Songs of Innocence is U2’s first new music in more than five years. The band made the announcement standing next to Apple CEO Tim Cook at Tuesday’s big press conference. After performing the first single “The Miracle (of Joey Ramone),” Cook asked, “Wasn’t that the most incredible single you ever heard? We would love a whole album of that.”
Bono answered, “The question is now, how do we get it to as many people as possible, because that’s what our band is all about. I do believe you have over half a billion subscribers to iTunes, so—could you get this to them?”
“If we gave it away for free,” Cook replied.
A few seconds later, the album was available for free to anyone with an iTunes account. In fact, Apple essentially added the record to every iTunes user’s music library without permission. For many, this meant the album also automatically downloaded onto their device—whether they wanted it or not.
The flashy release was emblematic of everything people love—and hate—about the band. It was audacious and global in scope, yet annoying for being unavoidable. It was at once a unique and generous gesture, yet also felt contrived; a curiously self-serving kind of altruism only made possible by sucking at the corporate teat.
The record itself, however, is not emblematic of U2. In scope, tone and execution, Songs of Innocence is a departure. Bono wrote about that choice in a letter to fans on U2.com, calling the new record “a very, very personal album.” He also wrote “Apologies if that gets excruciating…actually, I take that back. No apologies if it gets excruciating.”
Can he retract that retraction? “Songs” is indeed excruciating, not because U2 is a bad band, but because they are a great one who made a lousy record.
Thematically, the album certainly feels intimate and introspective. “Cedarwood Road” refers to the street where Bono grew up. “Iris (Hold Me Close)” is about the death of his mother. “Raised by Wolves” tells the story of a traumatic car-bombing in Dublin. Sonically, too, the record looks backward. Unfortunately, it doesn’t look back to the searing fury of Boy and War, or the epic pomp of The Joshua Tree. The closest analogy might be 1984’s The Unforgettable Fire. That was the last time the band allowed tepid performances and overwrought production overwhelm an otherwise solid set of songs. Three decades ago on Fire, Brian Eno was the culprit. In 2014, the problem seems to be Danger Mouse. The band worked for two years with the star producer before bringing in additional help, including their longtime collaborator Flood, plus Adele producers Paul Epworth and Ryan Tedder.
Maybe they should have stuck with Flood. Most of the eleven tunes on Songs are absolutely drowning in effects. Worse yet, the performances underneath sound weary. At best, that represents a series of bad creative choices—tracks being deliberately underplayed, under-sung and over-produced in an effort to create a brooding soundscape. At worst, the problem is simply a lack of energy. Deliberate or not, though, the effect is sluggish. There’s just not much drive behind these songs.
Edge, one of the most inventive guitarists in rock history, comes off as disinterested. We get a few big riffs, notably on “The Miracle (of Joey Ramone)” with a fat crunch reminiscent of “Vertigo” or “Hold Me, Kiss Me, Thrill Me, Kill Me.” We get a chugging, sinister line on “Cedarwood Road.” The cavernous digital delay sound on “Iris (Hold Me Close)” recalls the shimmering mid-eighties style for which Edge first became famous. Too often though, the guitar feels merely atmospheric; either unassuming by design or just lost in the mix.
The vocals, too, sound tired. Or, worse, they are contrived to sound tired, perhaps in an attempt to come off as world-weary. Throughout the record, Bono veers dangerously close to “song stylist” territory, constantly falling back on his vast catalog of vocal mannerisms. Too often he talk-sings, lets his voice crack at the end of phrases, or trails off into nasal whining when he should simply be singing the melody, strong and clear.
It’s not for lack of chops. Entombed in these dense recordings, the careful listener hears hints of that famed soaring tenor and aching falsetto, but they are almost always buried by studio effects or undersold by the singer himself.
On “Sleep Like a Baby Tonight,” for instance, where Bono woozily, lazily swoops around the notes, obscuring an otherwise lovely melody. Or on “Song For Someone,” a mid-tempo guitar ballad that, recalling “Yahweh” off How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb, prettily yearns for God. Also like “Yahweh,” “Song For Someone” will likely sound much better live, once stripped of all the affectation and studio artifice.
There are brighter spots on the record. “This is Where You Can Reach Me Now” is comparatively stripped down and upbeat, with lush, gang-sung lead vocals and a bouncy Adam Clayton bass line. “Raised by Wolves” has flashes of real energy, with enough clarity in the production and sparsity in the arrangement to remind us what the rest of the record lacks. “California (There Is No End to Love)” is another strong moment—with the Beach Boys-on-Dali harmony and lyrical reference to Brian Wilson’s agoraphobia. None of it, though, is enough to dry out the overall mushiness of the record’s mood.
For most bands, Songs of Innocence would be a success. This is a thematically coherent collection of well-crafted pop songs, expertly played by accomplished musicians. Compared to the vast majority of rock records, that would make it a triumph. Compared to U2’s classic catalog, it’s a lumbering mess. Again and again, the band sacrifices the simple joy of a pop hook for the sake of a dense, meditative ambiance. Songs is admittedly a brave failure—a deliberately small, quiet, personal record made by a band famous for being big, loud and universal. But it’s a failure nonetheless. Songs of Innocence chugs, broods, ruminates and occasionally shines. But, despite lyrics equating rock n’ roll with the Holy Spirit, it very rarely rocks.