And lo, it came to pass that U2 and Apple shocked the world by not only announcing the long-awaited U2 album, but releasing it on the same day for free to all iTunes users. Then, an uproar rose up from both those who do not like U2 and those who clearly do not understand how the cloud works. What’s been lost in all this hullabaloo is whether or not Songs Of Innocence is any good or not. The answer is yes, yes it is.
It’s been five and a half years since U2 released No Line On The Horizon, an album that received, at best, a lukewarm reception from fans. The band went on a massively successful tour and then retreated into the studio where they summarily dismissed producer after producer before finally settling on Danger Mouse, searching for whatever magic they were trying to achieve. Seemingly albums-worth of songs were recorded and scrapped before they finally settled on two albums: Songs Of Innocence and Songs Of Experience—release TBD. Is it the album U2 fans have been waiting for? Probably not, but it has some really good tracks on it, making it a very solid album. At this stage in their career, it’s probably the best U2 can hope for and they’d better get used to it. I say that because the band doesn’t seem able to accept “good enough.” They always have to be “the biggest band in the world,” an admirable, but ego-centric goal that in the last few years has worked against the band.
As the title of the album suggests, Songs Of Innocence reaches back to the formation of U2 for inspiration. There are songs here about growing up in Dublin, parents, and musical influences. It presents a re-invigorated U2 with songs that hearken back to their earliest albums. However, there are flashes here and there of U2 attempting to remain relevant to young listeners by poaching sounds from bands that were probably inspired by U2 to begin with. Now though, it sounds like the innovators are the followers. It’s not U2 full-out aping other bands, but there are definitely echoes there—ironic since that is the title of their latest iTunes commercial.
The album opens with the first single, “The Miracle (Of Joey Ramone),” a fuzzed out rocker that celebrates one of U2’s earliest influences. The effect of Joey Ramone on U2 is a theme that’s played out over their career, culminating with Ramone’s death in 2001 and Bono revealing the punk rocker’s love of U2’s song “In A Little While.” “The Miracle” is a really good song with a ton of energy that fuses rock with some underlying Celtic sounds. My only detraction is for the mention of Ramone in the title, which comes across as a little pretentious.
Both “Every Breaking Wave” and “California (There Is No End To Love)” are very good tracks that echo more current artists. The 80s vibe on “Wave” is reminiscent of The Killers doing a U2 impression, while “California” is full of “Whoa-ohs” that sound like they should be coming from a band half of U2’s age. The top 40 feel of the song marks the first time I’ve earnestly said, “This could be Coldplay.” Again, neither of these songs are bad at all, I just expect more from U2, but that might be an unreasonable expectation this late in their career.
While structured like an old school U2 song, the bass-heavy “Volcano” reminds me of The Temper Trap, but it’s such a fun track, the similarities are easy to overlook. “Cedarwood Road,” a song about the street Bono grew up on, has some Tom Petty-sounding touches in parts, but it is mainly a driving rock song with a ton of energy. Meanwhile, “Sleep Like A Baby Tonight” showed me exactly why Bono selected Depeche Mode to cover “So Cruel” on the Achtung Baby tribute album from 2011. “Sleep Like A Baby Tonight” just needs Dave Gahan on vocals to be a Depeche Mode song, though I doubt he could reach the falsetto Bono displays here. The song even has a guitar solo coda, which has been a staple of Martin Gore’s since 1997. It was very cool to hear DM’s influence on this track, though. “This Is Where You Can Reach Me Now” sounds like the perfect merging of current day U2 and their post-punk past, which is appropriate for a track dedicated to Joe Strummer.
“Song For Someone” is a typical mid-to-late era U2 power ballad. They’ve issued a steady stream of these since Achtung Baby’s “One” back in 1991. It reaches for the rafters and is a good track, but nothing on the level of “One.” “The Troubles,” though, is a haunting closer with Lykke Li joining Bono on vocal duties.
Arguably the best track on the album is “Iris (Hold Me Close),” the most U2-sounding song in the set. It’s destined to be a stadium rocker and is probably the most personal track on the album. “Iris” is Bono’s mother who passed away when he was just fourteen. She’s been an ever present topic in U2’s work from songs like “I Will Follow” to “Mofo.” On the last few albums, Bono’s father has been a big topic of the singer’s lyrics, but his mother is present again as the band reaches back to their roots. However, while “Iris” is probably the best track on the album, my personal favorite is “Raised By Wolves,” a song that echoes U2’s earliest work and is a straight ahead rock song about an IRA member who’s losing faith in the cause. It features a staccato guitar from the Edge that’s absolutely scorching.
So, while Songs Of Innocence may not go down as a classic U2 album on par with their best, it’s a solid album nonetheless. It’s funny how much we expect of our most enduring artists. The law of averages is that not every album, book, or movie is going to be a winner, which was definitely the case with No Line On The Horizon, but Songs Of Innocence is the rebound U2 needed. Of course, I’m completely biased. Despite Bono’s more infuriating moments, I’m still a U2 fan.
Songs Of Innocence is available for streaming exclusively on iTunes until October 13th
Physical release is out on October 14th