Review Summary: A heart that is broken is a heart that is open.
Like all great men, U2 entered the final phase of their careers thinking about the sort of legacy that they were going to leave behind. In an interview with Radio 1 DJ Zane Lowe, Bono even went as far as to admit that the group had started wondering if it was truly worth going any further. "We were trying to figure out, 'Why would anyone want another U2 album?'” explained the vocalist. He may have had a point – the Irish band’s last two albums had suffered from a steady decline in sales that was alarmingly steeper than the overall industry trend, with matters coming to a head in 2009 when No Line on the Horizon
only managed a fourth of what All That You Can’t Leave Behind
had achieved less than a decade earlier. As a wag once wrote, sometimes you just gotta know when to quit.
But U2 are an outfit whose entire career arc has been defined by their ability to respond to periods of strife. Famously: amidst growing critical backlash against the ill-advised Rattle and Hum
motion picture and its companion album, the band announced whilst on-stage in Australia that they were going to "go away and... dream it all up again". They would return two years later, having successfully crafted the now-seminal Achtung Baby
. A similar story unfolded in the aftermath of Pop
’s spectacular critical and commercial implosion – the four Irishmen quickly regrouped in the studio and put together All That You Can’t Leave Behind
, whose raft of hit singles instantly introduced a whole new generation of fans to the music of U2. This surprising string of successes led the group to declare on several occasions that they were “re-applying for the job…of best band in the world.” Unsurprisingly, some of that fiery defiance still lingers to this day. “I'm perfectly prepared for people to try and blow us off the stage,” said Bono in that same interview with DJ Lowe. “We're just not going to make it easy.”
It’s worth unpacking Songs of Innocence
whilst keeping Achtung Baby
in mind for several reasons. One of them, undoubtedly, is the necessity of recalling that the latter album was forged in an envelope of uncertainty, at the epicenter of a continent that was only just coming to grips with the end of the Cold War. Back then, U2’s hand was guided by the belief that “domesticity was the enemy of rock ‘n’ roll”, and that inspiration could be found only by traversing to the outer limits of one’s comfort zone. Songs of Innocence
, however, finds them subscribing to the exact inverse of that philosophy. "We wanted to make a very personal album," said Bono to Rolling Stone's Gus Wenner the day before Apple Live. "The whole album is first journeys – first journeys geographically, spiritually, sexually. And that's hard. But we went there." When viewed through that prism, U2’s thirteenth album represents a complete turnaround in the band’s compositional philosophy; the perfect antithesis to albums like Achtung Baby
. It would also explain why the group were so reluctant to release the record expediently, despite acknowledging its existence since mid-2009. "We wanted to wait until we had one that was as good as our very best work," was the way Bono put it, right before Tim Cook walked Songs of Innocence
into 500 million computers worldwide.
Now, I don’t want to spend a word more than is necessary in discussing the release mechanism behind Songs of Innocence
– websites like Pitchfork and Rolling Stone will undoubtedly do that for us ad nauseum
– so suffice to say that I thought the best thing that came out of it was the uncanny sense of magic that accompanied Apple and U2’s stage theatrics. One moment Tim Cook was applauding the live performance of “The Miracle (of Joey Ramone)” and saying “We would love a whole album of that!”, and before I knew it ten other U2 songs were already clamoring for my attention from behind the beaten-up screen of my iPhone 4S. But Cook was also bang-on about one other thing: “The Miracle (of Joey Ramone)” is the first U2 single in over a decade that is deserving of repeated listens. “I woke up at the moment when the miracle occurred/Heard a song that made some sense out of the world,” cries Bono amidst a stomping chorus section, inviting us to conceptualize music as both a drug and a religion. The song’s punk-influenced sound and its chest-beating professions of faith also make it the most U2-sounding number since, well, October
. Also, isn’t it funny that an unabashed love song to The Ramones should end up as the purest and clearest-eyed love anthem that U2 have ever written?
Songs of Innocence
also retains some influences from the No Line on the Horizon
sessions, as the presence of “Every Breaking Wave” - which was previously debuted on the 360 Tour - proves. Here, Bono sounds like he has rolled back the years, with his falsetto-propelled narrative having a startling air of clarity to it. Younger listeners will recall that he employed similar tactics on 2004’s “Sometimes You Can’t Make It on Your Own”, but while it felt like a cheap parlor trick back then, here it only serves to magnify the song’s emotional reach tenfold. Elsewhere, “California (There is no End to Love)” continues the theme of first journeys by paying tribute to U2’s recollections of their first experiences in Los Angeles as mere rock ‘n’ roll acolytes. The number feels like it could fit easily on an album like (What’s The Story) Morning Glory?
, thanks in no small part to its massive, invigorating chorus and The Edge’s aqueous closing guitar solo. Even deeper into the record, the barnstorming “Cedarwood Road” is what I imagine a cross between “Bullet the Blue Sky” and “Stand Up Comedy” must sound like, while “The Troubles” sees Lykke Li comfortably stealing the show from Bono, just as Johnny Cash did many moons ago on “The Wanderer”.
Unfortunately, Songs of Innocence
is also not without its share of missteps. “Iris (Hold Me Close)” is the first of the weaker numbers to make an appearance, and U2’s inexplicable decision to add “wooh-ooh” backing vocals to the song’s one-word chorus only serves to add a degree of campiness to proceedings. Elsewhere, the best thing that can be said about a number like “Raised by Wolves” is that it is an honest-to-God – yet ultimately unsuccessful – attempt at recreating some of the fiery anti-war commentary that U2 first showcased on songs like “Seconds” and “Pride (In The Name of Love)”. The omnipresent threat of the occasional lyrical clanger (“Tomorrow dawns like a suicide,” moans Bono despondently on “Sleep like a Baby Tonight”) also makes for a rather unwelcome reminder that U2 can be fairly inconsistent wordsmiths at times.
But even after taking all of those weaknesses into consideration, the fact remains that Songs of Innocence
ultimately feels like a crucial upswing in U2’s discography, especially since it comes at such a late stage in their careers. Now, I imagine that it will be rather difficult to make any sort of proper commentary on the strength of the commercial response to this album, given that most of us have already received it for a sum total of zero cents, but if nothing else, it is worth noting that U2 have contrived to put out a record that is capable of reviving the flagging levels of interest in their brand. In other words, this is the kind of album that could just make you believe in their legacy all over again.