This is my review of U2’s Songs of Innocence. Here is my review of their deal with Apple.
U2’s most recent album release was in February of 2009. Since then, we have already had two Olympics competitions, two world cups, five Super Bowls, five MLB World Series and five NBA/NHL/etc Championships. Six (6!) iPhone generations have been developed and released since then. The last U2 album was released 14 months before there was even an iPad on the market. Have you been waiting for another U2 album?
The wait is over. U2 just released Songs of Innocence, for free, on iTunes. A deluxe physical CD/vinyl release happens Oct. 13. The release is via a strategic, synergy deal between U2, their label and Apple. I’ll cover that in a separate post.
I’ve listened to the album three times, and here’s my initial reaction review. Keep in mind I’m a fan since before two cycles of skinny jeans ago. I even personalized my license plate to “U2 BOY (see below).” So, I’m a bit predisposed to like most things U2. Also, note that this post is 2,000 words, not my average of about 300 words.
My Overall Comments About the Album:
- It sounds like U2. That’s a good thing, but not always a given, as sometimes they run from themselves. They’re not trying to reinvent here, they’re sticking with what works for them.
- There is a lot of guitar. That worked for 2004’s How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb. Songs of Innocence is even “punk-ish” and youthful, despite the guys being 50-somethings and having articulated dissatisfaction with what they were getting out of themselves in the studio over the past couple years. That’s likely why it’s called Songs of Innocence (instead of the long-rumored title Songs of Ascent, which was described as a record of worship music). There are synthy keyboard flourishes as well.
- The melodies and choruses are clear on the majority of tracks and will ultimately stick with the listener. That was true of the first U2 album (Boy) but hasn’t been consistent (October, The Unforgettable Fire, Zooropa, Pop). For the record, I personally love all those records, but they don’t appeal as much to the casual listener.
- There are anthemic tracks that will play well live and some will still be still be played live 2-3 tours from now in the “greatest hits” third of any given U2 show.
- I hear three “radio-friendly” tracks: “The Miracle”, which they played live today at Apple’s iPhone 6 & Apple Watch event; “Every Breaking Wave”, which they played on the Europe leg of the U2-360 Tour three years ago; and “California”).
- There are some great songs that sneak up on you as favorites after a few spins. I’ll let you tell me which ones in the comments field below.
- The lyrics are crisp and frequently overtly spiritual, which usually bodes well for U2 songs. There are quite a few couplets and choruses pining for their youthful years, including the opening song about Joey Ramone, who was a childhood hero of Bono’s, especially after the death of his mother when he was 13 years old. U2’s official website (U2.com) calls the album “a kind of musical autobiography, the eleven new songs chart their earliest influences from 70s rock and punk to early 80s electronica and soul… and reveal how music changed everything.” Read the account on U2.com, which Bono calls “one of the great nights of our life.”
- The record sounds integral and cohesive as a whole, despite being recorded by a number of different producers, including Danger Mouse (a.k.a. Brian Burton, producer and musician for bands such as Broken Bells, The Black Keys), Paul Epworth (Coldplay, Adele), Ryan Tedder (Taylor Swift, Beyonce) and Flood (longtime U2 producer). Danger Mouse closes out the last three tracks, and seems to be the musical “soul” of the album. These are also the songs that sort of sneak up on you and will hold up over time. They are candidates for closing out the live shows, much like “Moment of Surrender” did on U2-360. U2’s engineer Declan Gaffney also gets a producing credit, probably due to the multi-year, multi-producer, otherwise disparate recording sessions.
- Bono said at the Apple event, “This is our most personal record.”
And Here’s My Quick Take on Each Track:
“The Miracle (of Joey Ramone)”
Producers: Danger Mouse, Paul Epworth & Ryan Tedder
An instant transport back to the teenage years of Bono and the boys. They refer to themselves as “pilgrims” in the lyrics, with the Ramones being their rock-n-roll and culture heroes. The rhythm guitar riff, drum beat and chanting chorus sound more like Adam Ant or The Clash than the Ramones, but this song is radio-ready, and it is the song they played at the Apple event, making it the first thing anyone heard from the album. Bono sings, “I woke up when the miracle occurred / Heard a song that made some sense out of the world.”
“Every Breaking Wave”
Producers: Danger Mouse & Ryan Tedder
This one sounds like a typical U2 song in the tradition of “All I Want is You” or “Electrical Storm.” This is one of the songs they played on the European leg of the 360 Tour, although it was appropriately less-produced then, as it was live. The lyrics evoke nautical themes, and seem to be about avoiding the distraction of bright shiny objects and the superflous latest crazes.
“California (There Is No End to Love)”
Producers: Declan Gaffney, Paul Epworth & Danger Mouse
I’ll need this one to grow on me, I think. It’s a mid-tempo number that is kind of forgettable until the guitar solo, but there have been a lot of U2 songs over the decades that I didn’t care for at first but grew on me over time, and which I now love–or at least appreciate. The message on this song would have to be “there is no end to love,” as it repeats in the songs final minute.
“Song for Someone”
Producers: Ryan Tedder & Flood
This is quite a sweet song, likely about Bono and his first and current love, Ali, his wife. But like many of Bono’s lyrics, it is likely also about his relationship with Jesus Christ. He sings:
And I’m a long long way from your Hill of Calvary
And I’m a long way from where I was
and where I need to be
If there is a light you can’t always see
And there is a world we can’t always be
If there is a kiss I stole from your mouth
And there is a light, don’t let it go out
It’s a song where concertgoers will either be holding hands with one another, having a spiritual epiphany or using the opportunity to go out in the concourse to get a drink or use the restroom. Just saying. Kind of like “Who’s Gonna Ride Your Wild Horses” on Achtung Baby.
“Iris (Hold Me Close)”
Producers: Paul Epworth & Ryan Tedder
In the tradition of “I Will Follow” (War), “Tomorrow” (October) and “Mofo” (Pop), Bono returns to the subject of his deceased mother, who died at his grandfather’s funeral. The song starts with a slow acoustic meandering and opens up into an anthem. He writes:
Hold me close, hold me close and don’t let me go
Hold me close like I’m someone that you might know
Hold me close, the darkness just lets us see
Who we are / I’ve got your life inside of me
Free yourself, to be yourself if only you could see yourself
Producer: Declan Gaffney
Opens with a mean base line as threatening as “Seconds” on 1982’s War LP, only at a much faster tempo. It has more of an anger akin to “Bullet the Blue Sky” on Joshua Tree. It has a very cool repeating guitar riff under the chorus. My guess is it’s also about Bono dealing with the death of his mother as a young teen, and his resulting anger and confusion.“Raised by Wolves”
Producers: Declan Gaffney and Danger Mouse
“Raised by wolves” seems to be about growing up in the streets, and the penchant for some disaffected youth to become indoctrinated into the religion of hate. I think it has to do with a specific car-bombing in Dublin. Consider the lyric:
Boy sees his father crushed under the weight
Of a cross in a passion where the passion is hate
Blue mink Ford, I’m gonna detonate and you’re dead
Blood in the house / Blood in the house
I don’t believe anymore / I don’t believe anymore
The worst things in the world are justified by belief
Producers: Danger Mouse & Paul Epworth
The liner notes say “For Guggi.” Bono grew up on Cedarwood Road (Dublin) with his lifelong friend, Guggi Rowan. Bono sings, “It was a warzone in my teens / I’m still standing on that street…All the green and all the gold / The hurt you hide, the joy you hold / The foolish pride that gets you out the door” and then later “All the green and all the gold / The hurt you hide and the joy you hold / The foolish pride that sends you back for more” and finally at the end, “a heart that is broken is a heart that is open.”
“Sleep Like a Baby Tonight”
Producer: Danger Mouse
This slow burner sounds like Danger Mouse with a dark sound akin to “Love is Blindness” (from Achtung Baby) and with the lyrical fortitude of “Staring at the Sun” from Pop LP. Bono sings:
Hope is where the door is
When the church is where the war is
Where no one can feel no one else’s pain
You’re gonna sleep like a baby tonight
In your dreams, everything is alright
“This Is Where You Can Reach Me”
Producer: Danger Mouse
Built on a very cool groovy guitar riff and corresponding spooky keyboard flourish, but at the same time very “pop,” this song is just the right combination of sweet and savory. It celebrates Bono’s fascination with Joe Strummer and The Clash without pandering or sinking into sophomoric copy-catting. Very cool song. Makes you wonder what all the other tracks from the Danger Mouse recording sessions might sound like–And, how they may be used later in the next couple years.
Producer: Danger Mouse
A down beat number featuring Swedish singer-songwriter Lykke Li, invited into the studio by Danger Mouse. The refrain repeats:
Somebody stepped inside your soul
Somebody stepped inside your soul
Little by little they robbed and stole
Till someone else was in control
God knows it’s not easy
Taking on the shape of someone else’s pain
God now you can see me
I’m naked and I’m not afraid
My body’s sacred and I’m not ashamed
If you’re a U2 fan, you’ll enjoy this album. If you’re not, you might as well get it, because it’s free. The music will probably grow on you, and anybody would do well to give it a listen and allow the lyrics to wash over them. I don’t know why U2 recorded several albums worth of songs with several different producers over five years, and waited until now to release this collection of songs. Ultimately, U2’s goal is to have fresh content for a tour, and Bono said at the Apple event yesterday, “As of this time last week we finished out album,” so it’s likely that the opportunity to put the collection of songs out to half a billion people meant wrapping up the album and getting it out. More on that in my next post.
It’s telling that Bono said to Tim Cook, “How do we get it to as many people as possible (to hear this) because that’s what our band is all about.” He added that the record is “our core DNA. The clue is in the name.” Whether he meant the band’s name U2 (a spy plane that sees everything, a la God’s perspective), or, if he meant the album title, Songs of Innocence
, he is
saying he really wants people to hear it, and that “It’s our most personal album.” Many of these songs don’t actually seem to be exploring “innocence,” but rather an ecclesiastical foray of youth and life and ultimately redemption. Here’s my writeup on all the parties involved with the Apple deal
. For now, here’s how to get the free album.
How to Get the Album
- Open the Music app on your iOS device, or your iTunes music library on your Mac/PC
- Search for ‘Songs of Innocence’ under the artist or album tab
- Click the iCloud icon to download. You can also listen via streaming
On October 13th the physical release drops. It comes with a 24-page booklet. A deluxe, gatefold double album, contains an acoustic session of songs from the album and four additional tracks: “Lucifer’s Hands”, “The Crystal Ballroom”, “The Troubles (Alternative version)” and “Sleep Like a Baby Tonight (Alternative Perspective Mix by Tchad Blake).” The album will also be available as a gatefold, double white-vinyl LP with an exclusive remix of “The Crystal Ballroom.”
What are your favorite songs on this album?