The Conversationalist: U2’s Songs Of Innocence

u2-2By Spencer and Antony. In the internet age, we rarely get true surprises when it comes to our entertainment. It’s a world full of spoiler alerts and leaked Instagram pictures from the set. The music industry doesn’t even try to keep anything under wraps for the most part; any moderately anticipated album is often available for streaming in its entirety some weeks or months ahead of its release date. So U2’s surprise release of Songs Of Innocence on Tuesday—as a free iTunes download, no less!—caught me completely off-guard. As Consequence Of Sound so aptly put it, U2 pulled off a Beyonce and a Radiohead at the same time!

Call me old-fashioned, but I’m the kind of guy who resists previewing an album or even a track in advance. I want to be able to consume the whole thing at once and digest it intact as the artistic experience it was meant to be. So for that reason alone, I loved the move. But then there’s also the corporate synergy side of this, in which it was announced as a gimmick PR move at Apple’s yearly iPhone release press conference. I know U2 has never shied away from crass marketing stunts—ahem, the PopMart tour and release party—but at least that was supposed to be some kind of ironic statement on consumer culture or something (so they say).

So before we move on to the music itself, Antony, tell me—what’s your take on the way U2 released this? Love it? Hate it?

Antony: It’s interesting. With any move like this, people spend so much time talking about the mechanics of the release and not the music. Maybe it’s because it’s unconventional, but I think it’s because the critics are as surprised as the general public and truly don’t know what to say—their advantage, the time to digest it, is taken away. So U2 get 2 points for restoring equality. The great upside of the strategy is that so far the only substantive things I’ve read about the music are by Bono. The surprise gives an artist a unique chance to frame the discussion first—as long as they don’t get drowned out by the talk of process, “synergy,” and the like.

So what do I think about it? I’m not looking for punk authenticity from U2. They’re about embracing as many people as possible, and I think this is a great way to potentially reach millions immediately. U2 is an event band, but like all older bands, a new U2 album hardly registers for most people. They used surprise as a marketing tool, and I’m all for that. And lastly, a few of Bono’s comments suggest that U2 will continue experimenting with how to release music in the next few years, which I think is great. The current system is broken and U2 have the capital and the publicity to experiment and see if a new way of releasing music that is sustainable for the artists is possible.

Turning to the music. My first impression is that this album sounds different than the last few. This is not a retread of All That You Can’t Leave Behind, which is good because that sound was wearing out. Songs Of Innocence roughs up the sound a little. It feels like there’s room in the production, though as usual, there’s a lot going on sonically in each song. It’s also the first U2 album in a long time where there are no songs that totally turn me off and that I must skip (or uncheck in my iTunes library). That said, the back half of the record is much stronger that the front in my opinion. The last four songs make an excellent close.

Spencer: This is the most boring response I could possibly write, but I basically agree with every word you said! I’ve been so trained to think of a certain side of U2—the “U2 classic” sound they’ve indulged on every release since 2000, with all of that trademark delay-laden guitar work from The Edge—that I’d forgotten this was a band capable of doing some other things too. I think that’s where you really hear the difference on Songs Of Innocence—on the guitars. It’s like The Edge discovered he has all these other options on his pedalboard, and decided it might be fun to try them out too. The quick slashes of guitar distortion midway through “The Miracle (Of Joey Ramone)” don’t even sound like U2, which in this instance, I mean as a compliment. (Of course, with characteristic lack of subtlety, they had to tip you off as to exactly what they were trying to emulate in the song title). Likewise, the extended guitar solo on “Sleep Like A Baby Tonight” is gritty and utterly delay-free.

U2“The Miracle (Of Joey Ramone)”

“Every Breaking Wave” is the best ballad they’ve put out in ten years. “Raised By Wolves,” about a terrorist bombing in Dublin that ravaged a close friend, combines a lot of new sonic elements with a punk vibe we haven’t heard out of U2 since Boy. “Iris (Hold Me Close)” has a similar punk energy that reminds me so much of “Exit” from The Joshua Tree; that it’s about Bono’s mother admittedly makes it a lot less punk. Both that track and “Volcano” feature extraordinary bass lines, which is one of the reasons I think this album sounds so much more diverse—they’re finally letting someone other than Bono and The Edge stand out front for a while.

So yeah, I really dig the sound of it. Where I think the album is less accomplished—and this has been the case with U2 for a while now—is in the songwriting itself. It’s not that any of it is bad. It’s just that it’s a little … pedestrian at this point. I feel like, as a band, they ran out of new things to say a long time ago. Bono is obviously a serious, passionate man in his politics, and I wonder if he’s gone so far down that road that the act of making music just seems less exciting, less worthwhile, to him? And don’t get me wrong—I’m not just pinning the blame on Bono and the lyrics. You can hear it in the rest of the band too. They sound like they’re having a lot of fun, and that’s why I think this is a fun, listenable record. But clearly none of this means remotely to them what the music on The Joshua Tree or The Unforgettable Fire or even Achtung Baby did. Which is understandable—that’s youth and fire fueling those albums. It’s hard to care about anything so much in old age. I guess after writing thirteen albums of material over the course of thirty years, the act of making music probably becomes more about trying to find new sounds at the margins than it is about expressing something deep and sacred in your spirit. If you’ve made it this far, you’ve already done all that.

Which goes to my final takeaway as I listen to this. You know what’s most surprising to me about this album? How much it sounds like Coldplay. Not in the particular sounds, mind you, but in the ephemeral construction of it all. Like Coldplay’s recent work, you hear some pretty sounds, a few catchy melodies, and it’s all very nice. And after a few listens, you’re kind of done with it. It evaporates. And you’re left with the memory of something not at all unenjoyable—but nothing that captures your heart the way they did back when they felt like they had to work for it.

I realize this sounds like a very negative take, and I don’t mean it to be. I genuinely like the album. I think it’s their best work in a long, long time. Does any of this make any sense to you?

Antony: I think it’s funny when our general opinions align even though we get there differently. So I agree with a bunch of what you said, but I want to push back on two things. The first is the idea that this album lacks the feeling of the “sacred.” Certainly there’s been a songwriting shift with Bono over the last decade (I would not call it “pedestrian”) so that he’s not writing “With Or Without You” anymore. The album title should be taken seriously though: these are songs of innocence. What could be more sacred? This is a band, at a certain age, searching in their past to remember when the fires were lit, and then they’re blowing on the embers. Each of these songs dwells on moments of awe when they felt an expanding sense of who they were and what they would become. In this way, I think the songs are quite beautiful—more memories than pop songs.

U2“The Troubles [ft. Lykke Li]”

Second, on the Coldplay comparison, I just can’t get on board. Mostly because Ghost Stories is not “ephemeral” to me. It is the first Coldplay album I’ve continued to play and continued to let unfold for me since A Rush Of Blood To The Head. It’s way more than “pretty sounds”; it has stuck. Now, I don’t know what this means for Songs Of Innocence. Maybe it will fade like Ghost Stories did for you (certainly a lot of records in this age of consumption do that for me), or maybe it will end up striking something deeper.

Last thing from me, I’d be disappointed in myself if I didn’t point out that U2 quotes Seamus Heaney in the liner notes. From Heaney’s Cure At Troy (which is great), “Believe that a further shore / Is reachable from here.” I think this is perfect summation of U2 at this point. They have meditated on their past for this album, not to rehash old glories but to find the strength to reach that further shore. To me Songs Of Innocence sounds like a band with some ambition and kick left in them. That resonates with me.

Spencer: Well, we’re reviewing this only 24 hours into even knowing of its existence, so time may very well prove me wrong about the “ephemeral” part! A lot of the songs on here touch on youth; originally, this was intended to be a concept album on their younger days called Songs Of Ascent, but I guess a few of the songs were off-topic, so they softened that concept. It’s a shame, because that’s exactly the kind of ambition that might have taken this album to another level: a sense of broader artistic purpose than just a collection of songs.

I take your point, though, about the notion of sacredness. Perhaps the aspiration for such things is still there for U2, in which case I’ve done them a huge disservice. Still, if you have to blow on the embers to spark anything worth feeling, that’s a confession in and of itself that something has faded, right? In other words, they have to try now. Of course, as much as that may sound like an insult, it sure beats the alternative. Better than to go down the road of the Rolling Stones or the Eagles of the world and content yourself with endlessly milking the same bunch of songs you wrote three decades ago.

So mindset matters. If I’m grading U2 against their former selves, then of course this album is going to shine less brightly. But if I take the approach of measuring them against the benchmark of a band still bothering to create after 38 years, then Songs Of Innocence suddenly seems a lot more impressive. Outside of Bob Dylan and maybe Bruce Springsteen, I can think of no artist that has put out material of this quality so late in their career.

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