There’s very little about U2’s career that I can say that hasn’t already been said. Simply put, they are one of the best and most prolific bands of all time. Their 2000s renaissance alone has netted them 15 Grammy Awards, including two wins for Song of the Year. Their album The Joshua Tree is often used to describe other bands’ magnum opus records (eg. “We haven’t written our Joshua Tree yet.”). That said, their last album, No Line on the Horizon, didn’t generate the buzz that a new U2 album normally does. While it ended up being a solid album, I was puzzled by the relative lack of publicity.
The band fixed that problem in a big way in the run-up to their new album Songs of Innocence, but their promotion strategy may have worked a little too well. On September 9, they released the album digitally for free. Everyone with an iTunes account automatically received the album as a download. While this was a brilliant strategy to spread their music to as many listeners as possible, and rather generous of them to do, it inspired much whining throughout the Internet. Most of the criticism centered on the fact that there was no way to opt out of receiving the album. It automatically downloads onto your iTunes library. I’m not sure I understand the level of venom thrown at U2 and Apple for this promotion (yes, I’m defending Apple, try not to have a heart attack…). Sure, it automatically downloads, but you’re not forced to listen to the thing. If you don’t like it, just ignore it. People were acting like they were being forced into the awful task of owning an album. To those people, I say… get over it.
Anyway, on to the album itself. In interviews before its release, singer Bono described Songs of Innocence as “the most personal album we’ve ever written.” After reading the lyrics and liner notes, it’s easy to see why. The most interesting aspect of this album by far is the lyrics, and how they relate to the lives of the four men who have achieved the near-impossible feat of staying in the same band for nearly 40 years. According to the liner notes, the album is about “first journeys… geographically, spiritually, sexually…” The lead single, “The Miracle (of Joey Ramone),” echoes this sentiment, describing the moment when Bono first heard a song by The Ramones, with lead singer Joey. Bono had wondered for a long time if he could really be a successful rock singer, as the timbre of his voice was not typical of rock singers. But Joey Ramone sang the way Bono did, and was a smashing success. This made Bono and the band realize that they could be successful while still staying true to themselves.
Other interesting lyrical moments on the album include “Cedarwood Road,” about the Jekyll & Hyde nature of the street where Bono grew up. It was dedicated to the friend who snuck them into their first Ramones show. “Song for Someone,” which describes the moment when you first meet someone special, was interesting as well.
The album’s music, though, struck me as a bit vanilla. Most of the instruments follow a fairly set formula, which is somewhat surprising for U2. While a lot of their biggest hits have been fairly radio-friendly, they also have shown an ability to think outside the box when needed. There isn’t much of that on this album. As inaccessible as some of the lyrics could be (without reading the liner notes), the music is very accessible. Now, that doesn’t mean the music’s bad, mind you. There are plenty of nice moments on the record, most of which come courtesy of bassist Adam Clayton. He has good grooves on “Every Breaking Wave,” “Volcano,” and “The Troubles,” among others. The Edge also delivers some gritty guitar riffs, most prominently in “Cedarwood Road.” Bono’s voice sounds as strong and melodic as ever. But the whole time I was listening to the album, I thought to myself, “This is U2, it should be better than this.” Like at the end of “Volcano,” for instance. There’s a final verse where Bono sings “You are rock ‘n roll,” over and over with a gritty Edge riff. I just feel like that could’ve been delivered more forcefully and impactfully, especially given that the rest of the song is fast-paced and driving. But they kind of miss an opportunity there, and at other moments in the album.
I think, for these reasons, I’m going to give it a borrow it rating. It’s certainly not a bad album, but I feel that it doesn’t really showcase U2’s talent, nor does it stand up to the great records they’ve given us in the past. If you’re already a fan of the band, you’ll probably like it enough, but if you’re just getting into them, I’d recommend you listen to The Joshua Tree or All That You Can’t Leave Behind first. My track picks are “Cedarwood Road,” “Song for Someone,” and “Volcano.” I can’t find them on YouTube, so I’ll just let you buy the album and experience them for yourself 🙂