U2, ‘Songs of Innocence’ – Album Review
‘Songs of Innocence’ marks the 13th full-length studio album of U2’s career. A few of those albums (‘Achtung Baby,’ ‘Unforgettable Fire,’ ‘Joshua Tree’) are essential listening. Number 13 is not, but that doesn't mean it's a bad album.
For most of their lives, Bono has been howling over the Edge’s chorus-soaked guitar while drummer Larry Mullen Jr. and bassist Adam Clayton hold down the bottom end. They are damned good at being U2, that distinctive sound honed to perfection over four decades. Even if you aren’t a fan, you can probably recognize a U2 cut immediately.
And that’s the rub with being such an iconic band: When your sound is that distinctive, you simply can’t escape it. Should you even try? Take a risk on a new record and half your fans complain; play it safe and the other half complains. Innovate, but give fans exactly what they expect.
So for a band as veteran as U2, any new release is a risk, really. The safe move is to play the hits ad infinitum, lead the adoring crowds in epic ‘With or Without You’ sing-alongs and sell some t-shirts. They are competing with their own legacy with each new album, listeners expecting the next ‘Bad,’ ‘Sunday Bloody Sunday’ or ‘One,’ but also expecting something brand new. It must be a nice problem to have, but it’s a problem all the same.
The official line is that ‘Songs of Innocence’ is “a kind of musical autobiography,” so take that for what it’s worth. In the end, all that matters is the songs, not the artists’ intent nor their legacy, nor does the massive marketing campaign that dropped the album into your iTunes' purchased folder.
‘Songs of Innocence’ opens with three weak cuts rather than coming out swinging, an odd choice for an album with ambitions to right the band’s somewhat tilted ship.
“My best friend Guggi had a ticket and he snuck us through a side exit he pried open. The world stopped long enough for us to get on it. Even though we only saw half the show, it became one of the great nights of our life ...”
But ‘The Miracle’ captures none of that. The lyrics do, but the music is like some kind of Adam and the Ants / Coldplay mashup clocking in at 4:15 rather than a more Ramones-like two minutes. I want to be at the club with Guggi, discovering Da Boyz for the first time, but the sound simply doesn’t follow the sense. The reverie that Bono tries to create via the lyrics is undercut by the music, like juxtaposing a ‘Goodfellas’ scene with ‘Yakety Sax.’
We immediately fall into the legacy trap with the next track, ‘Every Breaking Wave.’ Adam Clayton’s opening bass line is a dead ringer for ‘With or Without You,’ and here I go comparing U2 to themselves. Once we’re past the intro, though, ‘Every Breaking Wave’ is very much its own song. “Every shipwrecked soul knows what it is / To live without intimacy,” Bono sings. It’s a poignant lyric when viewed from the perspective of adolescent love, those years when romantic innocence experiences its first bumps and bruises.
‘California (There is No End to Love)’ is a nerve-gratingly bad Coldplay knockoff featuring an annoying homage to the Beach Boys’ ‘Barbara Ann.’
That’s the worst of it, though. After that weak trifecta of openers, ‘Song for Someone’ showcases the band doing what they do best: working the loud/soft dynamic; foregrounding the Edge’s simple yet tasteful guitar figures; and leaving lots of space for Bono to build a mood. A quick check of the liner notes reveals the secret to the cut’s laser focus on U2 goodness: ‘Song for Someone’ is the album’s lone track produced by longtime collaborator Flood.
‘Iris (Hold Me Close)’ builds on that momentum. This is another track that could end up slipping into a power rotation, Clayton’s bass and Mullen’s drums providing a muscular armature upon which the Edge noodles and Bono whoops. The rhythm section is off their leash for ‘Volcano,’ too, a foot stomper that will no doubt be shaking a stadium near you soon. ‘Raised by Wolves’ is a hackneyed image, but the song itself is quite powerful.
‘Cedarwood Road’ is clearly written around a riff, and that riff is as crunchy as anything you’ll pour into your cereal bowl. This is the U2 we like: the little Irish pub band building songs from nasty little guitar figures. But wait, the lush, post punk, synth-washed U2 is on display in ‘Sleep Like A Baby,’ a cut worthy of a David Lynch soundtrack (or at the very least, a Duran Duran video). The cut is evocative and dreamy; sound and sense in perfect harmony.
‘This is Where You Can Reach Me Now’ includes a killer riff, too, this one borrowed from ‘Exile’-era Stones. And what does a song that cribs Keith Richards need? Theremin, of course, that “ooo-eee-ooo” instrument from old sci-fi movies and more famously the original ‘Star Trek’ theme song. It’s a wonderfully weird choice, a nice surprise lurking in a solid but overall unsurprising song.
The album closer, ‘The Troubles,’ takes us out on an emotionally low but epic note. One would be forgiven for expecting a political song, and we suppose it could be. “Somebody stepped inside your soul / Little by little they robbed and stole / Till someone else was in control,” the Greek chorus sings, a sentiment both broad enough to apply to anything and specific enough to speak to whatever rock is in your particular shoe. That’s the beauty of a well written song. ‘The Troubles’ speaks to lost love, lost chances, the human impulse to hold onto the denial and dysfunction we know rather than the happiness that we want. It’s a powerful song, as good as anything in the band’s catalog.
In the end ‘Songs of Innocence’ suffers from being three songs too long and having the audacity to be made by one of the biggest bands of the last 30 years. Sunglasses, preaching, multimillion dollar partnerships, giant lemons, Bono’s Live Aid era mullet: U2 carries all of that baggage with them wherever they go. I get that, but inevitably it’s all about the songs, and the band bats eight for 11 on this album. Drop your guard and give it an honest listen.