U2 Songs Of Innocence Review: Prepping For Takeoff

After months – nay, years – of feverish anticipation, which reached a boiling point of rumors and conjecture over the last few weeks, U2 finally stepped into the spotlight at Apple’s 9/9 event to announce not a single or a future album release date – they dropped Songs Of Innocence right there, for free, into the music libraries of all 500 million iTunes subscribers. We had about five seconds’ notice as Tim Cook and Bono bantered about how they could get the album out there. And then, it was out there.

songs of innocence

What to make of it? Coming as it does with a head-spinning combination of 5 and half years of anticipation, and zero build up since nothing had been announced, it’s hard to immediately assess. It’s a surreal and intense way of getting your hands on an album by one of your favorite bands. It’s a brilliant move on U2’s part: sidestep all the usual routines and drop an album out of nowhere, on a stage with a massive worldwide audience, and suddenly be the creators of one of the most widely distributed albums in history. It almost certainly eclipses Beyonce’s surprise album move, and even Jay Z’s Samsung tie-in. It’s U2, so of course it does. It’s just… bigger. That’s what they do.

Except, after listening to this album, you start to wonder, is that still the case?

On first listen, Songs Of Innocence is a small, concise experience. Almost oddly so. We’re used to U2 delivering massive, skyscraping choruses that soar (Streets, Blinding Lights, Moment Of Surrender, With Or Without You, The Fly and about 2,000 others, give or take). Bono even said, not long after No Line came out, that on the next one, “we need to go airborne.”

They don’t quite do that here.

Where normally they would break free, here they hold back. It’s more like the sound of a band still on the runway, the sound of a band being careful, the sound of a band pulling punches. Which may be a specific choice, but is not necessarily the best approach for a gang of Dublin street-brawlers (and I mean that in the best kind of way).

As Bono explained after the Apple event, this is their most personal album to date. They’ve focused on key moments from their early lives, and they’ve presented them literally: The Miracle (Of Joey Ramone) is about the first time Bono heard Joey Ramone’s voice and realized he too could be a singer; Iris (Hold Me Close) is about Bono’s late mother; Cedarwood Road is about the street where Bono grew up. This time around, U2 have forsaken their usual trick, which is to take the personal and turn up the “universalizer” dial all the way to 11, creating epic, timeless songs that transport you to other places. On Songs Of Innocence, the band have deliberately kept that dial at around the 3 or 4 mark – the songs are much more transparent than they’ve ever been. It’s as if Sometimes You Can’t Make It On Your Own had been renamed This One’s About My Dad.

None of which is to say this is a bad thing. It isn’t; it’s actually incredibly brave to stand up without your usual uniform or coping mechanism or stadium-filling poetic sublimation of your emotions (you know, like you do). It is disconcerting at first, but this is an album that demands repeated listens, drawing you in further each time. You fall deeper under its spell; you feel all its layers and nuances. This is a collection of songs that draw you deep into an interior world rather than sending you into orbit. If you’re into this kind of thing, it’s the most TARDIS-like of their albums (for non-Doctor Who fans, that means it’s much bigger on the inside than the outside. Google it.). Each listen is an excavation, revealing more. It’s a slow-burning experience, but by the fifth or sixth listen, it feels so much bigger and more complete than before. With the exception of California (There Is No End To Love), because nothing will make U2 singing “bar-bar-bar, Santa Barbara” over and over again OK. Nothing!

A large part of the album’s feel must be credited to its primary producer, Danger Mouse, an indie musician renowned for his intimate, contained sounds, and slinky, supple productions. He’s most well known for his work with Broken Bells, and the Grey Album, his groundbreaking 2004 mash-up between The Beatles’ White Album and Jay Z’s Black Album. He isn’t the most obvious choice for a U2 album, but he’s certainly done exactly what they wanted him to: this is a slinky, precise album that doesn’t reach the skies, but still goes on an incredible journey that captures the sounds of the band at various points in their career.

The album starts slowly, suffering somewhat from the oddly limiting effect of the specific, personal references. The Miracle could have been a bright and shiny evocation of those moments that set you free; adding (of Joey Ramone) reminds you that this is essentially a song about Bono listening to a song. It does still touch your soul, but not as powerfully as it could have. California (There Is No End To Love) is again locked into one interpretation — had it just been called There Is No End To Love, it could have been a bigger experience. Which clearly isn’t the point, per Bono’s more personal intentions — but for U2, it takes some getting used to.

The energy and musicality start to move up a gear with Iris (Hold Me Close), the most personal song of all, although it struggles with some extremely literal lyrics, before becoming more evocative at the end. The spine-tingling music and production leave the words behind, and take us to the point where the album really kicks in. The double whammy of Volcano and Raised By Wolves could have been lifted right off of War. Adam Clayton makes his presence felt, finally, and the pedal gets closer to the metal. Oddly, like No Line, the best song on the album has the word “cedar” in the title, and it is on the album’s standout track Cedarwood Road that the band finally makes Songs Of Innocence make sense. You start to realize that some of their pulled punches are actually devastating one inch punches to the gut. You start to feel the muscular approach of the whole album as this track growls and roars, powered by Paul Epworth’s sculpted and precise additional production, Edge’s abrasive guitar, and a low-slung groove. As Cedarwood Road jams on the brakes and screeches to a halt, Sleep Like A Baby Tonight washes in on the gorgeous throbs of synths, before being thrillingly disrupted by some mighty slabs of Edge-guitar that move like monoliths through the atmospheric soundscapes, followed by a pleasingly jagged Rilo Kiley-style solo. This song also has the distinction of featuring what is easily the highest falsetto that Bono has ever committed to record. Seriously, it’s downright spooky. Together, these two songs point the way forward to a thrilling new direction for the band, should they choose to take it.

The final two songs close out the album at a slower pace; This Is Where You Can Reach Me Now is their decent enough ode to The Clash, while The Troubles, which features a typically gorgeous Lykke Li backup vocal, takes us to a more melancholy conclusion.

As you listen to the album over and over, it certainly grows in emotional stature… but so does the feeling that this is perhaps not the main event, that there is something bigger ready to step out of the wings and onto the stage.

Throughout, it feels like early 80s U2-style songwriting. They’ve come a long way since then, but they’re throwing away that knowledge and experience (for now) for these songs. Hence the album title. They’re deliberately returning to a state of innocence. Which makes it all the more appropriate that less than 24 hours after Songs Of Innocence dropped, Bono took to U2’s website to announce that their next album will be coming soon… and will be called Songs Of Experience.

As well as completing their William Blake reference, one can only hope that Songs Of Experience will be the album that unleashes the full-throttled version of the band. For while Songs Of Innocence is the sound of a band on the runway, it’s also the sound of a band taxiing into position, revving their engines, and picking up speed. It’s a cohesive, hard-fought, and emotional summation of everywhere they’ve been and never truly left; a greatest hits by way of all new tracks. Now the way is clear for them to truly go airborne.

 

Rating:

Three and a half out of five abrasive Edge guitar sounds 

(essentially, a three star album with some four star moments)

 

 

 

 

Grasshopper Jungle

In the very best of ways, Grasshopper Jungle by Andrew Smith is one of the more unusual novels you’ll ever read. Smith has delivered a genuinely unique experience: spikily soulful and inventively propulsive YA sci-fi in a contemporary setting, with an escalating horrific and hilarious R-rated apocalypse; in short, it’s about the end of the world as experienced by Austin, a confused teen in a very, very small town in Iowa.

GrasshopperJungle

Everything about this book is twisted in just the right kind of way to feel completely fresh and new: its evocation of the endless feeling of teenage summers, the intense hormonal confusion and heightened emotions, the torture of high school and parents who just don’t get it…. Oh yeah, and the unstoppable horror that is set into motion by a series of mundane, by-chance accidents.

Basically, they unleash a bunch of 9 foot tall armor-plated bugs that just want to eat and f**k.

The extreme day-to-day reality of the setting, as well as the obsessive limitations of the narrator, create a very grounded environment, which makes the sci-fi all the more terrifying and visceral.

Austin is not necessarily the most likeable of narrators, but there’s still something very engaging about his honesty and loyalty. He’s also very funny. He’s a skewed perspective through which to see a bunch of giant horror bugs tearing apart life as we know it, but that’s just what this story needs. Side note: talking of skewed perspectives, the fact that Edgar Wright (Shaun Of The Dead, The World’s End, formerly of Ant-Man…sadface) is directing the movie adaptation is cause for massive geek rejoicing and celebration – his quick-witted, hyper-stylish visual and emotional genius is beyond perfect for this story.

All in all, this is an insane, gripping, unputdownable, novel. It’s an Unstoppable Read.

Rating: five out of five Unstoppable Soldiers

The top 8 rules for writing you can possibly ignore, and the one that you can’t

1) Write like a ninja.

You gotta be able to write anytime, anywhere. No prep, no routine. Just write.

2) Write constantly and always.

On your phone, on napkins, on your hand.

3) Stories are emotional moments.

Whether it lasts a few seconds, or a hundred years.

4) All writing has motion.

Emotion, action, plot, psychology, humor… something must always be evolving.

5) Justify the emotional truth of every scene.

Every scene.

6) Every character needs an emotional POV.

They all think they’re the hero. They all want something. They’re all going somewhere. They’re all thinking their equivalent of “I am Iron Man.”

7) Follow EVERY path in the first draft.

You have no idea what the novel is at the beginning; you only know at the end. So don’t shut down ANYTHING when writing the first draft. Often huge problems that come up later have solutions earlier in the text that you thought were throwaway moments. They weren’t throwaway. You were seeding your solutions.

8) Dream between the lines.

Dream… wander in your mind palace if that’s your bag… worry about the lines, but dream between them too.

…And finally, the big kahuna, the one you must obey above all others:

9) Story is the only rule.

The most important rule of all… the one rule to uh, rule them all: do what’s right for the story.

And do it well.

Bunnies, jumpsuits and clones: TV’s ongoing golden age, 2013 edition

It’s interesting that three of of the greatest seasons of TV in 2013 were all debut shows, two of which came from non-traditional sources.

While Masters Of Sex, a richly nuanced telling of William Masters and Virginia Johnson’s pioneering 1950s sex study, is as burnished and high-quality as you would expect from Showtime, the other two shows came from a DVD rental shop and a cable network not known for original programming. Orange Is The New Black (privileged white girl gets sent to prison for transgressions in her younger life) was a breakout hit for Netflix, while Orphan Black (a twenty-something mother trying to get her child back discovers she has multiple clones) was a phenomenal success for BBC America. They tell very varied stories, but they all share a key quality: an immersive, kinetic, almost urgent sense of emotional turmoil and evolution.

Michael Sheen and Lizzy Caplan

Michael Sheen and Lizzy Caplan

Masters Of Sex, from showrunner Michelle Ashford, has a beautiful, gleaming quality reminiscent of Robert Redford’s Quiz Show. It’s shot and directed in a gloriously low-key yet detailed manner that still finds time to be transcendently visual. Even though it focuses on a groundbreaking study about people having sex, it’s really about the journeys that Masters and Johnson go on, which requires many conversations about methodology, belief systems and statistics. Ashford’s genius is making this an incredibly dynamic and fascinating show, scene after scene, episode after episode. It dives deep into its characters, and elevates their struggles to a mythic level, even as it grounds them in the most fundamental of human needs and desires. Lest that sound too weighty, it’s a very funny show, shot through with a dry, sly wit that emerges not just in dialogue, but also visually (the greatest visual moment of television in 2013 may well have been the sight of a post-coital male rabbit collapsing into sleep the second it, uh, “finishes”).

Coitus not pictured

Coitus not pictured

The writing is always smart, the acting is revelatory across the board, and it all looks amazing.

Taylor Schilling

Taylor Schilling

Orange Is The New Black is a deliberately scrappier affair, as befits the chaotic nature of its subject matter. Piper is a WASP-y character who ran wild during her early twenties, carrying out all kinds of illicit and illegal activities at the behest of her girlfriend and lover, Alex. Eventually, Piper gave it all up, and got engaged to NPR-worshipping, brunch-loving Larry. Years later, Piper’s name is given to the authorities, and she is arrested for her crimes, and sent to prison. What follows is Piper’s fraught, emotionally charged journey through prison life. It’s upsetting, terrifying, moving, hilarious and horrifying in equal parts, and never less than utterly gripping. Showrunner Jenji Kohan nails the tone of the show, keeping every episode flying with emotional energy, humor and conflict. It’s a natural fit for Netflix, as it is literally impossible to resist binge-watching this show. The prison is full of vastly different women, all of whom have their own pasts and arcs; it’s a rich and diverse source of stories, all fueled by human beings on the edge, desperate to survive, to make it through, to make it out.

Tatiana Maslany

Tatiana Maslany

Masters Of Sex and Orange Is The New Black deal in realism. Orphan Black, developed by Graeme Manson, has different DNA; it’s a sci-fi thriller with a bleakly beautiful contemporary feel. Very quickly, lead character Sarah Manning discovers that she is not alone; there are young women out there just like her. Not just demographically, but literally: there are identical clones running around and bringing the ruckus (including, notably, a terrifyingly feral assassin clone, although even she is somehow overshadowed by the antics of the soccer mom). The show unfolds its techno-thriller plot with the verve and emotion of Fringe, and the relentless grip of Homeland. The conspiracy widens and the truth evolves. These fantastical elements are grounded in some jaw-dropping performances. The two leads, Felix (played by Dylan Bruce) and Sarah (played by Tatiana Maslany) are originally from Brixton, in the south of London. This is one of the most specific British accents there is; Bruce and Maslany are both Canadian, but both deliver flawlessly authentic and thrillingly naturalistic performances. But it doesn’t stop there, because Maslany also plays the clones, all of whom are wildly different, in character and mannerisms. It’s an acting showcase and masterclass that weaves breathlessly around the ferociously unfolding plot. It’s highly engaging, and never lets up for a second.

Three brilliant seasons, three brilliant shows.

There were many other great seasons of TV in 2013 too: Almost Human, The Walking Dead, Person Of Interest, Arrow, Nashville, The Tomorrow People, The Blacklist, Shameless, Game Of Thrones (which delivered the year’s most talked about episode of TV, the Rains of Castamere), Homeland (which seemed to nosedive for three episodes before revealing that it was in fact its most ruthlessly brilliant season yet),  as well as the UK hit The Wrong Mans, a brilliantly off-kilter and kinetic “action sitcom” about being an ordinary man caught up in a Bourne-style conspiracy.

Special shout out: the fifth and final season of SouthLAnd, one of the greatest TV dramas of all time, which inexplicably received the worst DVD handling of any TV show in history (barely getting a release, appearing as “DVD on demand”, then bundling odd groups of seasons of the show together, never once releasing a prestige blu ray set, even getting its theme music replaced on some DVDs and digital downloads). The lack of options undoubtedly held back its ratings (binge-watching catch-ups are a key part of keeping shows alive in later seasons), and although the show ended on a typically intense and emotional high, it’s a shame it isn’t easier for fans or newbies to own it in a quality format.

All these shows featured compelling characters, gripping emotional journeys, killer banter, and dynamic pacing. TV is going through a continuing golden age that only seems to deepen as shows start emerging from unexpected venues. There are more channels greenlighting more shows year-round, instead of the usual handful during the more typical pilot season. Now fantastic shows are constantly springing up and demanding great acting and writing talent. It’s an astonishingly fertile, lively, beautiful time for television drama. It’s hell on my DVR and my writing schedule.

Long may it continue.

Almost Human: under the Skin

It can be tough for a new show to maintain momentum in its second outing. Fortunately for Almost Human, episode two (“Skin”) featured a Cheo Coker script about sexbots. This was basically the exact opposite of a Kobayashi Maru scenario.

Coker has perfected the art of yielding deep character revelations from the smallest of moments (on SouthLAnd), and the skill of wielding heavy exposition on the fly (on NCIS:LA). These abilities are essential in the future world of Almost Human, which has a network procedural chassis powered by a cable-style character-based engine. The words were the supple human skin on this artificial life form: the hour was full of emotional, wry, hard-hitting and rhythmic dialogue. With a steady stream of killer details (cats, balls), Kennex and Dorian bantered like pros. Karl Urban and Michael Ealy played their scenes to perfection, continuing an endearing chemistry that makes us want to spend the entire hour listening to them ragging on each other.

Almost Human Skin

Both actors can convey emotional nuance with the smallest of actions, which fits the style of this show perfectly; it’s a gritty, flinty, fast-moving world, composed of shards of light and emotion amongst the steel and glass. Cityscapes glitter and shine brightly with future-light, androids behave as though they have souls, and no one is quite what they seem. The hard-bitten noir quality runs through every aspect of Almost Human, as does the connection with Blade Runner, which is not just there in the concept and visuals, but also in the dialogue, with a character at one point talking about a blush response. Of course, the key debate of that movie was whether Deckard was a replicant. It’s a rich seam to mine, and J.H. Wyman’s show is doing it thoughtfully.

At the same time, it’s distinguishing itself from its sci-fi forefathers and brethren, establishing its own unique identity through a new language of crime: flash masks, DNA bombs, tag scramblers. Wyman is delivering on his promise to only feature crimes that are entirely dependent on futuristic technology. This is a sci-fi geek’s dream in the best kind of way. The concepts are clever, but the emotions are always real: Dorian’s pain at the destruction of another synthetic was palpable and moving.

And yet, in a sign that this show has a great line-up in the writers room, possibly the most moving moment of the episode was the tiny robotic giraffe that Kennex hands to the small child of a kidnapping victim. That emotional moments can be handled so quietly and simply amidst the chaos of the day bodes extremely well for the sophisticated nature of future episodes.

All of the show’s emotions are enhanced by The Crystal Method’s beautiful, futuristic and ambient score, which flows through every scene artfully; it’s up there with the best sci-fi scores, in TV and in film. If machines did dream, this is what it would sound like.

Almost Human has started with an astonishingly assured one-two punch. It’s thrilling TV; exhilarating concepts driven by emotional truths. As long as it can give more time and complexity to Captain Maldonado and Agent Stahl, both of whom currently exist in a “popping in and out of scenes with information” status, there’s nothing to stop this show cementing its status as best new drama of the season.

Random uploads:

  • “You scanned my balls.”
  • Gareth from The Office (the UK original) as a specialist in robots. Brilliant.
  • Kennex stabbing his leg and scaring the kids.
  • That giraffe, man. Beautiful.