Is it possible to get past the whole Apple marketing tie in thing and take a listen to Songs of Innocence as an album? Of course we can, this is a U2 album after all…as unhip as it is.
For anyone who has followed U2, or been a fan of theirs over the years, there is nothing quite as hilarious as clicking through the short iTunes’ user reviews on U2’s 13th studio album Songs of Innocence and reading comments like, “Sounds like Coldplay.” Oh, to be young and uninformed on the type of alt-rock turned arena rock turned most imitated sound in mainstream rock journey that most bands had to take on the way to stardom. U2 has gone from being the darlings of underground/college radio (Boy, October), to major mainstream success (The Joshua Tree, Achtung Baby), to cool waves of indifference (Pop), to emotionally and spiritually healing songsmiths with true resonance in the early post-9/11 world (All That You Can’t Leave Behind), to borderline irrelevance (No Line On The Horizon). What will be the adjectives that will be attached to, and therefore define, U2’s newest album Songs of Innocence? Does anyone even care? Actually, it appears that many do. One thing is for sure though, one of those adjectives definitely won’t be “hip.”
U2 have never been hip. Even when they were trying so hard to be ironically hip (Zoo TV). No hipster would claim U2 as a member of their hallowed rock band favorites. That distinction is left to Radiohead, a rock band that proves how hip they are by not playing rock anymore…but I digress. I will admit that my favorite version of U2 is the Achtung Baby/Zoo TV one. They were at their creative peak then in terms of music, social commentary, and genius. My second favorite version of U2 is one that existed during their ATYCLB days. Their music took on a new spiritually healing relevance after 9/11. To this day “Walk On” still brings chills to my arms when I hear it and remember it in the context of the immediate post 9/11 days. To hell with trendiness, the U2 that I know and love is more interested in invoking the transcendent.
U2 don’t seem as concerned with their hipness, per se, anymore. What they are still concerned with is the quality of their music. Even though they are most likely past their prime, in terms of popularity and songwriting ability, they still refuse to turn into a jukebox while rehashing their previous hits in a formulaic fashion. That is not to say that they do not have a particular sound that they are still in love with. Songs of Innocence is loaded with instantly recognizable riffs, chord progressions, and beats. What is so fresh here though is how different, and loud (thanks to lead producer Danger Mouse), the music sounds this time around. Guitarist Edge still does his minimalist best with the guitar notes, but this time (and as it has been getting to be throughout the course of the last few albums) the guitar sounds are more front and center in the songs, as opposed to swirling in the songs’ sonic atmosphere. It is very obvious that Brian Eno is nowhere to be found here. There are still synths and strings, but the guitars are not washed in them nearly as much as they have been in the past, even as they oft were in the glory years of Achtung Baby. The album’s opening track, and lead single, “The Miracle (of Joey Ramone) is a stomping, romping, guitar rock fest, with a low end bass “whomp” dropped into the middle of it (something new for U2) that strangely gives the song even greater heft in its soaring moments. Edge will never play Green Day punk chords or Mike McCready solos, but here he is indulging in a bit of sonic muscle a la the guitars. This trend continues throughout the album, making it one of the most unique, yet interestingly recognizable, U2 albums since the aforementioned Achtung Baby. In fact, Songs of Innocence, while not being as good as Achtung Baby overall, is as important as Achtung Baby insofar as what it does to shift U2’s sound into a new sonic realm.
It is ironic (unintentionally one has to think-the band left the grand ironic statements in the 90s) that the first U2 album that truly acknowledges the 1970s rock influences that helped inspire these four guys from Dublin to become a band is what so powerfully pushes them into new sonic territory. For the first time the band is looking back and taking stock of what inspired them, and consciously paying homage to it instead of fleeing from it, while at the same time discovering new ground sonically, at least as it pertains to their sound. Bono and the boys were running with a full head of steam away from the grunge sound in the early 90s as it was a “regurgitation of the sound of the 70s, which was great for its time” to paraphrase Bono. Like any good rock band should discover though (even if they have to rediscover it): nothing trumps a good rock song written using the basics: guitar, drum, and bass, and guitar, drum, and bass rule here on Songs of Innocence. All this backward gazing and rock fan reminiscing does reinforce the idea that U2 just aren’t hip though. Constant comparisons or references to other bands, sounds, etc. in music journalism/criticism is way passé and very un-hip currently, (I never made the claim that my journalism/criticism was hip by the way…I love comparisons), and here is U2 mixing their own clichéd rock tropes with images of rockers past…oh, boy. It whiffs of Rattle and Hum’s mistaken intent. Bono is not trying to say he’s as cool as Joey Ramone (just like he wasn’t putting himself on a pedestal with Dylan by singing with him), but rather that he was inspired by him, but U2 haters will surely be eager to pounce…and you know what? Let ‘em.
Getting back to the music though, “Every Breaking Wave,” a song where U2 not only reference themselves, but recapture a little bit of that old U2 transcendence, demonstrates that the band still has the innate quality that launched them into the rock star stratosphere in the first place nearly 30 years ago. Can a band write a song that references itself and not come off as self-parody? It appears so. The opening of “Every Breaking Wave” is so similar to “With or Without You” that I almost thought, upon my first listen to it, that they were truly ripping off their own sound. “Every Breaking Wave” though is U2 doing what it does best, i.e. throbbing bass, atmospheric synths and guitar, then knocking it all down with some supersonic riffing and thick electric guitar chords. The water/wave image might be a bit overused in rock music (Eddie Vedder has been floating it forever now), but Bono is much more a poet than a lyricist, so he turns a wave worn image into something sublime. The “BababaBarbara Santa/Barbara” Beach Boy tribute that opens “California (There Is No End To Love) erupts into a rollicking trip to California, U2 style, that rocks harder than Zeppelin’s trip to California 30+ years ago did, albeit not as subtly. There’s nothing subtle about Bono when he’s going on about his favorite topic, love, though. Edge, here again, drops a little ditty of a guitar solo into the song. He’s been soloing a good bit since ATYCLB, but again, much more often and much more loudly here than he has in a while (or ever?). “Song For Someone” sounds like it would have been at home on ATYCLB. It recalls “Wild Honey” and “In a Little While,” and makes some excellent use of acoustic guitar, reminding us that Edge is just as good with the earthy sounds as he is with the loud, spacey, and supersonic ones. U2 really needs to do more acoustic guitar songs. “Ordinary Love” didn’t sound near as good electric as it did when the band played it acoustic style at last year’s Oscars. The building energy in “Song for Someone” is capped once again with some electric soloing from Edge. What!? Two U2 songs in a row on an album with a guitar solo in it? Surprisingly, it isn’t rubbish. It’s great.
“Iris (Hold Me Close)” is an homage dedicated to Bono’s mother who passed away when he was only 14. It’s emotionally deft, but not so innovative musically. It’s loaded with the classic jangly U2 guitar sound and recalls their early work, as well as “City of Blinding Lights” off of How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb. In keeping with the theme of reminiscing on their past, U2 deliver yet another song about the “The Troubles” in Northern Ireland with the strangely off kilter “Raised by Wolves.” Leave it to U2 to seriously shy away from overt political statements on Songs of Innocence though at a time when it seems like no one can keep their overbearing mouths shut over the ever evolving and myriad soundbites reflecting the political idiocies of our time, while making total idiots out of themselves while they are at it. Also, just as smartly, leave it to U2 to remind us that while Sunni and Shia continue to kill each other with glee in the Middle East, Protestants and Catholics were doing the same thing just a few decades ago (and for centuries). Bono’s refrain of “I don’t believe anymore” is daring from a rocker whose acceptability in multiple circles, both musically and otherwise, has come from his professions of belief. He is truly only being logical here though. Who wants to believe in death and destruction, even if your religion calls for an engagement in it? Truly, many religious extremists have been “raised by wolves,” wolves in sheep’s clothing that is. This isn’t Bono’s only sly slagging off of religion on Songs of Innocence. In “The Miracle (of Joey Ramone) he states “We’ve got language so we can communicate/Religion so I can love and hate.” In that true U2 fashion of not finding what they’re looking for though, Bono does bewail being “a long way from your hill of Calvary.” The wrestle with religion continues…
“Cedarwood Road” another trip down memory lane for Bono (he and one of his childhood friends apparently had many a memorable adventure along the real Cedarwood Road of their childhood hometown). A really great song about friendships forged in one’s hometown youth, how they help form the person you become, and how you never really leave either behind, it’s also perhaps the hardest sounding song U2 has written since “Bullet the Blue Sky” or “The Fly.” Edge dips, ever so tepidly, into Zeppelin-ish territory with his opening guitar riffs. Oh, and yeah, there’s ANOTHER solo here. (Wow, that’s a lot of guitar heroics for a guy who never really has been considered a “guitar hero.”) “Sleep Like a Baby Tonight,” a truly sinister sounding song that recalls early goth and new wave with the most harsh sounding guitar U2 have ever recorded also has just as sinister an undertone. Bono sings about a mysterious protagonist “reading about a politician’s lover,” over breakfast and then “going through daylight knife through butter,” while “dressed in colors like forgiveness” with “eyes as red as Christmas” and “purple robes folded on the kitchen chair” after sleeping like a baby…Hmm…maybe U2 didn’t quite leave all the irony in the 90s. “Colors of forgiveness “and “purple robes” are priestly images. One shudders to think whose “tomorrow dawns like a suicide” at the hands of the type of priest that has so much been in the headlines over the past few decades. It seems like U2 can’t help but still condemn evil in their music (pedophile priests and terrorists this time out), however obliquely, even when trying to compose an album devoid of the do-gooding, and as far as I’m concerned, more power to them.
So, while Songs of Innocence does nothing to move the hip meter as far as U2 is concerned. It does do all of the things that reinforces who U2 are musically and spiritually. It pushes their sound into new territory, reinforces the poetic power of Bono’s lyrics, attempts to make the world a better place through its message, and freakin’ rocks (way more dangerously and interestingly than it at first topically appears). If you’re a fan, then this is the album you’ve been waiting for. If you’re a fan of the type 80s and early 90s thinking man’s rock and roll, then this is for you also. If you’re looking to increase your hip factor, you’ll most likely pass. I’d rather be concerned with spreading some good in the world, musically at least, than being hip anyway. I’m sure U2 would agree.