Saturday, March 26, 2016

U2 - Songs of Innocence

What do people think of when they hear the phrase “U2 album”? For most modern listeners, it’s a big, grandiose disc full of beating-heart anthems, bell-like guitar echoes, and near-operatic performances from the ever-polarizing Bono. However, for those who were paying attention before the band dropped All That You Can’t Leave Behind (in 2000) or played the Superbowl Halftime Show with the 9/11 tribute to end all 9/11 tributes (in 2002), it could mean something different. It could call to mind the band’s early records: loud, punk-influenced bursts of frustration and aggression. Or it could inspire thoughts of their 1990s era of experimentation and rebirth, where they played around with textures of electronic, pop, and dance music than many rock band of their relative mainstream success level would never have touched.

Interestingly enough, Songs of Innocence, the band’s 13th studio album and their first in five and a half years, manages to meet all of those imagined criteria. And none of them. Let me clarify: Songs of Innocence packs little bits of what we’d all expect from a U2 album into its 11 eclectic songs, but it also subverts expectations of what we would think a post-2000 U2 album should sound like.

The band’s last record, 2009’s No Line on the Horizon, did something similar, delivering rousing anthems in the vein of The Unforgettable Fire’s best, but also tossing in both meandering soundscapes and pop singles that shamelessly attempted to recapture the success of “Vertigo.” On that record, U2 were trying to be everything to everyone. They wanted to keep the job of "larger-than-life stadium rockers," but they also wanted to have hit pop singles AND return to some of the genre-bending daringness of their 1990s work. They didn’t fail, exactly: No Line has some of the band’s best songs, and is on the whole an ambitious and worthwhile work from a veteran band. But it was also blazingly inconsistent, wildly self-indulgent, and all-around frustrating on every level. U2 found elements of greatness, but because of their urge to please everyone, they faltered.

Songs of Innocence also wants to be a lot of different things, but in a different way than No Line did, and in a fashion that ultimately makes for a more satisfying a cohesive listen. Released last Tuesday, for free and with no warning from the stage of a big Apple event, Songs of Innocence is technically the biggest album release of all time. It’s an odd record to bear that title, since it’s neither U2’s most populist work, nor their most ambitious. Instead, it’s a record that finds its appeal by treading backwards into U2’s past. Bono has called Songs of Innocence U2’s most personal album to date, and the way these songs dig up the scars and stories of the band’s days of youth is stark, messy, and revealing in way that many listeners won’t take to right away. It goes without saying that a solid percentage of the 500 million iTunes customers who received this record last week will be turned off by it. Perhaps more surprising is that there are also plenty of people who like this band who will be equally baffled or inclined to write it off.

But there’s meat to dig into here that die-hard fans will fall in love with. The album’s darkest songs, for instance—the fractious one-two punch of “Raised by Wolves” and “Cedarwood Road”—call back to the unbridled roar of Boy, U2’s debut album, or to the political electricity of War, their breakthrough. Both songs were written about Dublin, the first about a car bombing, the second about the violent, neo-Nazi-infested neighborhood that Bono once called home.

The latter especially creates a chilling atmosphere, with ragged acoustic guitars, booming bass lines, and a skyscraping vocal delivery from Bono. “It’s never dead, it’s still in my head” Bono sings, before uttering “It was a warzone in my teens/I’m still standing on that street/Still need an enemy.” The rousing achievement of “Cedarwood Road” is found in capturing the tension, fear, and fury of growing up in a place that that forces you to become something other than yourself in order to survive. By the time Bono hits the high note at the song’s climax—delivering the line “Sometimes fear is the only place we can call our home” with a mix of weathered nostalgia and the same yelping urgency that defined his early records—“Cedarwood Road” has become arguably the best song on the record.

The Boy, October, and War era is not the only one that U2 revisit on Songs of Innocence. “Sleep Like a Baby Tonight,” with its flickering synth pulsations, chiming keyboard melodies, and filthy guitar bursts, sounds like something that U2 would have put on a record circa 1995, during their most experimental phase. Bono even busts out a restrained falsetto moan that many writers have already compared to his vocals from “Lemon,” a deep cut from Zooropa, arguably the most daring and fascinating album of the band’s career. The sound of his voice flutters and cracks, sounding like it was recorded in one take and no more. It's imperfect, but somehow flawless.

The first half of the record, meanwhile, is where the most traditional U2 numbers are clustered. “Every Breaking Wave” begins as a “With or Without You”-esque slowburn before bursting into a shout-to-the-rafters chorus and the most anthemic guitar riff the Edge has played in years. Two songs later, the Ryan Tedder-assisted “Song for Someone” provides the record with its best shot for mainstream success. A plaintive ballad about the naivety of young long, “Song for Someone” was written about the earliest days of Bono’s relationship with his wife, Ali. Considering the fact that the two were childhood sweethearts, it’s not surprising that “Song for Someone” packs a few clichés into its lyrics. But “Song for Someone” is also charming for its complete lack of cynicism. It’s awkward, cheesy, maudlin, and overblown, but should a song about young love be anything else? This is the ultimate song of innocence, and along with “Every Breaking Wave” it’s the number from this album that will most likely make it into the band’s stadium-sized live set.

Much has been made about Songs of Innocence and its lack of specificity. Numerous reviewers have attacked U2 for writing a song about Joey Ramone—the self-described opening track, “The Miracle (of Joey Ramone)”—without dropping any direct references to the Ramones in the lyrics. Similarly, Bono has been mocked a bit for writing an intensely personal song about his wife and then giving it the noncommittal title of “Song for Someone.” Those criticisms show a fundamental misunderstanding about what this band is and what they have done so well for so long. The band didn’t have to drop a million Godly platitudes to tell listeners that “Where the Streets Have No Name” was probably about heaven, and the fact that All That You Can’t Leave Behind released in 2000 didn’t stop those songs of recovery and resilience from becoming the soundtrack of many lives post-9/11.

U2’s music has always been a bit of a Rorschach test of sorts: the band writes songs that are personal and meaningful to them, but there is almost always enough room in the lyrics for listeners to take the songs and fill them with their own experiences. That’s precisely the reason why U2 has always connected with such a huge range of people, and why they could sell out stadiums just about anywhere on the planet. A song that means one thing to one person in the crowd might mean something completely different to another person in the crowd, but they’re still both united in the same audience, screaming along to the same songs.

With Songs of Innocence, an album that is very much about U2 and the lives that its members have led, Bono, the Edge, Adam Clayton, and Larry Mullen Jr. don’t lose sight of the fact that being a bit abstract is an important part of their music. That’s why “The Miracle (of Joey Ramone)” could be applied to any moment of musical epiphany, and why “Song for Someone” was deliberately written as a universal love song rather than a specific one. Even when the band does go for specificity, like on the aforementioned “Cedarwood Road,” or on “Iris (Hold Me Close)”—a song about Bono’s mother, who passed away when the singer was just 14—they still leave enough ambiguity to allow for the sort of communal experiences that make their live shows so indescribably powerful. Hell, the record’s final song, a stunning and dark slow-burn called “The Troubles,” could easily be heard as either a political protest, a break-up song, or a vow to learn from one’s mistakes. “You’re not my troubles anymore,” Bono sings, while Swedish songstress Lykke-Li delivers the song’s hip-hop-sample ready refrain, over and over again: “Somebody stepped inside your soul.” For U2, the line might be more appropriate if it read: “Somebody stepped inside your song.”

Songs of Innocence is a record that will forever be overshadowed by its method of release: by the free, surprise rollout; by the corporate nature of the team-up with Apple; by irrelevant comparisons to Beyonce’s 2013 self-titled album; and by the many social media complaints that hit the web in the days following its release, from people who were angry and alarmed about a U2 record showing up in their iTunes libraries or on their iPhones without consent. And while the release strategy for this record was, like it or not, a landmark for the access-over-ownership music consumption model, it’s a shame that these songs will never get a chance to stand on their own.

Because Songs of Innocence is a great record. Not a perfect one, mind you: for one thing, Danger Mouse, the record’s primary producer, uses a few too many of his tired stock tricks along the way, making the record sound more generic than it would with Brian Eno behind the boards. The complaint that the Edge and his towering guitar abilities are underused is also valid. But from the classic U2 throwback of “Raised by Wolves” to the stirring contemporary pop of “The Troubles,” Songs of Innocence is a well-crafted, perfectly-paced, and deeply human affair, and coming from one of the biggest (and best) rock bands of all time, it’s a refreshing and surprisingly small-scale triumph. Some fans will want more anthems, and some will long for more experimentation, but as a record that is about U2’s past in more ways than one, Songs of Innocence is precisely what it’s supposed to be.

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