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)

 

 

 

 

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How To Succeed In Business Without Really Trying

Every now and then a perfect cultural storm rolls into the complex intersection between TV, film, stage, music, pop culture and even the economy, drawing on all of them simultaneously to create a truly unique moment. One such occurrence is happening now on Broadway, with a shiny new 50th anniversary revival of Frank Loesser’s 1961 hit How To Succeed In Business Without Really Trying, starring erstwhile boy wizard Daniel Radcliffe, TV star John Laroquette, and the droll, non-giggling tones of Anderson Cooper in a culture-blending mash-up that draws from Star Trek and Mad Men as much as it does from Broadway history.

Following on from his critically acclaimed performance in Equus, Radcliffe has returned to NYC for his second Broadway starring role. Where Equus was a dark psychological analysis of a disturbed youth, How To Succeed is a brightly colored, infectiously energetic and hugely charming confectionary that belts out its song and dance numbers amidst ever-moving, coolly glowing TARDIS-like sets, and elevates the material in a raucous, entertaining manner through to its triumphant finale. Radcliffe has no problem shifting gears from one to the other, giving the impression that he was born and raised on the Broadway stage, American accent and dance moves comfortably in place. And he can belt out a tune with the best of them.

Image courtesy of derekmclane.org

While we’re still in the immediate, globe-spanning, culture-changing aftermath of the theatrical release of the final Harry Potter movie, the potentially disconcerting contrast of seeing the Boy Who Lived leaping around in a lively Mad Men-esque musical actually creates a unique & powerfully charged atmosphere in the theatre. Naturally, Radcliffe’s first appearance in the play is greeted with a massive roar from the crowd, and the energy in the room only goes up from there.

The play follows Radcliffe’s character, J. Pierrepoint Finch, as he reads from the self-help book (dryly voice-overed by Anderson Cooper) that gives the play its title, and attempts to carry out its lessons in how to make it in the tough world of Wall Street. It’s a funny, smart play, with the lyrics by Loesser and the book by Abe Burrows, Jack Weinstock and Willie Gilbert full of sly one-liners, quick banter, and still-sharp observations. It marries the whip-smart back and forth of old Hollywood movies to huge-chorused Broadway numbers, and it does it with a frankly excessive amount of charm to which it’s impossible not to succumb.

The dialogue, songs, actors and sets are constantly on the move in this highly kinetic production that never slows down, building to a finale in which Radcliffe runs, flips, dances and hurls himself throughout a number that keeps increasing its momentum, and causes the crowd to cheer and applaud numerous times before it all finally comes to a close.

Image courtesy of http://www.derekmclane.org

The original 1961 production was itself an adaptation of Shepherd Mead’s 1952 novel. Although the novel was already a comic work, the stage adaptation, produced by the team behind Guys And Dolls, upped the satirical and romantic angles, and brought in the legendary Bob Fosse to choreograph the dance sequences. The play has been revived many times since, recently in 1995 with Matthew Broderick in the starring role, and even in 1996 with former Karate Kid Ralph Macchio taking the lead. However, from a cultural perspective, director and choreographer Rob Ashford’s current revival may be the most fascinating of all. It has an edge over all other versions in that it comes after Matthew Weiner’s era-defining TV drama Mad Men changed the way we look at the New York office life in the 50s and 60s. It also exists in a post-Office Space/The Office world. All this adds extra layers of meaning and resonance. The current revival takes this proto-Mad Men world and fuses it with Derek McLane’s coolly-lit, elegantly retro-futuristic set designs, which come across as though Apple designed the interiors of the USS Enterprise of the original Star Trek series. The choreogaphy is wild and energetic as the actors hurtle around McLane’s beautiful-looking, imaginative multi-leveled sets, and the dance numbers are huge and deceptively complex. Added to that are the venerable, twinkling presence of  John Laroquette as big boss J.B. Biggley, and the undeniable star wattage of Radcliffe, their easy and occasionally improvised camaraderie ably supported by an excellent, charismatic cast of Broadway and TV regulars.

With this new production, Ashford has curated a heady, unique mix of past and future, of Hollywood and stage, which has an extraordinary energy as the cultural influences interact and become something far more than the sum of their parts. It’s both thoroughly entertaining, and, with this cast, it’s also an utterly unique cultural moment in time.

I’m a freak bitch, baby

So, 2009 is over, and 2010 beckons: The Year We Make Contact, as the movie states. It’s always interesting, reaching years that have been movies and books. I’m sure 1984 was a surreal year, with the 1984 novel-inspired imagery of Ridley Scott’s Apple ad, and the subsequent breakthrough of Apple macs. Now we wonder, what will we make contact with? Truth, beauty, enlightenment, the Apple Tablet, also known informally as the “everything-killer”? It feels as though – culturally at least – the last 10 years have been a climb to the summit; the horizon of a new world is sweeping into view. 2009 is just a glimpse in the rearview mirror now. It’s vanishing so fast that there’s no time for a full recap; instead, I propose a little game: name the cultural event of 2009. The lists are always segregated: personality of the year, books, movies, albums, songs. The prize should be greater, all pitted against all: the 2009 Ultimate Culture award. Kind of like ultimate fighting, but more cozy, and with cups of tea. What one thing/person/event really captured the essence of 2009, defined it, represented it, distilled it? Something new, innovative, groundbreaking: it has to be an evolution, taking our awareness of what culture can be to a new level. Something we’ve never seen before. First contact. There are several, possibly many contenders. New Moon, Where The Wild Things Are, Michael Jackson, Tiger Woods, Taylor Swift and Kanye West, Taylor Swift and Taylor Lautner, Glee… These swirled in the cultural eddies of 2009, but we need to be more ambitious in our search, looking for the lunar forces that drove the cultural tides upon which these other things were carried. Using criteria of boldness, execution, brilliance, and impact, I nominate the following:

1) Jay-Z, Blueprint 3
2) U2 360 Tour
3) James Ellroy’s novel, Blood’s A Rover
4) Lady GaGa. Nothing specific, just Lady GaGa.

Jay-Z stepped up with a groundbreaking, brutal assault on the future, delivering his eleventh number one album in an unforgiving display of redefinition; U2 expanded the concept of the stadium show exponentially, taking it into space; James Ellroy’s prose crackled and punched with violent arcs of raw electricity, each word a sharp spark, each page a cascade of live wires flipping with the power of the current flowing through them.

But. Lady Gaga. Hard to compare to any one of the previous three, let alone all at once. But Lady GaGa was, simply, everywhere, and not just famous for being famous; propelled into the cultural stratosphere by actual talent and creativity. Innovative costumes (Kermits! Spinning geometric hoops! Bubbles!), intricately brilliant, baroque-ly constructed operatic pop-dance mini-epics… It was as though 2009 considered what it needed, really sat down and thought to itself, what would best sum me up, and lo, it created Lady Gaga, a pop star and musician totally of 2009, totally of the moment, created by the moment, built from the moment. 2009 was a year for brilliance, boldness, confidence: we had recovered from our Y2K anxieties, the horrors of the start of the decade, the paranoia about what to call the damn decade (the aughts, the zeros, the noughties…), there was even a start to economic recovery – we surged forward with our bold Star Trek remakes, our uncompromising adaptions of Sendak picture books, really launched ourselves into an ever more densely packed cultural landscape (vampires, werewolves, Yankees), happily embracing more than ever world-changes wrought by visionaries (IMAX 3D, Harry Potter, iPhones, Pixar – seriously, Steve Jobs = man of the decade), and we found our stride this year, and in a moment of Taoist brilliance, the universe rewarded us with the perfect reflection of all of this: Lady GaGa. What a year. To use two of James Ellroy’s many thousands of brilliant sentences to describe 2009: “It was all dizzying. It was re-situating, re-wire-all-your-circuits shit.”