Chances are, if you are on any type of social media, and/or if you have iTunes, you now know that U2 has a new album out. Songs of Innocence was surprise-released on September 9th by the band in conjunction with Apple’s iTunes service. On that date, U2’s new album was automatically uploaded to the accounts of all iTunes account holders for free. Immediately harsh criticism ensued. How dare Apple give me free music that I didn’t ask for. For people who are not fans of the band, they had a readymade target and were falling over themselves to be the one to type the most outlandish and hateful thing they could about the band. People went on tirades about how much of a chore it was to delete the album from their account. Now I do agree, Apple should have made it a choice to download the album. The whole event does raise some serious questions for users of iTunes, and what constitutes fair when it comes to automatically uploading content. But then many of U2’s peers in the industry, many rather hypocritically, skewered the band for setting a precedent that all music now has no value, or worse that the band was so talentless they had to give their music away for it to be heard. Talentless. Hmm. In reality, iTunes wanted a way to promote their name. U2 wanted to reach as many fans as possible. In helping each other achieve their goals, the result has upset many. You only need to scroll through Facebook and point at random posts to see the resulting anger held by some.
For fans of the band like myself, I was tripping over myself to make sure the album loaded to my phone so I could listen at work right after I found out. Despite opposing stories, I actually had to go download it from the iTunes store. It didn’t automatically upload. Then over the next couple days I slowly realized I was not sitting at the cool kids table. I was the one on every Facebook thread saying “…but…it’s a good album!”. I mean (insert your favorite band of the last five years that you liked before they were cool) would never sell out and distribute an album free through iTunes. A single of the week maybe? Okay that’s not an album. What? The band got paid for their album in advance? Corporate bastards! How dare they want to be paid for their work! What got me the most was when Sharon Osbourne started criticizing U2 for being business moguls now instead of a band. Ozzy’s wife. Let that sink in for a bit.
So while the world cries about the end of the music industry as we know it and points a finger at U2, I gave the album a few listens. I must say, I am impressed. The songs mostly come from stories and retellings of the childhood and coming of age of the band, namely Bono, and his falling in love with music. Sure the songs are catchy. U2 writes catchy songs. They know how to write choruses that stick in your head. But many of the reviews I’ve seen so far of this album, especially the ones saying this album is more impersonal than ever, haven’t taken the time to listen or to read the lyrics. Bono even typed up a long essay, letter, whathaveyou that is included in the artwork PDF file, giving insight to these songs. Songs about bombings in his neighborhood, about the loss of his mother, how The Ramones or The Clash changed the band’s lives, about the meeting of his wife of many years. The songs really do fit the the album title. They all come from remembering a time when life was much more innocent and less complicated than their adult lives. The title is derived from a collection of William Blake poems called Songs of Innocence and Experience. Bono has already mentioned a followup called Songs of Experience. I’m guessing this will be part two, dealing with adulthood in contrast to the teenage tales. So what lies in store for the listener who actually takes the time to sit and listen to U2’s latest offering?
The album kicks off in high gear with “The Miracle (of Joey Ramone)”, a song about Bono’s childhood and the way his life felt changed the first time he experienced The Ramones in concert. According to the extensive stream of thought liner notes, he explained that Joey Ramone made him realize that he could be comfortable with having a voice that’s different from the norm. The song marches forward with a much more aggressive tone than much of their last album. Great start so far. Next is “Every Breaking Wave”, a song that originally was intended for the followup volume two of No Line On The Horizon that didn’t happen. Here it sounds fresh amongst these songs. This one is a song about questioning why we go through life setting ourselves up expecting to fail. This one is definitely on the catchier side, maybe more like an All That You Can’t Leave Behind feel. Following that is another flashback song of sorts. “California (There Is No End To Love)” is about not only the excitement the band felt visiting Los Angeles and Santa Barbara for the first time, but also Bono’s love for The Beach Boys (who knew?). There’s even shades of “Ba-ba-ba Barbara” like the Beach Boys’ classic hit “Barbara Ann”. This one has the joy of “Beautiful Day”, without being about the same thing. While the song may sound like “just another catchy U2 radio song” by U2 to someone barely paying attention, hopefully it does not go unnoticed that Bono’s voice is in top form here. I remember feeling in the 90s around the Pop era that Bono’s vocals were starting to strain from years of smoking and wear and tear. Not here!
Gently in comes a tender ballad “Song For Someone” that Bono wrote about his wife Alison, whom he has been married to since 1982. I was actually quite surprised that someone belittled this song in a review as being too vague. Simply because he didn’t put his wife’s name in the song, which gives it a more broad appeal, doesn’t mean it is vague. In fact the lyrics really paint a picture of when the two fell in love and how it changed Bono. It’s definitely one of my favorite songs here. Bono continues to dig through his diary on “Iris (Hold Me Close)”, a beautiful song where he finally explores the feelings of losing his mother at 10 years old. Many of the elements of this song could have been right at home on The Joshua Tree, with the big jangly guitar sound, drums that soldier on heroically through the song… definitely a highlight.
“Volcano” returns us make to a more modern U2 in the vein of “Vertigo”, as the band gets a bit heavier. But the centerpiece here for me is the next track “Raised By Wolves”. This one is a return not only to the angst of the landmark War album, but its subject goes hand in hand with their classic “Bad” (my hands down favorite song ever recorded by U2) from The Unforgettable Fire. The song is about a terrorist bombing that Bono nearly escaped as a teen by being at the right place where he wouldn’t normally have been. But a close friend of his was not so lucky and witnessed the carnage from the sidelines, leaving deep scars. “Bad” is about the heroin addiction this same friend developed as he got older and dealt with his demons. Bono reassures us that this friend eventually won over his demons and recovered from addiction and is Bono’s hero. It’s reassuring to know that tale didn’t end tragically. There’s some vivid lyrical imagery here like “my body’s not a canvas, my body’s now a toilet wall” (referencing an apparent ambivalence to tattooing). Even that delicate piano that graced War is here. “Cedarwood Road” follows, a gritty edged song about the street Bono grew up on, and some of the characters and imagery he experienced growing up. This one reminds me a bit of “Staring At The Sun” just in it’s vibe, but feels a bit more direct musically.
Another highlight here is the truly creepy “Sleep Like A Baby Tonight” which starts out with a very electronic synth melody that could have been from early 80s Genesis (maybe Abacab) or more jagged edged new wave like maybe The Cars on Panorama or Eurythmics. Creepy because the song reveals itself to be about the high members of the church that participate in child molestation, and the remorse and guilt they must harbor. And it’s written almost like a lullaby. Definitely not “generic pop song U2” here! Oh wait, right… this was supposedly a band that only does pop music now right? Aaaaanyways moving on. “This Is Where You Can Reach Me Now” is another look back at the band’s teenage years, when they all fell in love with The Clash, and all the rebellion they stood for. For nostalgia this one feels kind of dark. Then again, it ties in with the album concept (if there is one to be had), and the loss of innocence once you realize there’s something bigger to stand for. Even if, as Bono professes in the liner notes, he wasn’t yet sure what they were fighting for or against.
The finale, called “The Troubles” is truly haunting. It has guest vocals by Swedish vocalist Lykke Li. Her voice on the choruses is the perfect touch. The song is a slow burner, but has big sweeping strings and really does capture the feel of the worries and fears of adulthood creeping in. “Somebody stepped inside your soul, little by little they robbed and stole”. It’s a moody way to end the album, but it is fitting when you consider the context of the album. Now I haven’t read the poems of William Blake before now, but in reading excerpts and reading about the work as I dug deeper into the album’s lyrics, it really seems like the band took the time to make this a cohesive album and not just a bunch of songs. While on No Line On The Horizon, the band was chasing some moody atmospheric thing they thought they lost, but at times just sounded a bit hazy… here they found that atmospheric backdrop by exploring their own pasts and letting the feelings ebb naturally. I definitely think this album is a step forward for the band. I look forward to getting a compact disc copy of this October 13th, as it is going to have bonus tracks, and well… I feel this one is worth owning a physical copy of.
In addition, on 9/26/14 the band posted what will be the true artwork for the physical copies. I have updated that here. It is a striking image meant to tie in with the past covers of Boy and War. It is drummer Larry Mullen Jr. posed in a way to protect his 18 year old son. Immediately, closed minded comments poured in with the most unoriginal comments such as “that’s gay” or worse “that’s pedophilic”. To someone who actually understands the artwork and how it ties to the music, there’s so much that makes sense about this photo. The son’s stance is facing forward, trying to be tough… just like the boy on the Boy and War covers. Larry has his arms around him as he would a small boy to protect him, but the boy is already older. His protective stance isn’t enough, though the father wants to protect the his son from the world forever, keeping him innocent. But the boy has become a man, too tall to be protected by this stance, standing tall, and already vulnerable to and already changed by the world. The shirtlessness further reflects that vulnerability. However there is one detail a good friend pointed out to me. Look at the shadow on Larry’s back. That’s not a natural shadow. It’s in the shape of a cross. Possibly the suggestion that religion has been branded into him, or even a burden on his back. The son also has a crucifix necklace, slightly off-center. Where it looks like every aspect of this picture means something, it could mean that the son has already been affected by religion, too late to be protected from it, and maybe even that the son’s take is slightly skewed. There’s been a lot of thought put into this photo. I find it very interesting that the band chose a piece of art that could be considered controversial or misunderstood rather than a plain old band picture. Kudos for taking a risk, in a time where there are haters on the internet ready to make uneducated judgements.
My advice on this one, if it troubles you, pretend the iTunes situation didn’t happen. Instead, consider it checking out an album by four Irish guys who still truly enjoy making music with each other. Underneath the internet drama and the waves of haters that just needed to have something to complain about, there’s a damn good album here. And it didn’t cost anything!
Check out the video for “The Miracle (of Joey Ramone)”: