U2 Continues to Surprise and Deliver

U2

U2 reinvent themselves with Songs of Innocence.

As any reader of my blog knows, I’m a HUGE U2 fan. The kind of fan who follows the band on tour to multiple shows, waits hours in a general admission line so to get the best spot possible to see the band, and who once, admittedly, stayed overnight at a posh hotel I thought the band would stay at in hopes of catching them for a picture, autograph and quick spewing of praise (it didn’t work out as I’d hoped). It’s true that Bono is probably the celebrity I most long to meet. I love everything about this band, including Bono’s activism. Their music is the soundtrack of my life from childhood through adulthood, even before I knew who they were. Their music means so much to me on a personal level–it grabs me right in the heart and says all the things I feel without words.

So, of course, when it was leaked and later somewhat revealed that U2 would be a part of Apple’s new iPhone 6 presentation, I dutifully plugged myself into the presentation, half-watching on my own iPhone at work. I listened through the hour long presentation, waiting with baited breath for some word of U2. Bleh bleh, iPhone 6.. Bleh, bleh cool AppleWatch (which would only be cool if it were an actual phone and not an accessory to your phone). What I was expecting was that U2 would play single from their forthcoming album, announce the new album’s release date, and then enable the new single for purchase. Which, of course, I’d dutifully download because new U2 songs have been few and far between (I downloaded “Invisible” for free when it was offered and I bought the “Ordinary Love” single when it was released as a limited edition vinyl last November). I’ve been waiting at least four years for a new album so I was pretty excited that they might finally have something ready for release. They’ve teased us fans since 2010 about a new album they were working on… and I’ve grown rather antsy in anticipation.

I totally did NOT EXPECT that a new album was about to get dropped into my lap. I could not believe my ears when Bono asked Tim Cook if the new album could be dropped to all iTunes users’ accounts at that moment. Oh, the utter surprise was well worth the four year wait! Forget about work the rest of the day, my mind was blown. Leave it to U2 to blow my–and everyone else’s–mind.

Being a huge fan, I admit that I’m probably not the most unbiased person to write a review of the album. I even liked the rather unfavored No Line On The Horizon (2009). How To Dismantle an Atomic Bomb (2005) was a long-time favorite of mine because it sounded old-school (whereas most fans did not like it because it was seen as more of the same) and because at that time in my life, after moving back to Ohio from Colorado, songs like “Miracle Drug” spoke to me. My favorite U2 album is the often ridiculed October (1981) because it is raw, emotional, full of spirit and bold, brave musical experimentation. In fact, I don’t honestly think that there is a U2 album that I dislike. Some albums resonate with me more than others. But I listen to them all.

In the recent years, U2 has struggled internally with themselves in a quest to stay “relevant” in the music scene, which has absolutely driven me–and a lot of other fans–insane. I don’t feel like relevancy is something you lose once gained. U2 will always be relevant because they have left a mark on musical history that is in line with the greats like Elvis Presley, the Beatles, even the Rolling Stones.  Their performance at Live Aid in the early 80s made the world take notice, The Joshua Tree (1987) sealed their relevancy in musical history, and ZooTV, the tour that supported Achtung Baby (1991), was revolutionary.

What U2 seeks is a continued place in the current musical scene. They want new fans, not just us old time devotees. I think when a band has reached the age they are at, when possibly the best years of their musical life is behind them, they still want to feel “loved.” On some level I understand as an artist myself (who has yet to write her own The Joshua Tree), I can imagine how it must be like for them to have written such great “best sellers” as The Joshua Tree and Achtung Baby and then have to move beyond that. How can you top the greatest music you ever wrote? It’s the same as living down a best selling novel, I’m sure, and the world at large is ever the critic, comparing your latest work to the old masterpieces, and evermore predicting–and almost relishing in–your “downward slide.”

I understand U2’s desire for their former glory, but it really has worn my patience thin at times. It’s like listening to your lover berate himself over and over. I’ve wanted to shake Bono myself and scream, “You’ll always be relevant to me! I still love you!” After awhile, you even get worn out from telling your lover that he’s wonderful when all he continues to see is failure.

I’m also a huge fan of Greg Dulli (lead singer/songwriter of The Afghan Whigs, The Twilight Singers). What I’ve always loved and respected about Dulli is the fact that he produces what he feels like writing at the time and he doesn’t given a crap (or at least he does not appear to) what the public or the reviewers say. He cow-tows to no one’s desires. He’s never been in a band that has seen the fame of U2 and maybe that’s what keeps him going. But I respect the fact that he does not try to reproduce Gentlemen or Black Love (which are probably the albums for which The Afghan Whigs are most known). He just evolves musically without appearing to try too hard. I have often wished U2 would share a similar attitude–that they would just produce what they wanted to create and ignore what the general public has to say. I think that is probably the most freeing way to create music and art.

With all these thoughts in mind, I had some serious concerns about the new album U2 was rumored to be making. Forced art often feels forced. I was afraid they might be trying a bit too hard. They were deliberately using new record producers, straying from their usual go-to men–Brian Eno, Daniel Lanois, and Steve Lillywhite–to look for a new sound. They started sessions with Rick Ruben and aborted those. They brought in Brian Burton (aka Danger Mouse) who then seemed, most recently, frustrated by the project in an article I read. And lastly, Ryan Tedder (OneRepublic front man) and Paul Epworth were brought in. Too many cooks?

Needless to say, I was very, very nervous as U2 stepped out on stage at the Apple release. What was I about to hear? Within the first couple notes of “The Miracle (Of Joey Ramone),” I glanced down at my phone to see Adam Clayton really rocking his bass. Woah. I’m a huge fan of bass–my favorite songs always have a prominent bass line. I don’t remember the last time Adam looked so alive playing a song.

Of course, I downloaded my copy of the album and immediately began playing it. Since then, according to my iTunes play count, I’ve played the entire album 7 times and some of the songs over 10 (“Volcano,” currently has 25 plays).

Songs of Innocence is undoubtedly the most directly personal album that U2 has written since October. The lyrics cover some of the themes Bono has grappled with his whole life in many songs–the death of his mother, religion/faith, terrorism, growing up–but are backed by fresh music and some of the tightest lyrics Bono and The Edge have written in a long time. “The Miracle (Of Joey Ramone), “California (There Is No End To Love),” and “This Is Where You Can Reach Me Now” are homages to the music that woke Bono, The Edge, Adam, and Larry to the music scene in their youth–The Ramones, The Beach Boys, and The Clash respectively. The album is surprisingly cohesive given the multiple producers credited in the liner notes. The bass and drums have come alive again with the band, which has been a quality sorely lacking in previous releases, and they sound daring like U2’s early catalog.

My thoughts on the individual tracks:

“The Miracle (Of Joey Ramone)” – Catchy and bold. Played live at the Apple premier, I could see joyfulness on the faces of all the band members. Leading off the album, “The Miracle” heralds a change in musical style for the band. After a few listens, this song became one of my favorites on the album.

“Every Breaking Wave” –  To be honest, I was in love with the stripped down acoustic version of this song that U2 played during some shows on the 360 tour. I’m struggling to get over the very cheap rock riff in the background to the song. The lyrics are still beautiful, but I wish they applied a little less production to this song. I hope that when they play it live, they return to the acoustic format. This is the most bland sounding song on the entire album to me and may end up as the track I skip most often once I really get tired of its newness. A part of me cries inside to say that. I wanted so badly to hear this original version of this song live, but I was never at a show where they played it.

“California (There Is No End To Love)” – My first impression of this song was, “Oh my God, how hokey. My favorite band has turned hokey.” The “Santa Barbaras” were very off-putting and I thought the song was kind of a strange direction for the band. However, after a few more listens, and reading the liner notes, I realized that the song is homage to The Beach Boys. Taken in that context, the song is much more palatable; shutting off indignant fan within me, I grew to enjoy the song. It’s pleasant and a bit of a dare for them to use a cheesy hook like chanting  “Santa Barbara” and get away with it. Once the chorus cuts off, there’s a nice summery melody that is hard not to like.

“Song For Someone” – I really love the chorus. This is one of those ballads where The Edge’s backing vocals compliment Bono’s lead vocals so well. I feel compelled to sing the chorus: “This is a song… for someone!” The line “From where I was and where I need to be” makes me think of “North Star,” an unreleased song played on the 360 tour, which makes me wonder if “Song for Someone” is the final evolution of the song. In “North Star,” the similar lyric is “Is where you are and where I want to be.” Some part of the melody of both songs seem to be somewhat similar.

“Iris (Hold Me Close)” – Bono calls his mother by name in this wistful song of loss and longing. While October‘s “Tomorrow”‘s lyrics haunt with the plea, “Won’t you come back tomorrow?”,  “Iris”‘s lyrics beg, “Hold me close and don’t let me go / Hold me close like I’m someone that you might know.” Bono’s mother died when he was 14–she would never know the man he became. Some of the most beautiful lyrics on the album are wrapped up in this song, single one-lining punches that convey so much: “The universe is beautiful but cold,” “Iris says that I will be the death of her / It was not me.” Never has Bono been so straightforward in a song with his emotions about his feelings about his mother. There is no doubt that I will cry if this song is played live.

“Volcano” – This is the track on U2’s new album that, I think, harkens most to their early music. That bass line — bold, upfront, in your face. I’m so happy to hear the bass again in U2’s music. In Boy (1980) and especially October, Adam had a carefree, “I’ll play whatever the flip I like” approach to his bass playing (because back then, I suppose, he didn’t really know how to play bass so he just didn’t care). Bono’s “Vol-CANE-oh” chorus with the falsetto sounds so retro 1980s, yet at the same time, the sound is very fresh because U2 was never one to use cliché 1980s sound. “Volcano” is a modern ode to early 1980s U2 and that whole decade of music without sounding hokey. My absolute favorite song on the entire album. (It currently has 26 plays in iTunes.)

“Raised By Wolves” – Classic riffs by The Edge in the background mixed with interesting new electronic mixes. Love the eerie echo-y keyboard effect.

“Cedarwood Road” – Instantly a favorite on the first listen. I have had this song stuck in my head all weekend. I love everything about this song, from the really thumping, hard guitar riff to the melodic refrain, to what I feel are the best lyrics on the whole album. “Sometimes fear is the only place / That we can call our home.” Bono is best at painting pictures with simple language. Threaded throughout the song is the image of a cherry blossom tree as a symbol of freedom and escape from the rough reality of his childhood. (I read somewhere on the internet that this tree was actually in the yard of his childhood best friend Guggi and that he spent a lot of time there as a teen. I’m cheating a little in my interpretation.)

“Sleep Like A Baby Tonight” – This song is intentionally creepy. In the liner notes, Bono seems to indicate that the song is about the sexual abuse in the Catholic church. I absolutely love the verse where Bono sings falsetto, “Hope is where the door is / When the church is where the war is.” It seems appropriate at that moment in the song, pleading and desperate and painful. I can hear notes of Danger Mouse’s influence in the keyboards and spooky electronic noises. This is perhaps the most un-U2 sounding song on the album, but it holds the promise of a darker direction that would be an interesting evolution for the band.

“This Is Where You Can Reach Me Now” – I think this song sounds the most like a Broken Bells song out of all of them–especially at the 1:19 mark where that whistling synthesizer noise comes in. Bono credits this song to Joe Strummer of The Clash. I can’t speak too much to the interpretation of this song or its specific references to The Clash. It’s a great tune, though, and flows well with the second half of the album.

“The Troubles” – A typical quiet closer for a U2 album with backing vocals by Swedish singer Lykke Li. A haunting reflection on grief, Bono states in the liner notes, “There is no end to grief… that’s how I know there is no end to love.”

Overall, a really surprisingly solid album. I feel like U2 is back on the music scene and I’m really hopeful that this one helps fulfill their desires for “relevancy.” Despite all the backlash from them “foisting” their album on iTunes users, several of U2’s albums have risen to the top 200 sold on iTunes since the release of Songs of Innocence on Tuesday; before Tuesday, these albums were not on the top 200 list at all. So I have to applaud the bold act U2 took in releasing this album the way they did. Once again, they found a way to get the world to pay attention. Even negative publicity is publicity. I look forward to the rumored second release of Songs of Experience and the lately mentioned Songs of Ascent. Could it really be 3 releases by U2 in the next two years?

Though I have to admit that I can’t help but feel that a triple release from a band that takes years to release albums may be their swan song to the world. Bono has stated numerous times that he wasn’t going to be an old, dried out rock act like The Rolling Stones, holding it out until the bitter, sad end. If this is U2’s last big kick before departing the music scene for good, I’m going to make sure I enjoy every second of it. Time to save that money for concert tickets…

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