When U2 dropped their new album, Songs of Innocence, on half a billion people two weeks ago, it was greeted with a range of responses, from jubilation (“At last, the new U2 record is here!”) to annoyance (“What?! I didn’t ask for this musical spam on my phone!). I suppose I felt something of both of these emotions. I was happy to have the album, but I was put off by the annoyingly clever marketing maneuver, which enabled them to simultaneously appear generous (Here, have a free album!) while pocketing a ton of cash (upwards of 100 million dollars, by some estimates—thank you, Apple).
U2’s conscious commitment to remaining as popular as possible is evident in their new production team—Danger Mouse (Black Keys, Norah Jones), Paul Epworth (Coldplay, Adele) and Ryan Tedder (Adele, Beyonce, Maroon 5). Since these guys have all presided over massively popular recent pop albums, one would expect the gamble will pay off and this album will be extremely popular. Given that it was instantly placed in the hands and ears of 500 million people, it sure doesn’t need any more promotion. But not so fast. The backlash prompted by the intrusiveness of the automatic download has negatively impacted public perception of the album, and this is evident in some otherwise inexplicable album reviews.
So the band’s preoccupation with popularity and profit might have backfired. But I can’t help but wonder why these mega-millionaires are still being so careful to maximize their profits? I thought they were liberal-progressives, not hard-core capitalists. Consequently, I did not want to like this album. I wanted it to be an aesthetic failure to match what I, like so many others, regard as a pragmatic flop. And yet, as I listened and listened some more, I was thoroughly disappointed. Yep, I must admit, it’s actually a really good album. Dang.
Some people are put off by the production, which is more disciplined and clean than ever, making every song radio ready. Some complain that they long for the raw energy of their older sound. But U2 hasn’t sounded like that in more than twenty years, so why expect it now? Anyway, I say don’t begrudge a band’s willingness to explore, even when that exploration takes them in musical directions you don’t like, such as toward a more polished, popular sound. As annoying as their preoccupation with “staying relevant” might be, if the result is actually better music, then the quality of the music shouldn’t be denied, which is what I think a lot of listeners are doing—allowing the controversy around the music to prevent them from giving the music a fair hearing.
Nowhere is the more disciplined production approach more apparent than in Bono’s vocals, which sound as strong as they have since the 1980s. Lyrically, too, Songs of Innocence works as well as any of their records, excepting The Joshua Tree. The inspiration of most of the tracks is drawn from experiences in their youth (hence the album title), and many of the topics are intensely personal. There are songs about Bono’s wife (“Song for Someone”), Bono’s mother who died when he was a teenager (“Iris”), the street where he grew up (“Cedarwood Road”), and an Irish paramilitary bombing in Ireland that impacted the lives of some of the band’s friends (“Raised by Wolves”).
There is a lot of longing and introspection on this album—deep emotions that defy the slick production. In “Every Breaking Wave,” which has a Killers flavor to it, Bono sings, “Every sailor knows that the sea is a friend made enemy, and every shipwrecked soul knows what it is to live without intimacy. I thought I heard the captain’s voice, but it’s hard to listen while you preach. Like every broken wave on the shore, this is far as I could reach.” And in “California,” which suggests an Arcade Fire influence with its rumbling drum section and string textures, Bono declares, “Everyone’s a star in our town. It’s just your light gets dimmer if you have to stay.”
And the song “This is Where You Can Reach Me Now” is a tribute to the Clash, whom Bono has called “the greatest band ever.” Bono explains: “After we saw the Clash, it was a sort of blueprint for U2. We knew we couldn’t possibly hope to be as cool, and that’s proven to be true, but we did think we could get behind a sort of social justice agenda.” And so Bono sings, “Soldier, soldier, we signed our lives away. Complete surrender, the only weapon we know. Soldier, soldier, we knew the world would never be the same. Soldier, this is where you can reach me now.” It’s a fitting tribute to the Clash, with Bono’s creative use of military images for their musical mission. The only weapon they know? Music. And as career rock and roll social activists, U2 certainly did sign their lives away—to their art, their social causes and, yes, a whole lot of money.
The album concludes with “The Troubles,” which features additional vocals by Swedish indie singer Lykke Li. The song makes for a haunting closer with its dreamy string section and ominous lyric: “Somebody stepped inside your soul. Somebody stepped inside your soul. Little by little they robbed and stole till someone else was in control.” This might seem like an unexpected choice to close an album about innocence, unless it is supposed to be portentous. Indeed it might be, if Bono’s intimations about an imminent follow-up themed “Songs of Experience” (with a nod to William Blake) is to be taken seriously. Whether the next album comes sooner or later, time will tell. But I think we can be confident of one thing—they won’t force it on us next time.