Review of Songs of Innocence Reviews
Let’s get this out of the way: U2’s release strategy for Songs of Innocence – giving it out for free on everybody’s iTunes account after a lump payment from Apple – was a mistake. Whilst it was nice to get a free album – seriously, many fussing about that had a sense of entitlement to them – it could have set a dangerous and intrusive precedent of payola (technically illegal, but still worked around) wherein big companies could have pushed artists they wish to be successful in an even harder and assertive way than they already do. And on the U2 side, it made the band look a little pushy and desperate, and it is hard to judge how much that will translate to future chart and tour sales; at least 26 million people downloaded the album, but that doesn’t have seemed to translate into chart success.
However, I now direct my attention to music journalists. Music Journalists: Do know hard it was getting an actual review of this album at the time? Because instead of talking about Songs of Innocence as a work all you could talk about was this distribution. Why? Why did you that? I understand you need an angle, but why the hell did you talk more about that than the music? And don’t give me any of that shit of “well getting the album for free made it seem lesser”. Bullshit. By that logic any album I first hear on streaming or on Youtube makes it lesser. Did the pay-what-you-want strategy of Radiohead’s In Rainbows make that any less of a masterpiece? Did selling The Faust Tapes for the same price as a single look badly on Faust or make that album seem inferior now? Or course not. But you don’t have a massive hate-boner for any of those two bands, and if you didn’t have that we could have had a decent conversation about an album at the time it came out. You know, like a reviewer should do. Not a magazine and clickwhore shill.
Done. On to the music.
When doing these runs on discographies for the Record Club it is nice to end with a certain sense of finality, something circular that ties the act’s career together even if it isn’t the act’s final work. With Songs of Innocence we get both, something that is obviously incomplete and yet ties into the beginning of their career and their legacy as a band. It is very clear that this album is part of a double bill, with Songs of Experience seemingly around the corner, and we will have to wait and see if the release of that record casts this in any kind of different light.
But at the same time, the self contained album we have directly and intentional comments on the band’s beginning days: the artists that inspired them; loves and losses, and the kind of childhood references that comment with an outside and mature personality what Boy touched on for their debut. And not wanting to make the same mistake of bottling the concept of the record the way they did on No Line on the Horizon, U2 showed their commitment to experimentation by moving from their original roster of producers. Flood would eventually join the team, but gone were familiar faces Lanois and Sourpuss Eno.
Instead we had a fair few take their place. First was Brian “Danger Mouse” Burton, producer with the Gorillaz and the Black Keys. Like with Rick Rubin those first sessions proved to be ineffective album wise (though still produced two songs with “Invincible” and ,”Ordinary Love”, but they acted as a good starting off point for what was to come. As well as whomever will be on the credits for Experience, Innocence would also illicit the works of Ryan Tedder, most known as the singer for OneRepublic, and Paul Epworth, who has a ridiculous amount of production credits to his name, but the most important here are the indie rock acts Foster the People and Florence + the Machine.
This influence ultimately shows. In Songs of Innocence most arena rock moments it is akin to the recent schools of One Republic, Pompeii and Imagine Dragons, with the multi tracked choral vocals and sweeping rhythms to boot. At times this direction, and the amount of people involved in the record, can result in the most recognisable U2 traits being lost and some overproduction, the latter sentiment shared by Bono himself in recent months. So why then do I consider this to be the best record the band has released in 14 years, maybe even 17 years? Well, quite simply, it is their best song writing in that many years, both when the record takes up these new sonic potentials, and when it returns to old sounds in the further explanation of the band’s youth.
Exploration starts early on in “The Miracle (Of Joey Ramone)”. I must admit that originally I fought against this song, as for a song with the name Joey Ramone in the title there is something remarkably un-punky about the whole thing. But when I got rid of that prejudice, I recognised that there where elements of that erupting guitar work coming from the Edge, even it ultimately serves a huge roaring chorus as opposed. And this influence has also revitalized some sense in Bono’s lyrics, still going for unifying lingo but in a context of the personal. Add that to the general positive tone of the piece, it’s almost a mirror image to the music of Pop.
It continues with this mood into “Every Breaking Wave,” a track which has a semblance of “With or Without You” for this generation of rock, with a sense of contemplation and atmosphere rather than the others bombast (though that does eventually reveal itself). It is not as great as that U2 classic, but like that song it lets the tightness of the rhythm section shine. Bono focuses on the wave metaphor in a way that is precise and non-convoluted, particularly as it pertains to sailors and being shipwrecked. A highlight of this first half, and personally I think it is a hell of a lot better than Coldplay’s “Paradise”, the song people say it resembles, though I personally don’t hear that much of that going on
By contrast, as much as I want to like “California (There Is No End to Love),” I just cannot get over how much it sounds like “No Cars Go”, at least in the beginning. I’m not the first to notice this (The U Talkin’ U2 2 Me picked up on this at the time when it was the most decent review on the whole internet), and Arcade Fire has certainly had an influence on the modern rock sound (more on that next week!), but it is almost shameless. To be fair it also has an element of the Beach Boys with the “Santa Babara” intro, which certainly makes sense in a song about Calfornia, but also to be fair I don’t know how well those two elements coalesce. Still, after those intro prejudices are over I end up enjoying the song, particularly the guitar breakdown in the bridge.
The best song of the first half comes in “Song for Someone”. I’m not sure how I feel about it lyrically; the central chorus is vague and general for something that sounds so intimate, and I’m not sure how a face “not spoiled by beauty” is being played. But the rest feels warm and just charming as a love song to Bono’s wife Ali Hewson, particularly in the delicate delivery backed by opens strings and choruses. Added to Edge’s guitars in the latter half this song just sounds absolutely gorgeous. Oh, hi Flood! That explains some things.
Of these sonic experimentations in the first half, the one that reaps the least rewards is “Iris (Hold me Close).” This is a shame, as it returns to the delicate subject of the death of Bono’s mother, and this time in a much more direct way. And there great elements to the song, like the choral build up and the “Where the Street Have No Name” like guitars. But despite all of this none of it unite together with any kind of momentum.
So a disappointing end to the first half. But then, like a reverse No Line on the Horizon, the album takes a left turn in a completely awesome way. The instant that the drums and bass hits in “Volcano”, we get the sense that this is the band returning to the sound of their post-punkish days, with Edge’s guitar even mimicking this in its muted pickings that erupts in the chorus like a, well, like… a teacher without caffeine? Either way, this song legitimately rocks in a way that the band has not really done in decades, and that doesn’t seem to have any pretence behind it.
Continuing this two streak of tremendous is “Raised by Wolves”, which this time sounds like a song that would have been found in War, including the politics in lines like “The worst things in the world are justified by belief/Registration 1385-WZ”. The piano in the background really helps accentuate the sounding, counterpointing the intensity of the chorus, Clayton’s bassline and the strange biting chants.
The rockier aesthetic (that’s “rawk” that doesn’t suck) continues with “Cedarwood Road”, where within this song the quieter, echoing nostalgia from the first half also intertwines with it as Bono sings about the road he grew up on. The xylophone that so defined U2’s beginning sound reappears, accompanying a galloping riff from Edge and harmonic guitars in the intro that sound almost like they come from another time altogether. In terms of the song that most represents the records intentions, I would say this one.
In terms of the song that sounds like the outlier of the album, it would be this one. Fair enough, it deals with images of youth – apart from the Christmas references, which tend to sound weird outside Christmas oriented songs, this might be the strongest song in the verses, dealing with the subject of paedophilia in catholic church with a lot of tact – but that synth intro sounds like something that would come from the retro sounds of the Drive Soundtrack. Eventually the intense riff reveals itself amidst the woos and electric piano chords though, falling in to the sound established by “Cedarwood Road” before going back the synth. A weaker song on the album as it seems to stagnate by the end (and what was Bono doing in the falsettos), but this being a low point shows the signs of improvement.
The youthful position also works for “This is Where You Reach Me Now,” and in he vein of the intro song takes inspiration from another punk icon in the form of Joe Strummer and The Clash. It is the in the rapid highhats and Edge’s guitar tone that incorporates some of Clash’s reggae elements at points. Like “Miracle” though this is not a punk song, there’s too much production perfected choral vocals and synths for that, but only in a similar way that The Clash got bored of being just a “punk” band quite quickly.
In the traditional of U2 ending the album on a grand and melancholic note, the band leaves Songs of Innocence with “The Troubles.” Oddly enough, it is not about what you immediately think – though Bono knows exactly what parallels he is making in calling the song “The Troubles” – but an ode to inhibition and the sense of someone else being in control. Bono says he was thinking about domestic violence when he wrote it, and whilst as an exploration of that topic it does work – particularly in the decision to counteract Bono’s male dominant voice with the more delicate voice of Swedish pop sing Lykke Li – it can also apply to any sense of suppression, and in the context of the larger themes of youth could also relate to that angst and heightened emotion. On top of all this is the music, with the thumping Mullen drums, Clayton’s delicate bass, the soaring strings and of course the swirling sonics of The Edge all helping to put our retrospective of U2 to a suitably grand conclusion.
Songs of Innocence, and the future Songs of Experience, is clearly a reference to William Blake. But unlike the first half of that poetry collection, in which the youth carries with it a childish naivety that counteracts with the mature retrospections found in the latter, U2’s own innocent songs seem to carry the weight of that maturity in the guise of youth. Although the experimentations with new indie rock sounds do produce great tracks, this record is at its best when it takes its old Boy sound and blesses it with hindsight and adulthood. It’s a great way to end this run. But at the same time, we’ll see how the second half pans out.
What did you think, though?
U2 Album Rankings (Finalised…for now)
- Achtung Baby
- Joshua Tree
- The Unforgettable Fire
- Songs of Innocence
- All that You Can’t Leave Behind
- Original Soundtracks 1
- No Line on the Horizon
- Rattle and Hum
- How to Dismantle An Atomic Bomb