Review Summary: Kings of the Middle of the Road.
Say what you will of U2, one word that certainly can't describe them is the kiss of death; "irrelevant"
. Always keen to reinvent themselves, the success that they afforded on post-punk/stadium warps Joshua Tree
and The Unforgettable Fire
was enough to leave them with a platform to which they could perform on their own terms, quickly darting away from blues and roots on Rattle & Hum
to the poignant send up of state of affairs in the 90s, Achtung Baby
. Since then, they've reinvented themselves multiple times and come back from the dead every time with an anthem to rocket them back into the public consciousness. Never ones to get hung up on the punk rock guilt, it isn't too shocking that they would pair up with Apple to distribute their latest album as a freebie for iTunes users; what is shocking however is how blasé Bono and his gang of preachers approach the actual recording aspect of Songs of Innocence
Perhaps, the hullabaloo around Songs of Innocence
's distribution is what's driving our attention forward. Maybe, the knowledge that it's part of something inherently bigger
is why we're entranced. Certainly, we can all predict that no matter what, this cannot and will not be the strongest release of U2's career (just give a listen to free non-album single "Invisible". Yikes.). It's these lingering thoughts that pester even through the surprisingly strong opening trio. Bono and The Edge deliver tried and tested anthems in staggeringly consistent succession; glam rock chants and stomping rhythms persevere on "The Miracle (Of Joey Ramone)", stadium sing-a-long cheese persists on "Every Breaking Wave" and adopted patriotism runs through the gloriously simple "California (There is No End to Love)". It's not prime U2, but it's certainly enjoyable material, unfortunate as it appears a flash in the pan. It's totally maddening when the might falls, by the time the album hits its middle section flailing at disco dirge "Iris (Hold Me Close)", boredom ensues and ...Innocence
's novelty begins to wear thin.
Some surprises pop up around the halfway mark, but they're nothing to get overly excited about (especially when you consider Danger Mouse is at the helm). "Volcano" sets out a furious groove to lay down some syrupy melodies upon, and prefaces the hard-edged (for U2 standards) nature of "Raised by Wolves" and "Cedarwood Road", opening up tensile floodgates at an otherwise sullen time. Unfortunately, surrounded by dragging ballads and throbbing synths, they're anomalies and not the standards, deprived of much in the way of memorable hooks or poignant lyrics. Compared to the nostalgic reminiscing that opened the record, the plaintive moaning of "The Troubles" drags far too long and lacks enough self-awareness to really be successful. When just about the biggest criticism levied at them is their lack of shock and surprise, it's surprising they're doing very little to curb the hegemony of being 'Kings of the Middle of the Road'. It's been said by the cynics and the critics but it feels fully realized at this point; have U2 released this via Apple to capitalize on the fact that nobody would buy it otherwise?
It's debatable, but ultimately untrue. U2 do know full well that they have a dedicated fan-base who will support every aspect of the bands career, even if that means continuously buying crap after crap like No Line on the Horizon
and How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb
. With good merits, ...Innocence
stands head and shoulder above a cacophony of boredom that's long plagued the last 20-years of Ireland's beloved. However 'nice' it may be that U2 have delivered us an album for free, it's more than a little sad that nowadays the most exciting aspect of a new U2 release is its distribution method. In a time where overnight releases like Beyoncé's self-titled and My Bloody Valentine's mbv
(and, it must be said, free distribution like Nine Inch Nails' The Slip
and Radiohead's In Rainbows
), has heralded a dawn of exciting releases for mainstream artists backed by equally brilliant pieces of music, U2 seem complacent and lazy in the knowledge that inevitably, everyone and their cats will one day give Songs of Innocence
at least a solitary listen.
We remember '80s U2 for numerous stadium rock masterpieces. We remember '90s U2 for experiments in industrial and shoegaze with oversized sunglasses. We remember '00s U2 for a resurgence in hits and headlining status. If we are going to remember '10s U2 for anything, chances are it'll be the fact Apple exchanged 500-million customers homemade pornography for Songs of Innocence