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)





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.

love like a shooting star across the dream-night of the world

This is the title of one of my short stories, published in the Momaya Annual Review, which had its official launch today.

Having a story published means a huge amount to any writer. It’s one of those small, beautiful increments, another step along the yellow brick road to the emerald city, the citadel that awaits the lucky few. As writers, we necessarily spend much of our time writing in the dark, as it were, without recognition, without anyone knowing what we are up to. But we continue to write, not knowing if what we are making will ever reach the outside world, will ever make that alchemical connection with the reader. When an entity like Momaya Press shines a light on our fictional universes, it creates a bridge between our writing and the world; this means everything to me. It’s often said that the words on the page (or the e-reader) are only half the equation, and this is to a certain extent true; when a reader takes in those words and makes them their own, the equation becomes complete.

This particular short story is excerpted from a novel in progress, which itself was inspired by the landscapes of America, the music of U2 (that wide-eyed, widescreen, exultant view of America), and the emotional beats of a daughter trying to connect with whatever may be left of her family. At heart, it’s about the many different aspects and meanings of family; it’s also a road trip and love story. Getting this story published, this preview of the main event, is thrilling. To see some of the characters on the page, is wonderful. It’s inspiring, a tremendous boost to finish the novel, which will also be a screenplay.

So this post is really a big thank you to Momaya Press for liking this story, for seeing something in it that they believed others should also see. It’s a beautiful moment for me, as it would be for any writer. These are the moments that keep us going; those beautiful glimpses of light in the dark that let us know that the citadel awaits.

set the controls for the heart of the sun

British space-rockers Muse have always been intergalactic.

They tend towards the epic. Their latest tour is no exception. Currently playing in arenas in the US (as opposed to their usual stadiums elsewhere in the world), they are in the ascendant here, expanding beyond the confines of the space into undiscovered dimensions. The show is like a million brilliantly-lit synapses firing simultaneously, Pink Floyd on acid, fast-forwarded into a monumental version of 2001:A Space Odyssey (their stage set has monoliths and is full of stars, and spending two hours watching it is like traveling through the star gate, over and over again), digitally spliced into an enhanced, particularly psychedelic version of the original Star Trek series, remixed into the atmospherically heavy, majestic and futuristic landscapes of Blade Runner, and with all the paranoia of the best sci-fi, and all the beauty – as Exogenesis: Symphony Part I plays out, digital imagery overloads our sensory capabilities to behold it as we see starry visions, endless space, poetic IMAX-level visuals like the more out-there scenes from Avatar, only more so.

And that’s just one song.

They play many more over the two hour show, and, having learned well from their stint supporting U2 on their 360 stadium tour last year, Muse work the stage, in the round, allowing fans on all sides to watch Matt Bellamy coax howls and whispers, screams and tears, roars and huge, monster crunching from his guitar as he croons and soars, playing furiously, with molten metal fluidity. The band is extraordinarily locked together, and they lay down crushing grooves as though several Led Zeppelins were on stage with a few Metallicas and Slayers; only Muse make it look effortless. They blend metal, indie-rock, orchestral majesty, virtuoso piano like Chopin. Imagine a supergroup comprised of Joe Satriani, James Hetfield, Thom Yorke, Jeff Buckley, a bevy of conspiracy theorists, an alien and Debussy, and you might get close to understanding the truly unearthly being that is singer-guitarist Matt Bellamy. The other two are peerless: Dominic Howard sounds like an army of drummers and delivers a brutal, monumental barrage of monstrous, relentless proportions, while Chris Wolstenholme transforms his bass from the super-charged engine of the Muse spaceship  into a fifties B-movie monster prowling menacing and vast through the future cityscapes created by Matt and Dominic, thrashing around, pounding at impossible speeds, rising up to loom over the whole.

The Muse experience is an insane, mind-dazzling rush delivered with absolute control, precision and power. They are becoming themselves in the US at last: powered by the triple engine of the Twilight soundtrack connection, the U2 support gig last year, and the release of what might be their best album yet in The Resistance, a slinky, hard-rocking, melancholy and space-operatic masterpiece with no inhibitions: the most perfect blend yet of the old-fashioned romance, paranoia, beauty and gazing into the far reaches of the universe that typifies Muse.

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.”