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)

 

 

 

 

From The Sky Down

Early on in Davis Guggenheim’s peerless rock documentary, From The Sky Down, U2’s lead singer Bono talks about his lyric-writing process, inadvertently giving the movie its evocative name. Much like Wordsworth used to do, Bono sings sounds, inflections, ghosts of future lyrics, as he works out what the melody is, what shapes it needs to take, to best evoke the soul of the song. “It’s quite odd,” he says, “writing songs like that, from the sky down.”

It’s a typically Bono-esque moment, thoughtfully yet almost off-handedly wrapping a philosophy into a beautifully punchy, haunting phrase that lingers long after the words themselves are gone. It’s like his lyrics, and like the music of U2 at its best: a powerful burst of evocation and passion, an elemental hymn to transcendence.

Guggenheim captures many such moments as he documents how U2 came to the brink of implosion in Berlin in 1991, but instead fought through the darkness to create one of the greatest albums of all time in Achtung Baby. The movie strips bare the landscape of the band as they finished up the Rattle & Hum tour at the Point Depot in Dublin, on New Year’s Eve in 1990, and entered into what would be their most challenging, and ultimately most rewarding period yet. Those were heady times, ripe for a look back from a band best-known for relentlessly moving forward. U2 are a thoughtful group, well-used to analyzing everything that they do. A rehearsal for their headlining Glastonbury performance earlier this year is shown: the band finish a blistering version of The Fly, and then stand in a huddle to listen to the playback, to tear it apart and rebuild again. That scene is the perfect representation of what happened in the Hansa sessions in 1991, and the perfect summation of the band’s entire, multi-decade career. It’s why they were able to carry each other from the darkness into the bright neon, TV-screen lights of Achtung Baby and the Zoo TV tour. It’s why, three decades in, they have just stepped off the biggest rock tour of all time, the 360 tour, in which they played to more people than have ever been played to by a rock group before.

The relentless, unswerving, unflinching pursuit of perfection; the willingness to travel into the darkness in search of truth, and the ability to bring it back to the light.

All artists of every kind need it; not enough have it.

From The Sky Down brilliantly captures U2’s fierce commitment to the song, and shows us those fleeting, almost mystical moments of creation, when the alchemy of the group is in full effect. The documentary reveals the birth of a key track on the album. Guggenheim’s careful camera observes Bono and Edge as the original DAT tape from the session is played back. In the middle of Sick Puppy, which would morph into Mysterious Ways, some haunting chords emerge, built from two bridges that Edge drops into Sick Puppy as an experiment. From those fragments, Young Heart, as it is initially called, will become the world-conquering anthem we now know as One, the first song to fully come together, and the song that likely saved the band. We see those very first tentative steps as the band quickly realizes that magic is at hand. They immediately switch to finessing the chords, adding bass, vocal inflections: the thrill of creation is a beautiful thing.

But the lesson of the documentary is clear: it doesn’t come easy, nor should it.

If you had to sum up From The Sky Down, it would be about the importance of challenging yourself as an artist, and as a person, in order to truly become what you may or may not even know you can be. The band make it clear that they rarely trust anything if it’s too easy; it’s hard-won knowledge from the front lines of being an artist; of being alive. It’s what Yeats called “the fascination with what’s difficult.” Bono tells us at the end: “you have to reject one expression of the band first, before you get to the next expression. And in between, you have nothing. You have to risk it all.”

This takes up the theme put forth by longtime producing partner Flood earlier in the movie: “it’s fraught with danger, because you can fail at any moment. But that’s the beauty of it, if you’re prepared to remove the safety net, and you’re prepared to really expose yourselves, because your pursuit is after the magic moments, those moments of, ‘wow, I would never have imagined.'”

These are the moments all artists chase; and in life, we seek them too. Moments of transformation, of beautiful change, when we realize what our dreams are and how we can make them come true; or when they come true without our even realizing they were our dreams.

When the Rattle & Hum tour was in full flow, and U2 were embracing Americana, absorbing it, letting it take them to new places, Bono could never have known that his greatest achievements in self-expression were just around the corner, wearing Fly shades, shiny leather trousers, and layers of outrageous make-up. Visions can be hard to make real; but sometimes, out there slogging through the trenches, they take flight, usually after the darkest moments of self-doubt, the moment when you contemplate that the dream might always be just that. Hard work begets brilliance; transcendence doesn’t happen in a day.

As it turns out, the documentary, like all the best documentaries, ends up being about more than its nominal subject, which in this case is the hard-fought, hard-won creation of a brilliant piece of music. But From The Sky Down goes far beyond that, transcending the particular, becoming profoundly universal. It’s required viewing for any musician, writer, dancer… any artist of any kind. Its precise, clear-eyed view of the creative process is illuminating, inspiring, and full of truth about art, creativity, and life.