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.



Three and a half out of five abrasive Edge guitar sounds 

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





“These are dark times, there is no denying…”

In late November 2010, the David Yates-directed Harry Potter And The Deathly Hallows Part I and Kanye West’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy were released. Two works of art that seemed to capture the moment with their raw immediacy, multi-layered complexity, roughness and beauty, emotional resonances and a wild sense of creativity and innovation at full throttle with ideas to spare. Two cultural phenomena that thrived on guest performances to enhance the core roles: just as Kanye brought on Jay-Z, Pusha T, Nicki Minaj and others, so David Yates did the equivalent with the continuous Harry Potter guest star roll-call of British acting royalty: Nick Moran, Bill Nighy, Peter Mullan, Rhys Ifans. West and Yates have given free rein to their creative interpretations of their material, while always maintaining absolute control of the big picture, the final product. Both Hallows and Fantasy are in some ways the ultimate expression to date of their creators’ mastery of their chosen art form, and are vehicles for their creators to innovate wildly within a solid architecture and structure.

On My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, West accesses excess, melancholy, and the crazy highs and lows of fame, in an ultra-confident, tour-de-force performance powered by absolute bravura and assurance. Along the way, he takes time to tear down the conceptual frameworks of fame, celebrity, and wealth, at the same time flaunting all of them. It’s a complex, contradictory work, this album, but it is multi-layered and rewarding, almost a concept album in its consistent presentation of Kanye West’s interior world, already revealed to us by his Twitter feed and the steady stream of free tracks from his recording sessions earlier in the year. He can tear himself apart, as in Runaway, exult in his status, as on Monster, or do both, as he does in Power, while underlying the whole is a sad, melancholy ambience, perhaps best summed up by one of his tweets from earlier in 2010: “Seems like I miss my loved ones the most when I stare out the jet window… There’s a nostalgia in the skyscraper lights.”

Melancholy is an emotion that is not in short supply in Deathly Hallows Part I, which is easily the bleakest, most emotionally brutal Potter movie to date. The seventh and penultimate film in the Harry Potter series begins with a close-up of the troubled eyes of Bill Nighy as the new Minister for Magic, describing the dark times that have befallen the world. Dark times indeed – this is without a doubt the darkest and most visceral Potter to date, thanks to J.K. Rowling’s unflinching vision, Steve Kloves’ subtle adaptation, and the thrilling, eerie direction of David Yates.

Yates has a keen eye for the urban and the gritty, married with an extraordinary sense for beautiful and lonely shot composition. Together with Kloves, he has added some great cinematic flourishes to Rowling’s narrative: whether it’s Hagrid and Harry escaping along a motorway with exploding caravans and cars flipping around them, or an enraged Voldemort bringing down miles of crackling pylons stretching off into the night, Yates has a strong, nuanced grasp of the translation from page to screen, knowing when to disappear, and when to enhance.

West’s grasp of when to disappear into the material is evident in Fantasy. On the guest star behemoth of the album, All Of The Lights, he weaves his vocals among the textures of no less than eleven others, including Rihanna, Elton John, Fergie, and John Legend. Also firm is West’s grasp of how to spin darkly psychological and fantastical tales, and when to foreground one or the other. Many years ago, I was fortunate to have the chance to talk with Philip Pullman about the His Dark Materials trilogy (Northern Lights / The Golden Compass, The Subtle Knife, The Amber Spyglass). He told me that while writing it, he had been looking to bring a darker psychology to the fantasy genre, something West does with acuity on Fantasy. A fierce psychological clarity is something that Pullman justifiably gets much credit for in his trilogy, but it is something that many critics miss when assessing J. K Rowling’s seven-book series.

The Harry Potter novels are sometimes held to be somehow softer than Pullman’s. This is not true; Rowling’s works are often chillingly dark, taking an unflinching look at loss, death, and the transformation of goodness into evil. David Yates’s direction of Order Of The Phoenix, The Half-Blood Prince, and The Deathly Hallows, lays this starkly bare. He foregrounds the bare-bones cruelty and horror and wrenching sense of loss, and makes it clear: when Rowling starts her novel with an epigraph containing the phrase “the grinding scream of death,” she means it.

But the Harry Potter series is not just about death and darkness: it is about warmth, hope, the power of true love, the beauty of friendship, and survival. Yates and longtime Potter screenwriter Steve Kloves understand this. The screenplays and films are full of lovely grace notes, some from Rowling, some added by Kloves and Yates.

Particularly effective was the addition to Deathly Hallows of a scene in which Harry starts an impromptu dance with Hermione when all seems lost. It’s a rare moment of release and joy in a bleak journey as they dance to Nick Cave’s O Children, before the signal fades into static on the radio they are listening to, and the hopelessness takes over once more. This scene is a brilliant textural touch, and also recalls another part of Rowling’s epigraph, the plea to the “blissful powers underground – answer the call, send help. Bless the children, give them triumph now.”

Yates is a master of such texture, such subtlety. West shows similar mastery of textural control on Fantasy, sampling Mike Oldfield and King Crimson, weaving the wistfulness of Bon Iver into several tracks, unleashing Raekwon’s angular chaos on Gorgeous, enlisting the RZA on opening track Dark Fantasy, and generally bringing together beats, sounds and guests raps with the inspired craziness of Doc Brown in Back To The Future, which could have been a subtitle to the album, just as My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy could have been the subtitle for Rowling’s series, or the subtitle to anything writers write, because deep down, this is why we do it – to remake our interior worlds outside ourselves, and exult in them.

One of Yates’s great strengths as a director is to access subtle truths in the performances of his actors; beautiful, naturalistic moments, often almost imperceptible. Gary Oldman’s wink to Harry at the Grimmauld Place table in Phoenix; Alan Rickman’s anguish conveyed in the absolute stillness of his face in Hallows; Jason Isaac’s twitchy, desperate despair. Ralph Fiennes’ many flickering emotions; there, then gone. Yates draws from all his actors the most heartfelt and minimal expressions. He has also coached superior performances from all three leads. Emma Watson in particular has accessed new levels of truth and reality in her portrayal of Hermione, more so even than Dan Radcliffe and Rupert Grint, although they too have become fully settled in their characters, able to do things in Deathly Hallows that would not have been capable of before now. Under Yates’s eye, actors’ faces become quiet, minimalist symphonies of expression.

Like Fantasy with its moments of reflection amidst the grandstanding beats, for example, following a quiet orchestral interlude with the rollicking All Of The Lights, Deathly Hallows is a film of contrasts: all beautiful stillness and furious motion. Visually, Yates has no equal in the way he conjures the visual architecture of isolation. His shot compositions are eerily beautiful and achingly lonely, and he has an unmatched eye for the “active tableau” – perfectly framed moments of stillness, full of promised motion in the convergence of their lines.

Of all the directors in the series, David Yates has brought the most effective blend of the magical world with the real, contemporary world. He has understood more than any of the others how to reveal Rowling’s truths with textural nuances; and he has committed to film some of the most realistic, if that’s the word, depictions of magic in the series to date, filming magic as a raw and dangerous energy, like a live power cable snaking with energy, unstable and violent in unskilled hands, beautiful and fluid in the hands of a master. Like the stuff of Rowling’s novels in the hands of the directors. Like West’s many muses, like his control of song structure, sampling, beats, raps and atmospheres.

West and Yates have proved to be the greatest wizards of all.

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.”

Empire State Of Mind / falsetto prophecies

It takes a certain state of mind to never settle, never accept; to always move onwards, deconstructing the past to make something never seen before. A certain kind of ruthlessness. To be new all the time is a fierce position to take. Constantly remaking your world is not an easy thing. Writers, painters, musicians, TV execs, all face the challenge of reinvention; sustaining relevance. Take Californication’s third season: it’s darker and more complicated, rougher than before. Its beautiful soul, in the form of Natasha McElhone, has drifted to the periphery of the show, at least for now. Without its soul it is lost somehow but still has its wayward charm, despite the rawness, the darkness. You fear for it, like you would fear for a charming alcoholic with a bottle of whiskey in hand. The intelligence and wit are there, but with more of an edge, a presence of rage beneath the surface. It’s like a Kris Kristofferson blues, a Warren Zevon comedown lament. Like days ending. The sky darkens, the night brings rain, whispering on the surface of our minds. Massive Attack’s new EP is that whisper. It’s a remixed promo for a forthcoming album – remixing the future this time – a pensive set of tracks. Beauty and loneliness in peripheral vision, half-dreaming. It’s a quiet yearning, an aching that never seems to stop. Much less quiet, disrupting the night with sound and fury, is Jay-Z, whose Blueprint 3 was recently released to a roar of critical approval, and the #1 spot – his 11th. It’s a monument to the relentless pursuit of being the best, the newest, the one and only contender; the Ali of rap, the Beyonce of pop. The album is like a triple-triple-espresso in every beat, like the sentences in James Ellroy’s latest opus, Blood’s A Rover; brutal, condensed violence, densely packed yet overarching, epic – it has much in common with Blueprint 3. This Jay-Z of novelists went so deep into the darkness of his characters to feel them truthfully that he lost himself in a breakdown. It’s the ongoing theme – the danger of journeying into the dark for art. Fortunately Ellroy made it back; truly a giant of American fiction, of any fiction – looming over the literary landscape. The U2 of fiction, towering like the Alien Claw set on U2’s current tour. The monstrous structure rising out of Giants Stadium like a mothership about to lift off, past the intense line of the Manhattan night skyline ripping the night alive, heading away from NYC into a shimmering oceanic density of thousands of glittering lights. The entire structure rippling thousands of times a second with light roaring majestically into space. It’s philosophically astute, this Spaceship set. It shocks you out of your usual ways of experiencing and your perceptual expectations like Olafur Eliasson’s Weather Project, opening your mind to the pure, unmediated experience; what you “know” set aside in favor of what is. Exhilaration, over the top, like the skyline, too beautiful to be real; an empire state of mind. All writers need this state of mind over their own literary kingdoms. We need to build our spaceships and not be afraid to take off. Vision. Vertigo. The two often go hand in hand. Creating the blueprints for the future to rise alongside the skylines we’ve already made. Always hustling, looking for the greatest line, the most perfect four minute song, or riff, or story, or novel. Each one must be the best, better than the last, better than the rest. “I move onward, the only direction, can’t be scared to fail in the search of perfection,” raps Jay-Z in On To The Next One. What joins them all is the bold vision that deconstructs what went before and refashions the future according to their creativity, their souls. Like Lady GaGa deconstructing pop to build the mezzo architecture of Paparazzi, then deconstructing Poker Face into a metallic heliosphere and her own unprocessed voice, dizzyingly, exhilaratingly pure, her naked voice the most beautiful it has ever sounded, as though through the metal and light she’s revealing her soul to us with eerie intensity. Like the Weather Project, like U2’s mothership, the lights and fury and sheer unexpectedness of it all shock our perceptual framework sideways and then we experience unmediated exactly what the artist wants us to. With Lady GaGa, it’s her lonely, lovely voice that strips back the meaning of the song and rebuilds it again. U2 do it with I’ll Go Crazy If I Don’t Go Crazy Tonight, utterly dismantling the song and retrofitting it into a pusling techno behemoth that could only exist beneath the Claw. Ellroy does it in Blood’s A Rover, attacking and restacking his narrative style. This might be the mark of the truest artist; they can fragment what came before into something new and beautiful, then deconstruct and remix their own creations into futuristic, stripped back yet magnificent new versions. Striving for the new, finding a new visual, verbal or musical language, a new language of movement in choreography; new ways of moving us and touching our souls. Like Michael Chabon’s Trickster In A Suit Of Lights, the exuberantly talented mischief-maker who exists in the spaces between the things we know. Bono embodies this literally during Ultraviolet towards the end of the show, in his suit covered with red laser-like lights, hundreds of red lines piercing the blue otherworldy glow around him with chaotic geometry. The Trickster looks for the action in the borders between things, the places where new directions take form; this is where U2 dwell, more experimental and progressive than many give them credit for. After two straight-up rock albums, they returned with a quietly ruminative piece, from which they launched one of the biggest rock tours of all time, journeying around the planet in their Spaceship/Alien Claw creation, bringing out of the hushed quiet of No Line on The Horizon the behemoth of the 360 tour. True tricksters (in the best sense) of hearts and minds.
“I’m going in for the kill, I’m doing it for the thrill…” La Roux
This played before the U2 show, as the sun set beyond Giants Stadium, a cool breeze flowed around the massive set and 84,000 people slowly appeared, the crowd intensifying as the sky grew dark and Muse unleashed their stadium-sized post-apocalyptic bombast via screaming, squalling brutal guitar riffing, Matt Bellamy’s falsetto prophecies ringing out loud and clear as the band roared out from beneath. Then the lights went out, U2 lit up, and for 2 hours and 15 minutes, the future came back through a massive rift in the time-space music continuum, spinning and flashing wildly, a close encounter with a future state of mind, an empire state of mind.