Dropped by surprise (and for free!) just days ago at the already-legendary Apple unveiling, the Irishmen's thirteenth studio album is packed with pieces of their past: from lyrical allusions to growing up rough in the streets of '70s Dublin, to their inspirations and influences, to their loves and their lost. U2 has always mined their inner selves for material, but this album is notable for using their history to frame what's almost a concept album, tracing their development from kids into the biggest band in the world. Despite the number of cooks in U2's kitchen this time—from producer Brian Burton, a.k.a Danger Mouse, Adele's producer, Paul Epworth, and songwriter/producer Ryan Tedder—the result is a remarkably cohesive, joyous, and energetic sound of four guys who have nothing left to prove and just want to make music they enjoy.
This isn't to say U2 is no longer concerned with being "relevant," the buzzword that Bono has consistently returned to over the years when he feels U2 being overshadowed by the quick, punchy pop music dominating the radio and people's i-whatevers. There are clear and mostly successful attempts to draw from the structures of electronic music, territory U2 has toyed with for years. However, the rock 'n' roll is still there, in the snappy, pounding drums of Larry Mullen Jr., in Adam Clayton's stalwart, throbbing basslines, and the Edge's ever-reliable shimmering and echoing guitar textures. And Bono himself is in fine form, loose and comfortable playing with melody, with some of his best lyrics to date.
The album opens with the first single, "The Miracle (of Joey Ramone)," an unabashed homage to and celebration of the Ramones, the band that showed U2 the way. No doubt included as tribute to the passing of the final surviving member of the Ramones, Tommy, earlier this year, the song opens with a fuzzed-out, driven guitar riff from Edge before Bono opens up. "I was chasing/ down the days of fear/ chasing down a dream before it disappeared," he begins. "I woke up at the moment when the miracle occurred / the most beautiful sound I ever heard/ and a song that made some sense of out of the world." While Edge's punky, in-your-face guitar gets most of the standalone moments, the true standout might be Larry Mullen's absolutely stomp-your-feet drumming propelling the song. "We were pilgrims on our way," Bono sings, and so they were and are.
"Every Breaking Wave," a song the band tested live through parts of their U2360 tour, opens with a bassline and light guitar reminiscent of their beautiful "With or Without You." The simply-strummed backing track sounds like it could have been culled from leftover material from their '80s catalog before it opens into a bright, yearning chorus like only U2 can deliver: "If you go/ if you go your way and I go mine/ are we so, are we so helpless against the tide?/ Baby, every dog on the street/ knows that we're in love with defeat/ Are we ready to be swept off our feet/ and stop chasing every breaking wave?"
As with many U2 songs, it can be read in several ways. Bono and his wife Ali met as teens in Dublin, and the singer has made much of his restless spirit, despite having been with Ali as long as he has been with the band. The aforementioned "With or Without You" deals with themes of devotion to your work, or to your love, and similarly there's a sense of held breath before the deciding plunge running through the song. At the same time, it could be another piece of U2's origins. The band nearly broke up while recording their second album, 1981's October, despite being poised for rock stardom. Opening yourself to feeling—that's what's in this song.
The third track, "California (There Is No End to Love)" opens with the sound of the previous title—breaking waves on the shore—before an improbable Beach Boys-derived harmony of "Ba-ba-Barbara, Santa Barbara" rises. In many ways, this is as simple as a rock song gets. It speaks of U2's first pilgrimage to California as young men, youthful exuberance and excitement at this strange new place pouring from the music and the singer. Again, bits of the memory of that experience are scattered throughout the song. It's simple fun, "whoa-a-oh-a-oh" choruses and sunlit imagery.
And then things quiet down for the best love song any band has delivered in a long time, U2 included: "Song for Someone." It's not about meeting at a party and dancing the night away; it's not about the heated passion of a one-night-stand. It's deeper than that, speaking to, from, and about the heart's mysteries when it finds a kindred spirit. If any song has been about Bono's relationship with Ali, it's this one. "You've got a face not spoiled by beauty/ I've got some scars from where I've been/ You've got eyes that can see right through me/ You're not afraid of anything they've seen." It builds to a celebratory peak, and Bono tweaks the bridge verse slightly toward the end. "If there is a light, you can't always see/ and there is a world we can't always be/ If there is a dark within and without/ then there is a light, don't let it go out." It's a song of devotion, and the enigmatic title keeps it personal to everyone who hears it.
|U2 perform their new single, "The Miracle (of Joey Ramone)" at Apple's release event.|
Drums and bass open "Volcano," something of an oddity but a fun one. It's a jangly song admitting to the rage inside—and doubtless inside the singer, who again has spoken often about the anger to which he can cling too tightly, especially as a young man after his mother's death. It follows "Iris" almost chronologically. At the end of the song, he sings "You were alone/ now you're not alone/ you were alone/ but now you are rock and roll," singing about the salvation he found in his band mates and their music. The song becomes about the reckless and fiery energy that drove the young pilgrims on their way.
That energy continues in the next track, "Raised by Wolves," a series of first-hand experiences of Irish terror. "Face down on a broken street/ there's a man in the corner in a pool of misery/ I'm in a white van as the red sea covers the ground/ Metal crash and I can tell what it is/ but I take a look, and now I'm sorry I did/ 5:30 on a Friday night, thirty-three good people cut down." Adam Clayton's bassline grounds the song, letting Edge cut through with quick and angry bursts of guitar in addition to the propulsive shine of his main guitar melody. As the band takes us through the violence of their teenage years, it doesn't have the political fury of, say, "Bullet the Blue Sky," but that's to the song's credit. It's a tension-building song spliced with animalistic vocalizations, presenting those times as just a way of life, albeit an uncertain and dangerous one. "The worst things in the world are justified by belief... I don't believe anymore," Bono croons.
|Bono in "The Miracle" promotional music video, overlaid with his hero Joey Ramone.|
"Sleep Like A Baby Tonight," the ninth track on the album, is strange and wonderful from the first second. U2 has a few oddities in their catalog, and this song joins their ranks proudly. Opening with an odd techno-tonk throbbing, Bono describes an early morning which could be dominated by a hangover, similar to "In A Little While," off of 2001's All That You Can't Leave Behind. It speaks of the healing power of day over long nights, and the temporary hideaway sleep provides. "Tomorrow dawns like a suicide," Bono promises, "but you're gonna sleep like a baby tonight." Much of this song speaks to pain and forgiveness, both others' and one's own. The Edge bursts in periodically with an angry buzzing guitar, his sound from "The Fly" as a migraine. The song finds a kind of measured peace as it develops, ending with Edge's fading-headache guitar solo coupled with twinkling chimes and a pulse-beat rhythm from Larry Mullen.
Then the pulse picks up, and seagulls start crying, to open "This Is Where You Can Reach Me Now." A light piano and acoustic guitar lead into an opening chorus that breaks into a little jam backed by a Wonderland spiral of a guitar sound that coalesces into a funky swing. Dedicated to Joe Strummer of The Clash, another influence on U2's formative years, the tune acknowledges the "outsider" feeling that drove the band in their early years. "If you won't let us in your world/ your world just isn't there," Bono sneers. "Old man says that we never listen/ we shout about what we don't know/ we're taking the path of most resistance/ the only way for us to go," he continues, perhaps alluding to his father, with whom he consistently had a rocky relationship as a young man. It's a brush-off: this is where you can reach me now. We're moving on, diving into a larger world both as a band and as growing individuals. The music takes some time to find itself, but the track is lyrically strong.
U2 has a history of excellent album-closers, and "The Troubles," featuring guest vocals from Swedish singer Lykke Li, is no exception. It could be an intimate metaphor for the actual Troubles, the Northern Irish conflict that dominated much of the second half of the twentieth century. Or, it could be a steely goodbye to a person you don't need anymore. "Somebody stepped inside your soul/ Little by little they robbed and stole/ 'til someone else was in control." The backing string section harkens back to U2's Oscar-nominated "The Hands That Built America," and while it's not as bombastic as that track there is a gentle power to this song. "I have a will for survival/ so you can hurt me, and hurt me some more/ I can live with denial/ but you're not my troubles anymore."
|U2 then, U2 now: forty years as a band.|
Sure, some of the choruses are lesser than their verses, and some of the verses don't quite earn their soaring choruses. Peruse the reviews, though, and it seems to this reviewer that the detractors enjoy bits of the album that the devotees are unsure of, and vice versa. No one can seem to agree whether 2009's No Line On the Horizon was a creative failure or success, and the much-maligned (at the time of its release in 1997) but forward-looking Pop is now being treated as a successful part of their "experimental" '90s years.
Like their songs, U2 has never been just one thing. With a catalog as lengthy and diverse as theirs, they're sure to mean different things to different audiences. They're a band of big ideas and big noise, always striving for that sound they hear in their heads. U2 returned to their deepest roots on this album, and with groundwork like this, U2 could be preparing to take another leap of faith in the near future. Let's just hope the next one doesn't take another five years.
It's almost a foregone conclusion that anyone reading this has the album now, whether they wanted it or not. Put in your two cents! Is Songs of Innocence worth the wait, or were you expecting something different? Or are you too preoccupied with how the album was released in the first place? Your voices will be heard... in the comments below.