a bit miffed that it didn’t make it into the actual tracklisting (because it makes absolutely zero sense at the end). I’d argue that the two new songs and “Invisible” do add some value… though whether they make it worth purchasing an entire album that you could have legally acquired for free is a question you’ll have to answer for yourself.

WHAT’S IT WORTH TO ME?
The Miracle (of Joey Ramone) $1.75
Every Breaking Wave $1.25
California (There Is No End to Love) $2
Song For Someone $.75
Iris (Hold Me Close) $1.75
Volcano $1
Raised By Wolves $1.50
Cedarwood Road $.25
Sleep Like a Baby Tonight $.50
This Is Where You Can Reach Me Now $1.25
The Troubles $1.25
TOTAL: $13.25

BAND MEMBERS:
Paul Hewson a.k.a. “Bono”: Lead vocals, acoustic guitar
David Evans a.k.a. “The Edge”: Electric guitar, keyboards, backing vocals
Adam Clayton: Bass
Larry Mullen, Jr.: Drums

LISTEN FOR YOURSELF:
http://open.spotify.com/album/5tWSTNTqzqZhKo7FCyLwPk

MORE USEFUL LINKS:
http://www.u2.com
https://www.facebook.com/u2

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