I must begin this commentary with a caveat – I have been a fan of U2 for over half of my life and they remain, for me, an important musical group even as my own tastes and interests have evolved. The band has produced some wonderful albums, some raw albums, and some clunky songs since their first full release, “Boy.” What they have not done, in my opinion, with the exception of their 2009 release, is release music that people largely ignore. “Songs of Innocence” should not be ignored for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is its ability to make listeners feel something rather strongly.
About thirty-two years ago I walked into the store pictured at the top and made a choice between two albums based on very different criteria. One, Men at Work’s “Business as Usual,” had familiar songs, catchy tunes, and extensive radio play. The second, released in the United States about a month earlier, was U2’s “War.” I knew nothing about U2 – I had not, to my knowledge, heard a single song of theirs in my entire life. But that album cover.
Of course, I chose the album I knew and happily listened to Colin Hay sing about fried out combies and men from Brussels. As it turns out, the non “top 40” songs from that album? Rather good actually – “I can see it in your eyes” is a catchy song about the lover that gets away and I enjoy “Touching the Untouchables” and “Down by the Sea” which are bit odd and almost dystopian in some respects. But that album cover.
U2’s “War” cover art haunted me – I would think about it and the potential music that lay within. “What’s up with that kid?” “Is this related to Lord of the Flies somehow?” “Should I have taken a chance on that album?” I didn’t know the answer to the question, I STILL hadn’t heard a single song from them, and yet I was somewhat obsessed. The decision also caused me to rethink how I chose albums and made me ask questions like “what will the future me listen to? Will I grow as music evolves?” This latter question was particularly important to me given that I had spent an inordinate amount of time in elementary gym class listening to disco (not by choice).
For the next several years, I often looked at compelling cover art as a potential deciding factor. This strategy did not always go well. But, around 1987 it netted me an interesting record by Canada’s Rock & Hyde and I got Public Image Ltd. “Album” that way as well. ANYWAY – it would be nearly three years (and one more U2 release) before I finally could say with absolute certainty, “yes, I have heard their songs.” My older classmates in high school were playing songs from “War” and “Unforgettable Fire” at a fund raising event for our school choir. Hearing “War” for the first time, and recalling the debate with myself in 1982, I became pretty hard on myself for my decision to go with Men at Work.
“Songs of Innocence” comes to listeners five years after the previous full album release, “No Line on the Horizon.” The latter was, for me, a disappointment. Last spring, I gave it a listen again at the recommendation of some folks from the venerable Facebook crowd – while it sat better with me this time around, it did not hit me on the second hearing the way “Pop” did. I think I wanted more from “No Line.” I had heard rumors about work in North Africa and a variety of producers that might reinvigorate the sound and the album simply felt flat on those first few listens, never quite recovering for me.
I had no expectations this time around – a friend told me the album was available and I thought them mistaken. “It comes out in October, no?” But, while futzing with my mother’s wi-fi hook up I discovered I already “owned” the album because of a deal U2 struck with Apple. This part of the release has been discussed ad nauseam on the interwebs already and I think the hipsters of the world should shut the f$@* up already about this complete first world problem of “oh, my overpriced telephone/camera/music device automatically downloaded something I don’t want because I’m so over that group.”
Look – it’s a marketing ploy, I get it, but if “the Fly” has taught us something at least since “Rattle and Hum” it’s that branding and marketing can give you power to say something and do something maybe a little different. If “Joshua Tree” doesn’t explode, do they get to make a vanity project like “Rattle and Hum?” If “Achtung Baby” doesn’t resonate with an American audience largely unprepared for German discotheque inflected production qualities, does the sneaky “Zooropa” get made? “Songs of Innocence,” for me, is not unlike the experience I had with “Joshua Tree,” with “Achtung Baby,” with “Zooropa,” and with “All that you can’t leave behind.” I put it on the day it “released” and I haven’t turned it off.
Again, the caveat – I’m a fan. I like the band, I like that they’re still together and have been friends for going on forty years, I like Bono’s sanctimonious nature, I like Larry Mullen Jr.’s predictable backbeat. I like that the Edge has made a career as THE guitarist in the group but is basically a rhythm guitar guy who loves to manipulate sound using electronic tools. I really like Adam Clayton’s consistently aggressive bass. They’re not the greatest, most creative group necessarily – in a way, they are often, “straight pop” with many releases, but for me, that’s ok. If I want fractious, perhaps edgier, and creative, I’ve got the Smiths (I mean, Johnny Marr is, to quote Noel Gallagher, a f$*@*ng wizard – “even Johnny Marr can’t play as well as Johnny Marr”), Bright Eyes, Radiohead, the The, Arctic Monkeys, Franz Ferdinand, the National, Band of Horses, Cults, the Antlers, the Decembrists, Broken Bells, and many more groups to channel.
This album though says some interesting things to me. Maybe it’s a mid-life thing, maybe I have no taste in music, maybe I’m a sucker for the songs Bono sings that make me cry – in this case, “Iris” – who knows. In many ways, “Songs of Innocence” explains U2 – where they’re from, “Cedarwood Road,” “Raised by Wolves,” “the Troubles,” – why they do what they do, “The Miracle (of Joey Ramone),” “This is Where You Can Reach Me Now,” – what happened to them early on, “California (There is No End to Love),” “Iris,” – pop ballads and grinders “Song for Someone,” “Sleep Like a Baby Tonight,” “Volcano,” – and a nod to the past in “Every Breaking Wave.”
Some people aren’t going to like aspects of this album or perhaps the method of its release, or the songs, or whatever. Still, U2 are making music that, to me, is interesting even as they approach their mid-50s. There are spots in the lyrics that mix well with the music and create powerful visuals (“Every Breaking Wave” – every sailor knows that the sea is a friend made enemy, and every ship-wrecked soul knows what it is to live without intimacy) and there are straight pop rockers like “Volcano” that gives Clayton a spotlight. Then there are other, deeply personal revelations that break your heart if you’re at all human (“Iris” – I’ve got your life inside of me….Iris standing in the hall, she tells me I can do it all, Iris wakes to my nightmares, don’t fear the world it isn’t there). Some people won’t appreciate what Bono is taking the time to tell us here – that even as a man of now 54, he can still channel the fourteen-year old boy who lost his mother too young. May none of our children feel that kind of pain.
What makes a good pop album? I would argue that you can listen to it and you don’t want to skip out or turn it off or get out of the car. Another sure sign? My six year old knows the names of the songs already, sings along with some of them more than he does with songs from “Frozen” or even Minecraft parody songs (thank God), and my nine year old is curious about the choice of wolves as a lyric in the painful, yet still poppy song about living in a country tearing itself apart with sectarian violence. “Songs of Innocence” resonates with them hipsters; give it a chance.