Much has been made of the way Apple and U2 conspired to ‘drop’ U2’s Songs of Innocence on millions of unsuspecting iTunes subscribers. Sasha Frere-Jones encapsulates the general critical sentiment as well as anyone.
I don’t pretend to know what to make of U2’s chosen delivery method. Since the late 1980s, the release of a new U2 album had always been a major event in my life. I can still feel the heat of my palms against the CD shop’s cool glass counter when I heard Achtung Baby! for the first time. My body still remembers the shiver.
My reaction is less angry and reactionary than Frere-Jones’ but not dissimilar: something vital has been lost when we music lovers aren’t forced to leave the sanctity of our listening caverns and venture out into the bright, scary world of other people to purchase our music. iTunes, and on-line purchasing in general, has been killing this thrill for years now, so it’s no surprise that it would be one of my favorite bands that would finally slide the blade deliciously into the skull of what remained of one of life’s little joys:
An album I didn’t know was coming, that I didn’t know I wanted, was already sitting in my music library.
So what of Songs of Innocence? Can we even evaluate the album separate from how it was foisted upon us?
I’ll try. For context, so that you’ll know the type of U2 fan you’re dealing with: This week marked the 30th anniversary of the release of U2’s masterpiece—and best album—The Unforgettable Fire. My love for this album knows no bounds. And really no new release from the band will ever compare (although some of the later albums, such as No Line on the Horizon, echo similar experiments with texture and atmosphere). But lest you think I’m identifying myself as a First Wave U2 fan, one of those who jumped on board with Boy, I’m actually part of the Second Wave who joined up when almost everyone else in the 1980s did – The Joshua Tree (and by extension Rattle and Hum). I discovered Unforgettable Fire as I was making my way through the band’s back-catalog.
This is not to say that I think U2’s output in the 21st century hasn’t been without import. While I loathe All That You Can’t Leave Behind – not only the band’s worst album, but also a low creative mark that still mars their music to this day, I came close to loving No Line on the Horizon. (Apparently I’m the only one.) No Line was almost a great album. Not a masterpiece, certainly, but close to great. (The last truly great album was Zooropa by the way; Pop only missed the greatness mark by exactly one ‘Playboy Mansion’ and one ‘Miami.') I don’t think much about How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb; there are certainly some worthy songs, and it’s a much better album than All, but there’s something about that record that doesn’t resonate.
Songs of Innocence is a ‘song’ album, meaning that it is not meant to be listened to as a singular concept (ala Unforgettable Fire or No Line). As such I’ve been evaluating it by how the songs stand on their own. And most of the songs are growing on me. I believe the album’s major misstep is the first track—‘The Miracle (of Joey Ramone)’—which I enjoy more if I don’t associate it with Ramone. The aesthetic and lyrics are just…off. Words like ‘miracle’ and ‘beautiful’ just don’t fit. I get the message, but the message has no grit or teeth, as a song about Ramone should.
The strongest run on the album is ‘Every Breaking Wave’ through ‘Volcano.’ ‘Volcano’ is the biggest surprise/treat. Most of U2’s recent attempts to release a proper rock song (‘Vertigo’ ‘Get on Your Boots’) are gutless and, well, stupid. ‘Volcano’ rocks, it’s lyrically creative, and it has balls, which has me thinking it may be the best song on the album. ‘Song for Someone’ is the song that haunts me and will likely be my favorite.
The songs on the back half aren’t leaving much of an impression. The music on ‘Cedarwood Road’ and ‘This Is Where You Can Reach Me Now’ is beguiling, but the lyrics and melodies aren’t grabbing me. In fact, I’m struggling to remember the words, which is usually a bad sign. I don’t know what to feel about the ‘The Troubles.’
Final judgment: A solid effort that falls short of No Line on the Horizon but sits above the rest of the 2000-era output.
Now, the title Songs of Innocence hints that there is a companion Songs of Experience coming. Most U2 fans know that whenever the band tries to couple a release with a soon-to-be released next album, it almost never materializes (except once, when Zooropa followed Actung Baby! a mere year and half later). In this case, U2 would do themselves and their fans a service if they did in fact release Songs of Experience within a year or less.
While it’s always a sure aesthetic bet to call back to youth and celebrate the dreams and ideals of our early years, a song-cycle about wisdom earned and learned could make for a much more powerful—and more memorable—listening experience.