Early on in U2’s 13th album, Songs of Innocence, Bono sings this line: “I get so many things I don’t deserve.” He couldn’t have known it when he wrote it, but that sentiment is the perfect touchstone for everything I’ve watched happen in the past week, as the band gave this album away for free and our crybaby entitlement society smacked them over and over again for it.
By now you’ve all heard the story. As part of Apple’s iPhone 6/iWatch/iWhatever event last Tuesday, U2 unveiled Songs of Innocence, their first album in five years. And they did it in dramatic style – with the push of a button, the album’s 11 songs were given away free to everyone with an iTunes account. All we had to do was download it from our purchased folders. Or, if we had the automatic download option switched on, we had to do nothing – the record showed up in our playlists, ready to be listened to.
Now, understand, I’m a U2 fan. I have been since I first heard The Joshua Tree, at my aunt and uncle’s house in New Hampshire, on headphones in the dark. I was 13, and this music took me places that few other bands had. I still think The Joshua Tree is a masterpiece, as is Boy, as is War, as is The Unforgettable Fire. And the band grew with me. In the ‘90s, I wanted to be all ironic and clever and cool, and they did too – Achtung Baby smacked me upside the head when it came out, and Pop – poor, maligned Pop – is actually a wonderful record. And in the 2000s, I grew up and took stock, and so did U2, making some of their most earnest, stripped-back music on All That You Can’t Leave Behind and How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb, two records I still like a great deal.
So I was one of the millions who greeted Songs of Innocence with shouts of glee. Like all U2 fans, I’d been hearing about – and worrying about – this record for years, and to have it suddenly show up, out of the blue, for nothing? That actually made my day. I was so excited about it that it never even occurred to me that some people might be upset by the way the band chose to release this album, pushing it out to 500 million purchased folders without asking. This is why I am no longer a reporter – to me, the story was the music, not the method.
But man, was I wrong.
If U2 wanted to get people talking, well, they did it. Every hipper-than-thou type on the Internet seemed to pile on, accusing the band of being underhanded, insidious, even evil. People saw it as an invasion of privacy, and treated the album like an unwanted virus, or worse. The uproar reached absolutely ridiculous levels, with some comparing it to breaking and entering, or even rape. (For real. If I read one more rape analogy, I’m going to punch a wall.) Apple even released a tool to remove all traces of the record from your iTunes, because it wasn’t enough for people to simply delete it, they had to eradicate every scrap of evidence that the offending album had once been there.
And all the while, gleeful U2 haters have been stoking the fires. (See this ludicrous New Yorker review as an example.) They turned what should have been a minor annoyance for some people into a cause for those who want to see both Apple and U2 crash and burn. The hyperbolic bloviations are still going on, while the band is taking things in stride – at last count, more than 40 million people had downloaded Songs of Innocence. To put that in perspective, their last record, the underwhelming No Line on the Horizon, sold five million copies worldwide. If expanding the audience was the goal, mission accomplished.
But look. It’s a free record. Additionally, it’s a free reminder that the iTunes platform you are using doesn’t belong to you, and Apple can do what it wants. They push similarly optional updates to all accounts on a regular basis. Songs of Innocence only downloaded directly to your phone if you told iTunes to do that. To act like this is your house and they broke in is laughable. Especially since – and I will keep saying this – it’s a free record! It’s a gift. You don’t like the gift? Delete the gift. It’s that simple. If someone giving you 11 free songs is the worst thing that happened to you last week, that’s pretty damn good. Just calm down. Seriously. You’ll hurt yourself.
So that’s what everyone’s writing about – the Irish Big Brother and how they forced us to own their new record. But what no one seems to be writing about is this: Songs of Innocence may well be U2’s best and most consistent album since Achtung Baby, 23 years ago. A really great record is being lost in the invented and exaggerated furor, and that’s a shame. So let me tell you about it.
Songs of Innocence is reportedly the first half of a double album, with the second half completing the William Blake allusion: Songs of Experience. Given that, it’s not too much of a leap to assume that we’re hearing the backward-looking half, the one about where the band has been. The lyrics repeatedly reference the band members’ childhoods, and the music is a superb distillation of U2’s last 38 years. (Yes, 38 years, without a single lineup change.)
Everything they have ever done well is represented here, and the result is the most confident set of songs in more than 20 years. They worked with a bevy of producers, including Danger Mouse, Paul Epworth, Ryan Tedder and Flood, but you’d never know it. The album flows brilliantly from first note to last, the most effortless-sounding 49 minutes of their latter-day career. In fact, it’s impressive how much Danger Mouse, who produced the album overall, stayed out of the band’s way. You’ll hear no trip-hop beats here, no electro-soul embarrassments, no straining grasps at relevance. For most of this record, you’ll hear U2 just doing what they do, and doing it better than they have in a long time.
The album opens with its weakest song, but damn, “The Miracle (of Joey Ramone)” is a pretty good weakest song. It’s the biggest production here too – you can feel them sweat as you listen. It begins with a massed-vocal chant before The Edge crashes in with a piercing fuzz tone, and Bono sings of the first time he heard the Ramones, relating it to an actual miracle: “Everything I ever lost now has been returned, the most beautiful sound I ever heard…” It’s a song that learns absolutely no lessons from the Ramones, but whatever. Although it never takes flight, it stomps along convincingly, stating its case as a far better first single than “Get On Your Boots.”
Everything picks up from there. “Every Breaking Wave” is classic U2, almost a rewrite of “With or Without You.” The band has grown immeasurably better at disguising the fact that bassist Adam Clayton is playing the same four notes repeatedly – this song’s chorus just erupts, Bono asking if we’re ready to be swept off our feet. “California” is modern U2 at its finest, a Brian Wilson homage at the start giving way to a driving beat that surges into a soaring refrain. “All I know, and all I need to know is there is no end to love,” Bono sings. This is the kind of song they’ve been writing for the past decade or so, flawlessly, and this is a very good one.
Up to this point, it’s just another U2 record. But with track four, the lovely “Song for Someone,” the record takes off and never comes back down. It’s a hymn, the kind of hymn U2 has always written well. Bono’s perfectly imperfect voice has rarely been stronger and clearer than it is on this song – he puts everything into it. Near the end, he laments, “I’m a long, long way from your hill at Calvary, and I’m a long, long way from where I was and need to be.” He still hasn’t found what he’s looking for, but the most spiritual lyricist in popular music keeps on looking.
“Iris (Hold Me Close)” is a stunner, a powerful, anthemic song about Bono’s mother, who died when he was 14. Edge pulls out the infinite guitar for the first time in ages, while drummer Larry Mullen brings it all home on this one. And just wait until you hear Bono. There’s a purity to his vocals on this song that I haven’t heard in a long time. After four minutes of celebration, the song takes a surprising turn for the mournful, lyrically: “Iris says that I will be the death of her, it was not me.” This is an extraordinary U2 song, capturing a flame that I worried had long died out.
And once it rekindles, it catches. “Volcano” is the album’s most explosive tune, putting efforts like “Vertigo” to shame – it actually shimmies, Edge laying down stabbing shards of guitar while Mullen and Clayton rock out behind him. (This should have been the first single. No question.) “Raised By Wolves” is a remarkable bit of time travel – it would have fit on Boy or War without much trouble. It’s a dark epic, with that “New Year’s Day” piano sound and a vicious sense of menace. The chorus comes out of nowhere, slicing through the sky. It’s a wonder, and it finds the foursome sounding 20 years old again.
“Cedarwood Road” keeps the streak alive, and in fact may be the record’s high point. Named after the street on which Bono grew up, it’s a raw, live-band rocker that slowly evolves into an anthem. “You can’t return to where you never left,” Bono sings, and the band effortlessly states that case. This is another song that recaptures a decades-old energy. After that, you might greet the synth opening of “Sleep Like a Baby Tonight” with dread, but stay with it – it evolves into a creepy crawly highlight. Bono whips out the “Lemon” falsetto for one high-wire act in the middle, and he comes so close to pulling it off that it works anyway. The song ends with a jammy section that ably displays just how restrained this band really is, contrary to popular opinion.
Songs of Innocence steadfastly refuses to fall apart at the end. “This Is Where You Can Reach Me Now” is almost dance-rock, a slow build that takes off like a rocket once it gets going. And “The Troubles” is magnificent, one of the few here that point forward. Lykke Li provides a hook while the band spins out an atmospheric mid-tempo float, complete with thick strings. It’s not a song about the Irish Troubles, at least not directly. “I have a will for survival, so you can hurt me then hurt me some more, I can live with denial, but you’re not my troubles anymore,” Bono sings, putting a bad relationship to rest. The song ends things on a spectral, haunting note, Edge playing delicious leads over the fadeout.
And then it’s over. And every time, I sit back and marvel at the fact that I have just heard one of the best albums ever by one of the best and most important bands in the world. One could chide the band for taking few creative risks this time, but they’ve crafted a conceptual piece about drawing strength from one’s history. I expect the second album – which may include the singles “Ordinary Love” and “Invisible” – to be more about where the band is headed. This record, on its own, is a summation of everything I have ever loved about U2, wrapped up in 49 of the most consistently great minutes they have produced since I was in high school. And I got to listen to it for free.
We get so many things we don’t deserve. Amen, sir. Amen.
Next week, some unexpected comebacks with Aphex Twin, Mike Doughty and Death From Above 1979. Leave a comment on my blog at tm3am.blogspot.com. Follow me on Facebook at www.facebook.com/tm3am, and Twitter at www.twitter.com/tm3am.
See you in line Tuesday morning.