U2: Songs Of Innocence
U2 seems to have been in a rut lately, scrapping a follow-up to 2009’s No Line On The Horizon, titled Songs Of Ascent, and spending the next five years trying to figure out how to remain relevant, an exercise in self-doubt that frustrated fans who felt that incessant tinkering would spoil the finished product. Enlisting producer Danger Mouse (wise choice), U2 cracked the code and, in a revolutionary move, struck a deal with Apple to rush-release the album to everyone with an iTunes account, for free.
It was the greatest gift U2’s fans ever received.
It’s no secret that U2 is very prolific behind the scenes – hundreds of songs exist that no one’s ever heard – but they’re always careful about what they release. Sometimes what gets released gets blown so far out of proportion that it cheapens the music. This time, however, they let the music speak for itself. And it speaks volumes.
In January, U2 released a single called “Invisible” and they did make a big deal, premiering it during the Super Bowl and performing it on the Tonight Show. They claimed it wasn’t the first single but rather a “sneak preview” of what was to come.
Then things got quiet.
But, lo and behold, on 9/9/14, Songs Of Innocence materialized and blew the world away once again. “Invisible” was nowhere among the album’s eleven songs, but what is there is even better.
While Bono claims this is no concept album, it really is. Reportedly the first part of a two-album cycle (Songs Of Experience is apparently on the way) these songs deal with the band’s, and specifically Bono’s, early days in Dublin. Their first encounters with the Ramones and the Clash, first loves and losses, and also the social issues of the times. They wanted to get back to what made them want to be a band. And they did. But, after looking back almost 40 years for inspiration, they made a giant leap into the future and created one of their best and most honest pieces of work.
Kicking off with “The Miracle (of joey ramone)”, sonic-boom vocal chants and superfuzz guitar set the tone. Describing his first experience with the Ramones, Bono claims that he “woke up” when he heard “the most beautiful sound” he ever heard. It taught him how to write and sing and do it with all the feeling he is known for. While it sounds nothing like the Ramones, it’s still one of the most fitting tributes I’ve heard.
“Every Breaking Wave” was originally slated for that scrapped album and was even performed live. A classic, U2 mid-tempo number, this is one of the best things I’ve heard from them in long time. If they were wise, this would be the next single.
“California (there is no end to love)” is an ode to the band’s first appearance in its namesake state and has some of the most solid music of any song on this album. The chorus is huge and instantly classic but some of the verse lyrics seem a bit clunky.
“Song For Someone” recounts Bono meeting his sweetheart Ali when he was 13 (they are still married) and is a very sweet song, with some beautiful acoustic guitars and emotive vocals. A perfect slow-dance number.
“Iris (hold me close)” deals with the death of Bono’s mother, who passed away at her own father’s funeral when Bono was 14, and is a really beautiful tribute with some clever production flourishes. That said, it’s probably my least favorite song here.
Things get back on track with “Volcano”, one of the quirkiest songs here, a rocker with a really cool chorus that reminds me of the material they did in the late 70s, before they had a record deal. They hit hard and Adam Clayton plays some of the most aggressive bass of his career. Like I said, they went back to the source and it works.
Easily the best song here, and one of their best ever, is “Raised By Wolves”. Buoyed by a killer groove and one of the best choruses of their career, this deals with a bombing in Dublin in the mid-70s, and includes imagery of the drug issues that plagued the city. The only issue I have that is the ending, which recalls “Endless Deep”, should have led to another verse. This song should have been longer.
The Edge brings back the brutal fuzz-guitar riffs for “Cedarwood Road”, written about the street where Bono grew up and the friends he had there. This is about as heavy as U2 gets and this song is going to be a monster onstage.
“Sleep Like A Baby Tonight” is a dark groove that could have been on 1997’s Pop, but is so much better. That’s one thing about this album – the production is very thick and very involved and is what the band seemed to be going for on Pop, without getting there. This gets there.
Paying tribute to The Clash, “This Is Where You Can Reach Me Now” gets martial, singing to the “soldiers” of rock & roll and how they were happy to sign up. Like their experiences with the Ramones, when U2 saw the Clash, that’s what gave them purpose and it is nice to hear them repay the favor with this excellent track.
Last up is “The Troubles”, featuring Lykke Li on vocals, that continues U2’s trend of closing out albums with slow, moody, reflective songs (“Shadows and Tall Trees”, “40”, “Love Is Blindness”, “Wake Up Dead Man”). A beautiful way to end a most impressive record.
This will be available for free until it gets a physical release in mid-October (which will feature a couple of extra tracks that I can’t wait to hear) and is well worth the listen. Like The Joshua Tree and Achtung Baby, it’s a masterpiece.
Let’s just hope they get the next album out before they get too wrapped up in themselves again. I must hear more from these sessions.
Written by: Chris Anderson