The wait for U2‘s latest album was a weird one. 2009’s No Line on the Horizon, though mostly underwhelming, still found its fans; the stadium tour that followed was predictably entertaining (emphasis on predictably). As songs from the record slowly disappeared from setlists, the band started to dismiss it, and thus began the anticipation for a new LP, a “return to form” of sorts. 2010 saw the band try out a bunch of new tracks, such as North Star, all played live a few times then forgotten about for eternity. Throughout the following years, several reports of U2 working with Danger Mouse led to no official press release whatsoever, while the decent Ordinary Love and the weak Invisible couldn’t even qualify as a lead-up to a proper LP. Then, all of a sudden, Songs of Innocence, announced and released at the same instant, for free, available to anyone with an iTunes account. Does it live up to the hype? Well, what hype?
In a strategy that mixes what Beyoncé and Jay-Z did last year – one put an album on iTunes with no previous announcement, the other released it for free to a million people with Samsung devices -, it’s a shocking move that grabbed the headlines. It’s unfortunate that, right on the first listen, the release strategy becomes more noteworthy than the record itself. Songs of Innocence is dull. Some people will say that U2 have always been that way (a hate often directed more towards Bono than the actual music), but this is boring even to people who actively liked U2 at some point. There’s just so little worth talking about on this thing.
The duo of The Joshua Tree and Achtung Baby are the obvious highlights of the band’s career, and going in opposing directions from those two, each record has less and less stellar material – with a few exceptions, like Pop being inferior to All That You Can’t Leave Behind. But fans still held hope that U2 could do something impressive again. As Bono himself put it: “People don’t get excited about us being ‘very good’. Who needs a new U2 album? There’s loads of them out there. We have to make a great U2 album.” And this is not it.
Opening track The Miracle (of Joey Ramone) is fairly good, appropriate enough for a lead single, and still better than the dead-on-arrival Get On Your Boots. Then you get this big barrage of songs where everything certainly sounds like U2, but it’s not the one that writes anthems and fills stadiums, it’s the one that fills the second half of the record with B-side material. You have to try really hard to pick apart the passable from the skippable, as it all just seems to blur together after some time. I can picture Chris Martin on his first listen, getting to California (There Is no End to Love) and going, “shit, even I can do better”. But who are we kidding here? Chris Martin doesn’t say “shit”.
Leaving aside the songs that make pretty much no difference in the band’s catalog , there are a few nice moments. The bass and guitar work on Iris (Hold Me Close) is reminiscent of their early work, and while the chorus isn’t quite up there with War material, the track could be worth revisiting. Cedarwood Road has a good ending section, and even gets a little heavy on occasion; closing number The Troubles features great vocals by Lykke Li and outstanding production touches by Danger Mouse. Most importantly, Sleep Like a Baby Tonight is the one that deviates more from a standard pop-rock formula here: the synth line and Bono’s distorted vocals tread a fine line between eeriness and cheesiness, while the Edge’s solo is appropriately low-key. Overall, the track is more McPhisto than cowboy hat, a relief from the weak. predictable U2-ness of the rest of the album. If only they could make an LP that went for more unusual song structures and actively tried to be weird.
Except, that album already exists, it’s called Zooropa. Furthermore, if Songs of Innocence proves anything about the band’s 2009 record, it’s that it was fairly unconventional for post-2000 U2. This new LP, basic as it is, shows that U2 were actually stretching out and trying different things on No Line on the Horizon, even if they didn’t succeed in bringing much substance to the music – a feat they have just repeated. The choruses are utterly forgettable, and coming from a band that practically built their career on that, you’d expect more from such a straightforward effort. Regardless of your opinion on Vertigo when it came out, you remembered the “Hello, hello… HOLA!”. Here, you remember the annoyingly high first note that Bono does on the chorus to Raised By Wolves, because of how obnoxious it is, then nothing else.
In the end, it’s a record that benefits from having practically no hype leading up to it, and having all the publicity it needs right on the release date. None of this new material is offensively bad, like some stuff on Pop might have been, but it’s just the bare minimum to qualify as something they’d consider putting out; in fact, I wonder just how much of it will even be played live, and for how long. This is not a “great” U2 album, but in fact just another one, setting expectations for the rumored follow-up Songs of Experience pretty low. The physical release of Songs of Innocence, bonus tracks and all, will be a stopgap before the band’s inevitable world tour, where we’re sure there will be more than enough great material to pull from, in the proper setting to appreciate U2 these days: live.
Reviews published prior to February 23, 2015 used a 1-5 star rating system.