Last December, when Beyonce suddenly dropped a new album onto iTunes without prior announcement, America reacted with pure gratitude, as if the reigning queen of pop music had given her fans an early Christmas present. Last week, U2 tried to do her one better by releasing its 13th studio album, Songs of Innocence, to over 500 million iTunes customers for free. So far, though, the dominant reaction has been one of annoyance, as if the world’s iTunes users have been gifted an unwanted sweater by an out-of-touch uncle.
As a release strategy, the rollout of Songs of Innocence reflects both U2’s desperation to remain relevant and its desire to play it safe. It’s much easier, after all, to have Apple implant your music on listeners’ devices than to mount an actual marketing campaign, or (God forbid) let the music speak for itself. Perhaps it’s a savvy move to let the unconventional release stir up buzz, though, since the album itself has very little to say.
Ostensibly, Songs of Innocence is a very “personal” album—Bono assures us of this in the liner notes, drawing attention to how it reflects the band’s origins as a scrappy punk band in 1970s Dublin. The lead single, “The Miracle (Of Joey Ramone)” pays tribute to the legendary Ramones frontman, with Bono recalling his early musical inspiration in miraculous terms. (“Everything I ever lost, now has been returned / In the most beautiful sound I’d ever heard”). While undoubtedly sincere, the track is curiously neutered—despite some nice grungy guitar riffs from the Edge, it shows little of the anarchic energy of its subject.
Throughout the album, the band tries to plumb its past for inspiration, with varying success. “Raised by Wolves” and “Cedarwood Road” are both tales of growing up on the violent streets of Troubles-era Dublin. The former ends up as unintentionally funny, thanks to its weird sound effects and self-serious lyrics. (It would be hard to dream up a more parodic U2 lyric than “Boy sees his father crushed under the weight / Of a cross in a passion where the passion is hate”). The latter, though, is rather effective, a song about growing up on two sides of a war zone and the conflicting emotions that such an environment engenders: “The hurt you hide, the joy you hold / The foolish pride that gets you out the door / Up on Cedarwood Road.” The song has a propulsive rhythm and an urgency that is desperately lacking on the rest of the album.
The album’s worst offenders are its generic, hookless mid-tempo ballads. “Song for Someone” and “Iris (Hold Me Close)” are written for Bono’s wife and mother, respectively, but they feel dutiful rather than vital—as if Bono felt the need to be on record as having written songs for them. Here, too, you can find some of the album’s biggest lyrical groaners, as when Bono sings, “The stars are bright, but do they know / The universe is beautiful but cold.” A song of innocence, indeed.
If there is any lesson to take away from Songs of Innocence, it is that U2 needs to take itself a lot less seriously. Many of the album’s most enjoyable moments come about in the lighter songs, like “Volcano” and “Sleep Like A Baby Tonight,” where the band stops worrying about weighty statements and simply rocks out a little bit. The latter track is especially interesting for its electronic beats and the use of Bono’s falsetto—intriguing minor touches that recall the more experimental U2 of Zooropa and Pop, and which stand out against the bland soft-rock texture of the rest of the album.
Fortunately, the album closes with its best track: “The Troubles,” a menacing downtempo track awash in lush strings and propelled by a soft and steady drumbeat. “Somebody stepped inside your soul / Little by little they robbed and stole / Till somebody else was in control,” sings guest vocalist Lykke Li, ironically stealing the spotlight from Bono as she does so. Her contribution helps makes the song a highlight, but it’s also revealing that one of the album’s best moments comes when Bono cedes the microphone to someone else, and lets them take control.
Featured Image Courtesy of Island Records