These days there is no other band that can polarize both critics and audiences alike than Irish band U2. Most of the time that's because of non-musical reasons that have accumulated through the years and the internet never forgets. The band always seems to cause heated debates that swell into fever pitch. Having reinvented themselves several times during their career the most constant thing about it is the constant change. And with each new record U2 seems to be taking bold new steps ahead as it was the unprecedented announcement to release its new record Songs of Innocence
for free to iTunes users at Apple's iPhone presentation. That decision caused vitriolic reactions across global media and again, it divided audiences, fans and critics.
With the music industry on its knees and in a global business environment that is characterized by rapid and discontinuous changes instigated by rapid technological changes, business entities such as U2 have to accommodate to this ever changing business climate. Today, more than ever, entities have to manage uncertainty and accommodate in order to succeed in today's treacherous business climate. Just like any other product, music records, don't sell magically by themselves. Despite the fact this record was delivered to iTunes users for free, according to the band's managers, both former and new, Apple has paid a hefty sum to get this record. As this is not U2's first venture with Apple, presumably, it was used to show and market this company's dominant distribution network and ability to supply and reach millions of users. In addition, this move boosted the sales of the band's back catalogue which saw a massive bump and increased interest. It's the age of the unthinkable and anything is possible.
Five years in the making U2 deliver Songs of Innocence,
a rather peculiar record full of intriguing moments and unusual content. Provoked by the struggle to remain relevant (by their own admission), avoiding to become a heritage act and the lukewarm reception and less than expected sales (it sold modest 5m copies) of their previous record, the otherwise brilliant No Line on the Horizon
(Interscope, 2009) the band chose a different approach to this record in order to produce music with appeal that will propel it on various charts inhabited by younger and popular acts of the day.
As with any other record of theirs, Songs of Innocence
has had a difficult gestation. Littered with false starts, health issues with singer Bono's back that almost left him crippled, management shifts, working on vast material for more than one record and various other parallel projects, it took five years with another production team than the people this band has always worked with, to produce a record that has mostly eschewed plenty of what has made this band recognizable and possibly great. For a start, the band worked with producer Brian Burton, aka Danger Mouse as producer in chief, better known as the producer behind records by bands and artists such as Gorillaz, The Black Keys, Gnarls Barkley, Jay Z and Beck, to name but a few.
The first hint at the band's change of direction towards more radio friendly pop sound was the "Ordinary Love," a song written for Nelson Mandela's biopic. The melodies were simple, subtle, with Bono delivering a very soulful vocal performance. Definitely a grower, it starts boringly simple and on a first glance, it sounds like a throwaway song, but it definitely captured the attention first with its soulfulness and then with deep and emotive lyrics. The second hint was another single"Invisible," which was used as a charity single at the Superbowl commercials which raised funds for fighting AIDS. It had that distinct sonic aesthetic which again nodded at the direction towards music inspired by today's chart pop. In fact, this single, which was released for free, could be seen as a test platform for the deal that went with Apple.
The result of their efforts is another sharp left turn and a record that explores the boundaries of pop, rock and dance music with very little looking back to what the band has done before. It's an ear-pleasing and strangely accessible release full of little gems of songs almost unlike their previous works. In fact, there are no insistent hooks to be found anywhere on Songs of Innocence
and in that manner there are no clear singles in this collection. The struggle to stay relevant in this era, lyric-wise, for the band was to find inspiration, for most part, by looking back at the band's early history with thoughtful reflections on the life in Dublin of their youth. The subject of going back to its roots and memories has been looming large each time they were announcing a new record in the past 20 years only this time that idea of a place from the band's past has become a central lyrical inspiration. Hence the title Songs of Innocence
which borrows the title from a book of poems by 18th century poet William Blake.
The opening track "The Miracle (of Joey Ramone)" is a tribute to the band's musical heroes, the punk group Ramones. It's the album's pilot single and its rumbling rhythm closely reflects another song of theirs "Love or Peace or Else" from How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb
(Island, 2004). Many times U2 has emphasized the importance of the Ramones both as inspiration and as a stepping stone. On one hand it may be a heartfelt tribute, but musically it's a pompous and unconvincing rocker.
The impression improves enormously with the beautiful and enjoyable "Every Breaking Wave," a track that was first introduced live during the record breaking 360 tour in 2010. This song is a leftover from NLOH
sessions and was meant to be the first single from the aborted Songs of Ascent
, a follow up to NLONH.
"Every Breaking Wave" is a poignant tune with an intro that resembles U2's iconic "With or Without You." Compared to the live version which was performed as a duet with Edge on guitar and vocal, the melody was kept intact but a new chorus was introduced. It's a swirly half-ballad that will have a stadium audiences light up its cell phones.
Lyrically, "California (There is no End to Love)" is a track inspired by the band's first impressions when it first travelled to Los Angeles at the start of the 80's. Its intro is a nod to the Beach Boys and it builds from that before it blossoms and storms in a similar manner as previously heard on "City of Blinding Lights." "Song for Someone" is about Bono's spouse, Ali, with lyrics inspired by their first meeting. Both "Iris (Hold Me Close)" and "Volcano" are songs devoted to Bono's mother who passed away when he was 14. The subject of his mother has inspired other songs in the band's oeuvre like "I Will Follow" from its debut and "Mofo" from Pop
(Island 1997). Lyrically, the overwhelming emotions can bring out something from the soul, and in reverse, sometimes this can lead to rich flows of inspiration or a powerful artistic expression. Iris (Hold Me Close) is a playful and upbeat tune, and this song, including the previous ones, shows the band's most lasting skill, to create really catchy hooks and big choruses. It all sounds great, but these songs don't really sink in; they just don't push past the surface.
Apart from Danger Mouse as a chief producer on this record, other people took on production duties as well, adding their stardust on the first set of songs like Paul Epworth, Ryan Tedder, Declan Gaffney and Flood (producer of U2 records such as Pop
and co-producer of Zooropa
(Island, 1993). The Gaffney-produced "Volcano" is a standout rocker with a chorus nicked from Sonic Youth's "Dirty Boots. It delights with its pounding and distorted bass lines, propelled by punching drums, while Edge pours in his acidic riffs.
From this track onward the record reads like another chapter and adds more angst, drama and content. "Raised by Wolves" was inspired by IRA bombings in 70's Dublin while "Cedarwood Road" (Bono's home address) is a dynamic reminiscence of some of his oldest friendships. "Sleep like a Baby Tonight" is an enjoyable gem of a song. With its light and gently infectious melody and insistent pulsing rhythm, spiked by superb touches of guitar riffage, this slow-burning gem is one of the standout tracks on this record. The closing "The Trouble" is an inspired duet with Lykke Li and her bewitching vocals and the band's ways of interpreting melodies make the song what it is.
As a record, Songs of Innocence
delights, confuses and disappoints at the same time. There is no doubt that it is a beautifully produced album. Danger Mouse acts as a colorist by giving emphasis on rich textures and nuanced soundscapes with keyboards featured as much as guitars. And it's this emphasis on texture that makes the album equally compelling and frustrating. The album has all the necessary ingredients to make excellent songsit has a distinct sound aesthetic, interesting sound ideas and subtle hooks, it brims with lyrical ideas, but it lacks, for the most part, that soulfulness that has glued their musical ideas and ambition into proper songs as it was the case in the past. Although this record doesn't really throw dynamite at musical barriers, it does go a distance in casting this version of U2 in a pretty diverse light. Compared to previous producers like Brian Eno, Daniel Lanois and Steve Lillywhite, which were the chief architects of their sound and wind in the back when it came to experimentation, Danger Mouse and the various co-producers were unable to produce that important ingredient to full extent. What has saved U2 from criticism in the past were the band's songs-pure and simple. What lacks here is Lillywhite, who, regardless of various production teams, served as a last line of defense for the band, and as someone who always knew how to navigate and steer the band towards more mature resolution. Songs of Innocence
is not a failure. On the contrary, this record is a grower, a kind of a record that reveals itself over time, which is probably not a winning strategy in an era characterized with a short attention span and patience. There is a lot to love about it as much to object about. While the shockwaves from the Apple deal have caused an avalanche of negative press, the music itself won't clear up any confusion. It may not be universally considered U2's finest hour, but Songs of Innocence
is strong enough to keep their spark alive long enough until they deliver another masterpiece.
The Miracle (of Joey Ramone), Every Breaking Wave, California (There
Is No End to Love), Song for Someone, Iris (Hold Me Close), Volcano,
Raised by Wolves, Cedarwood Road, Sleep Like a Baby Tonight, This Is
Where You Can Reach Me Now, The Troubles.
Bono: lead vocals, keyboards, guitar, dulcimer; The Edge: guitar,
backing vocals, keyboards, programming; Adam Clayton: bass guitar,
keyboards; Larry Mullen, Jr.: drums, percussion, backing vocals;
Brian Burton: keyboards (tracks 1–2, 7–11), programming (track 7),
additional percussion (track 10), choral arrangement (track 6);
Ryan Tedder: keyboards (tracks 1–2, 4–5), programming (track 1),
acoustic guitar (track 1); Paul Epworth: keyboards (tracks 1, 3,
8), programming (track 1), additional percussion (track 1), claps
(track 6), slide guitar (track 8); Flood: keyboards (track 4);
Declan Gaffney – acoustic guitar (tracks 1, 6), keyboards (tracks
2–8, 10–11), programming (tracks 3, 7, 9), backing vocals (tracks
3, 10), claps (track 6), additional percussion (track 7), vocal
effects (track 7); Lykke Li – vocals (track 11); "Classy" Joe
Visciano:claps (track 6), backing vocals (track 10); Leo Pearson –
keyboards (track 9); Caroline Dale – cello (track 11), string
arrangement (track 11); Natalia Bonner: violin (track 11); Greg
Clark: choir (tracks 1, 6); Carlos Ricketts: choir (tracks 1, 6;
Tabitha Fair: choir (tracks 1, 6); Kim Hill: choir (tracks 1, 6);
Quiona McCollum: choir (tracks 1, 6); Nicki Richards: choir
(tracks 1, 6); Everett Bradley: choir (tracks 1, 6); Bobby Harden
: choir (tracks 1, 6); Ada Dyer: choir (tracks 1, 6).