Almost two weeks ago, U2 created quite a buzz by dropping their newest album “Songs of Innocence” with not even five minutes warning. The album is very highly known, not necessarily because of its initial popularity, but because it was released at the end of an Apple Products Launch then subsequently put in all apple users’ Clouds.
Initially, many were excited about the prospect of new material from the eighties rock outfit, especially those who were already fans of U2. But many more were outraged at the “invasion of privacy, and the presumption from both Apple and U2 that everyone with iTunes would want it.
The internet dogpile started on Twitter, and after a few days, all the album reviews dealt in equal parts controversy and music criticism, and the real news story was not the actual music. And that’s a shame.
It’s important here to disclose my biases: I’m a retrospective U2 convert, having listened to How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb hundreds of times, and from that getting into what most fans would call their ‘good stuff.’ I’m not a rock purist, and would not easily be able to articulate what aspect about their music holds appeal for me. It just does.
With that in mind, I thought Songs of Innocence was really good, but not revolutionary. The 11 tracks flow together relatively seamlessly. More importantly, the album gives some real insight into the band’s ‘innocent’ period, paying artistic tribute to many influences and heroes of their early years.
“The Miracle (Of Joey Ramone)” is catchy, but also tells a compelling story of inspiration and courage. For someone as acclaimed as Bono, this is either really good marketing, or actual vulnerability. It’s intriguing to think about a rock star being too shy to sing and finding his voice. Similarly, “California” has a notable Beach Boys feel in the opening build, and “Iris” memorializes Bono’s mother, Iris Hewson.
Although U2 covers lots of ground in a short 11 tracks, the album does not sound like a collection of songs. The cohesion between songs (as well as the theme and tone) closely resembles How to Dismantle: the tracks are distinct, but clearly in the same genus, different sentences of the same thought. Both longtime U2 enthusiasts and those who have zero previous experience with the band have lots of fodder in this new release.
With all its sterling qualities, Songs of Innocence admittedly has some downsides. The most obvious is that with all the talk of rebirth and renaissance, this feels like a very safe album. The drums are played softly, the guitar parts are well within the Edge’s regular repertoire, and the choruses are not lyrically adventurous.
The biggest noticeable excursion into new territories sounds more like the effects of Danger Mouse ( a member of Gnarls Barkly and notable cross-disciplinary producer), one of the myriad producers of the album. Of course, what U2 fans want to a certain degree is more U2, not unpredictable adventures into new sounds. But self-consistency is both a blessing and a curse for old bands trying to stay relevant.
It becomes clearer daily that Songs of Innocence will be remembered primarily for its form and not for content. That is certainly what U2 earned when they consented to bypass the part where people choose to download their music. But despite the off-putting way that the album was released, it deserves more of a chance than it gave itself. So, if you haven’t yet deleted it in a fit of unbridled rage, think about giving it a listen.