Now that the long national terror has abated, we can talk candidly.
No, I’m not talking about ISIS coming to cut all of our heads off, or of Ebola coming to boil us all inside out. I’m talking about the new U2 album, Songs Of Innocence, the one released as a “gift” to all Apple product users, and caused no end of controversy in the process. I still believe it was a mistake for the band to go about things as they did. Maybe as a standalone option, as a free download from iTunes that recipients had to seek out and initiate, the record might have been less of a flashpoint than to have the album already waiting in everyone’s download queue, want it or not. My initial concern was about basic human hypocrisy, being that there rightfully is outrage when someone breaks into our digital strongholds and steals things out, but that anytime someone breaks in to give us stuff, that’s okay. So long as we always receive, any transgression is acceptable. I thought that was a bad precedent to put out there, especially if we were so worried about the permeability of our digital lives.
I think my viewpoint was way more nuanced than most of those who thought it was a bad idea because they said, “I don’t want U2’s (expletive of your choice) album, period.” They were mostly angry about the hubris of the group acting as though they were still the biggest band in the world, even though no band is the biggest band in the world anymore. Would they have had the same negative response if it was Kanye West or Rihanna shoving a new album into their files? I don’t know.
In the end, the move did two things. It got the band press, mostly bad. It also created hostility toward Songs Of Innocence so all-pervasive that any measure of goodwill in the arrival of a brand-new U2 album was immediately tainted by the angst. Those who popped on track one, “The Miracle (Of Joey Ramone)” could have enjoyed it for what it was, versus already having axes to grind, manifesting in silly ways and statements like, “It sounds nothing like The Ramones!” Of course. That’s because it is a U2 song. Had it been the reverse, the complaint would have been, “U2 is ripping off The Ramones.” I believe mostly this is an act of transference. You’re already prejudiced as a listener, before the first note, and that will invariably affect your relationship to it. Truthfully, the song is okay. I wouldn’t call it great U2, and there hasn’t been great U2 since flashes of Zooropa passed our way. It is, however, competent U2. It is All That You Can’t Leave Behind, and the calculated precision of that record’s pop-hit songwriting rather than the unbridled passion they had been so famous for.
In that light, knowing that the highs of their past were behind them, can you accept this music? Is it better than How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb (yes) or No Line On The Horizon (also yes). If an entity stays in music long enough, most acts will reach that point where their newest cannot run the race against their most beloved. That was probably why people remain so endeared to The Beatles, and why it is difficult to get too excited about the Stones after Tattoo You or even Steel Wheels. Leave them wanting more before you’re caught repeating yourself, or lapping yourself.
But I reiterate that audiences would have been a lot more interested in the lovely “The Troubles,” a duet with Lykke Li; or “Iris (Hold Me Close)” or even the propulsive “Raised By Wolves” if they weren’t handed a complimentary hate-on first. I will state that I think all three of these songs would have sounded better if it had been Steve Lillywhite behind the boards instead of Danger Mouse, Paul Epworth, and Ryan Tedder who come from a generation of digital recording, editing, mashing up and phasing out. This modern approach to recording has created an air of imperfect perfection, too smooth, too rounded off. The band feels like they have been reduced to the role of “beats creators” with all the usual tricks and breaks, and Bono has been dropped on top.
Further, the insertion of the wordless “Oh-oh-oh-ohhh-oh” in “The Miracle” is like the wordless “Oh-uh-uh/uh/uh/uh-oh” in Katy Perry’s “Roar,” or the ululations on latter Coldplay albums, or any other modern pop song that does the same. The feeling that U2 has to chase after these gimmicks is the same feeling after Madonna released MDNA, and the listener wonders how bad it must have gotten to now follow the lead you were a pioneer of.
I felt, at the end of Songs Of Innocence, that this was an album I could listen to again, and more than a couple of times. I did not really need to get past the controversy to arrive at that point. There are some good songs to be had here. I expect that these could come to life in the concert setting, freed from the stacks of processed digital waveforms, in surprisingly powerful ways. They just need band cohesion and some darn room to breathe and stomp. The “glory” days of the band are probably behind them. That’s what happens when you become an institution, and I will almost assuredly go back to The Unforgettable Fire before going back to this. But based on the actual album, or the material lying beneath a too-heavy-handed process, it might be too unfair to easily dismiss it or to reject it just on the basis of a bad business marketing decision.