U2 - Songs of Innocence (Cover Artwork)
Staff Review


Songs of Innocence (2014)

Island Records

For half a decade, I was a pretty big U2 fan. In 1987 I was mostly into hair-metal and was just starting to discover the Ramones, Sex Pistols and The Clash, but there was something about these strange looking Irishmen that spoke to me. Their videos were in constant rotation on MTV, and eventually I picked up The Joshua Tree. I grew to love that album and went on to explore their back catalogue. 1983's War, with "Sunday Bloody Sunday" and "New Year's Day," would end up becoming my favorite. By the time the concert film and live album Rattle and Hum came out in 1988, U2 was arguably the biggest band on the planet. 1991's Achtung Baby showed the band going in a more mellow direction, but it still had a melancholy beauty that made it compelling.

I saw U2 live in a football stadium with about 50,000 other people in 1992. The tickets were $30, which was a small fortune for me at the time. The show was good, but nowhere near great. We were about a half mile from the stage, and they didn't play very many of their classic songs. Giant stages and video screens do not make up for a lack of great songs. That was the year I stopped paying attention to U2's new music. It seemed like they were headed toward easy listening. It's like they stopped making music for me and started making music for my parents. I'd still spin one of their older LPs once in a while, but that was about it.

When U2's new album Songs of Innocence showed up in my iTunes 22 years later, I thought I'd give it a listen. It certainly helps that it was free. "The Miracle (of Joey Ramone)" has been getting lots of airplay in the form of an Apple commercial, and has been growing on me. It doesn't hurt that they use vintage images of the Ramones and The Clash in the ad/video. The song's backstory also makes it more interesting. It was inspired by Bono hearing Joey Ramone sing for the first time, and how much it moved him. I am in favor of anything that reminds people how good the Ramones are. This song opens the album, and may be its strongest track. The bursts of super fuzzed-out guitar are probably intended to be a nod to the band's "punk" roots.

You can hear the ghosts of U2's past on Songs of Innocence. On "Every Breaking Wave," the throbbing of Adam Clayton's bass and Larry Mullen Jr.'s drums recall "With or Without You." On "Song For Someone," Bono's vocals have the yearning quality of "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For." The Edge's frantic strumming on "Iris (Hold Me Close)," might remind you of "Where the Streets Have No Name." While the music sometimes bears a resemblance, the lyrics don't carry nearly as much weight as those earlier recordings. "Raised By Wolves" has a cool Gang of Four vibe, which is probably much closer to U2's true "punk" roots.

A lot of people seem to really hate Bono. I guess it's because he wears sunglasses and tries to help the poor (what an A-hole). Those same people probably want to hear that this album is horrible, but it's just not. What it is, in reality, is slickly produced pop music. The earnest, organic rock of early U2 has been replaced by a corporate hit-making machine. Art that was once made by four guys with guitars and drums, is now influenced by a team of creative consultants. Make no mistake about it, this is meticulously put together with a fine ear for even the slightest detail. Hotshot producer Danger Mouse was brought in to give this a hip, modern feel, and there's a lot going on in these songs. What it lacks is any real substance. I suppose that more music of the magnitude of "Pride (In the Name of Love)" might be too much to ask, but some of this feels really frivolous. "California (There is No End to Love)," "Volcano" and "Cedarwood Road" are good examples of songs that seem to have been written for the sole purpose of being background music for luxury car commercials. It's not terrible, it's just bland.

50 million digital copies of Songs of Innocence were distributed to iTunes users. If even a fraction of those are listened to and enjoyed, it will guarantee that the band fills stadiums and makes millions for years to come. As much backlash as there was, I suspect it will turn out to be a brilliant move. While U2 remains one of the biggest bands on earth, they don't feel very important any more. This record is not bad, but it will never generate the sense of awe that inspires a song like "The Miracle (of Joey Ramone)."