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.
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.
Three and a half out of five abrasive Edge guitar sounds
(essentially, a three star album with some four star moments)