There’s a certain megalomania that drives U2. Perhaps you already know this, but if not, the magnificent mess surrounding the band’s latest offering, Songs of Innocence, drives the point home pretty concretely.
U2 have been the biggest rock band in the world next to the Stones for almost as long as I’ve been alive. The fact that Bono, The Edge, Adam Clayton, and Larry Mullen, Jr. still did north of $700 million in business on their last world tour is proof in and of itself that the cult of U2 is still mighty strong. All of which makes their decision to team up with Apple and force-feed their latest record to the world so strange. This was a guerrilla marketing ploy in the most literal sense, but was it necessary? Was U2 really that worried that the whole world wouldn’t eventually find their way to Songs of Innocence on its own without giving fans a forceful shove?
The move was pretty arrogant. The assumption that everyone with an iTunes account (roughly 500 million people) wanted the new U2 record dropped on them is pretty presumptuous, no? I know people who aren’t into the Beatles, so surely there have to be some people out there who don’t care for U2. As it turns out, there are a lot more U2 dissenters out there than anyone could have imagined. “And your voices will be heard,” Bono says as he closes the record’s lead single, “The Miracle (Of Joey Ramone)”.
Can’t say he was wrong there.
People went apeshit when they woke up on September 9th and found a new U2 record waiting for them. Getting your righteous indignation up over being gifted a free record by one of the biggest bands on Earth is the definition of a first-world problem, but many made their point known. They weren’t happy. Some cried invasion of privacy; others even went as far as to angrily ask who U2 was and why the record was on their phones. Apple billed Songs of Innocence as the single biggest album release of all time, but it took less than a week before the company was scrambling to tell everyone how they could rid it from their libraries.
It was a rare misstep for a band who has always demonstrated an expert command over their image, but their one miscalculation was a major one. The unfortunate thing about the whole Apple snafu was that it dragged the record down with it. Fans didn’t see a record; they saw something that was more or less bullied onto their devices. That’s too bad, because beneath the noise of a nation of millennials yelling loudly from their soapboxes, Songs of Innocence isn’t all that bad. Considering the band’s days of really flooring the world with a record like The Joshua Tree or Achtung Baby have long passed, Songs of Innocence, a few noticeable lulls aside, still lingers comfortably in your ears the same way just about any other U2 record does. Like pretty much everything they’ve done since the start of their late-period renaissance in 2000, it’s U2-lite. The record’s mood, atmosphere, and cadences are all readily familiar. You spin it once and you feel right at home with it.
Songs of Innocence is essentially an act in three parts. There’s the pleasantly familiar, the flat and misguided, and the new and slightly unusual. The record’s first four tracks are pretty much vintage U2, from the catchy, anthemic single “The Miracle (Of Joey Ramone)” to melodramatic tunes that scale the heights of epic grandeur (“If there is a dark that we shouldn’t doubt/ Then there’s a light, don’t let it go out,” Bono pleads passionately on “Song for Someone”). Edge gets his licks in too, driving “Iris (Hold Me Close)” with the same chugging guitar line that helped make the band superstars all those years ago. For a band delving into their 13th studio album, U2 kicks off Songs of Innocence with surprising conviction.
Then things start to sputter a bit. If the opening half of the record speaks of a veteran band settling nicely into their element, the middle portion sounds like a band reaching to find themselves. “Volcano”, “Raised by Wolves”, and “Cedarwood Road” make up a cumbersome 12-minute stretch marred by clumsy metaphors (“Oh volcano, something in you wants to blow”) and lazy, halfhearted cracks at pop rock. But just when you think the band frontloaded the record and kicked off after the fifth track, they climb their way back into the fight.
The record’s closing three tracks color outside the lines just enough to wake U2 out of its funk. Credit goes to Brian “Danger Mouse” Burton, whose eerie, atmospheric production touches give tracks like “This Is Where You Can Reach Me Now” and “The Troubles” an interesting lift. The band’s tinkering outside of their formula also pays off on “Sleep Like a Baby Tonight”, which, buoyed by a Devo-esque synth backdrop, rings of retro cool while also sounding surprisingly unique, at least in U2’s well-traveled pop rock corner of the world.
Minus all the bluster and the hoopla surrounding its misguided release, Songs of Innocence sounds very much like what you’d expect a band to sound like three decades deep into its career. It’s a mixed bag, but an overall pleasant and inoffensive one. As both a defense and a criticism, there’s really nothing to get worked up about here at all.
Essential Tracks: “Song for Someone”, “Iris (Hold Me Close)”, and “Sleep Like a Baby Tonight”