U2’s new album is actually pretty good, and that takes a lot for me to admit. With the almost too-science-fiction-dystopian-for-its-own-good release* on every Apple/iTunes device ever–Tim Cook’s sure proud of himself–garnering many an unhappy consumer and critic, you’d hope the end product is hopelessly bad. But when all’s said and done, Songs of Innocence is a more than decent album musically and thematically. Yes, it’s method of coming into the consumer world is a bit shaky and makes us wonder if there is any privacy left at all, but at least the songs and lyrical content are pleasing.
Let me be clear, this new album doesn’t encroach on the greatness that The Joshua Tree and Achtung Baby gave us two decades ago. It does, though, bring back memories of being really (embarrassingly) into All That You Can’t Leave Behind, an album so catchy that Beautiful Day is still many people’s go-to karaoke tune. Songs of Innocence is a pretty successful attempt to write songs like they used to, with simple, driving instrumentation, anthematic and emphatic vocals, and emotionality harvested from the band’s past loves and losses to boot. It seems they’ve learned something after the near-catastrophe that was that single, “Get On Your Boots” (No Line on the Horizon).
To start, let’s review the successes on the new record. The big single, “The Miracle (of Joey Ramone)”, which Apple used in a television spot for the group (U2 is surprisingly deep under the covers with Apple’s business empire), is a crunchy guitar-laden opening anthem, and warms the listener up nicely to a varied array of rock and pop fare. “Volcano” is a straight-up awesome rock tune, with a killer bass hook and a healthy dose of old-school U2 swagger, as in: catchy as all hell. I’m also rather partial to “Cedarwood Road,” as well as “The Troubles,” a track not everyone else is on board with as I am. It may be a bit sappy, but Lykke Li’s guest vocals and those strings make me want to pull out the lighter throw my arm around a bro or two.
Also, Danger Mouse produced a good deal of this release, with producing and guest musician credits going to Paul Epworth, Ryan Tedder, Declan Gaffney, and Flood. The result is a fuller, tighter, and more modern sound for a band that’s really trying to not run out of steam. I’d say they just about pull it off on Songs for Innocence.
However, a lot of the material feels ultimately recycled, as even the best tracks harken back to excellent songwriting on albums from time in the band’s history that’s fading. In “The Miracle,” Bono sings, “I was chasing down a dream before it disappeared,” which is poignant because something tangible has in fact disappeared from U2. The thematic content here is a blast of childhood remorse, regret, and joy, but listening to this album is really like stepping into a time machine that hasn’t been charged to full battery. But the effort to write good honest songs is present here, and the majority of the tunes are worth more than just a few listens.
The final verdict on this release is that it’s a catchy, tight album, a pleasant surprise after No Line on the Horizon spelled certain doom for the band, and, in a small way, a revival of what used to make U2 so good. Their next release, Songs of Experience, will most likely be more of the same, seeing as it’s purportedly part of this massive move to make every iTunes user participate in Bono’s digital music experiment where he also changes the way people experience music, which may be a promise of an upswing. U2 is getting back to their core emotionality which is universally resonant, and that’s a nice escape from their interest in writing tunes about world affairs.
Now if only they’d get a bit more innovative with their musical execution–super overproduction is not what I mean–and release their album for free in a non-weird way, maybe they’d regain their positive legacy and be recognized for their very real chops, and not their non-music antics. Actually, my best advice would be to buy this album and enjoy it the way that a U2 album used to be enjoyed, without a touchscreen in sight. And play that sucker loud, you’ll be happy you did.
*Thanks to Chris Richards at The Washington Post for calling this dystopian first, and sharing my proclivities for finding real life versions of speculative fictions.