You know, in this day and age, we aren't surprised very often.
The blessing and curse of the Internet age is that we know EVERYTHING, whether we want to or not. Keep a secret? Forget about it. Ask Jennifer Lawrence about any private information remaining private. Try making a movie without the whole script being available months before the first ticket is sold.
With all that in mind, I could not have been more shocked at U2's announcement that not only was a new album finally coming six years after the last time we heard from the Hall of Fame rockers, but it would be available for free download immediately. I don't know who U2 has in charge of security, but the people working on the next 'Star Wars' movies and the keepers of our nuclear secrets should really give the team a call, because those people have their act TOGETHER. Even the most die-hard U2 fans and watchers were completely blindsided by the announcement. The world simply had no clue.
Plenty has been written about the Apple deal and the implications of the release of Songs of Innocence for free to iTunes customers until the physical, deluxe edition arrives on October 13, but I am going to stay away from the background story of the album and its unveiling and just talk about the damn music. You are welcome, Bono Vox of O'Connell Street.
So, Songs Of Innocence is the 13th studio effort from U2 and is their first since 2008's artistically pleasing but commercially disappointing (by their standards) No Line On The Horizon. How is it? What is it? Does it matter?
Well, I would answer good, a U2 record, and you bet your life it does.
So, let's start with a classic good news/bad news scenario. The bad news for long-time U2 fans and critics alike is that the ace production team of Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois - the producers responsible for U2's best work - are absent this time out. In the six years since NLOTH, U2 have seemingly been linked to every producer in the business, across most all genres, leading to legitimate concerns that this album would reach Chinese Democracy-like status as an overcooked, overthought, overproduced, and over-hyped mess.
Which brings us to the good news: this album is none of those things. To touch briefly on its context and history for a moment, we know from interviews that several of the tracks on Songs Of Innocence were originally conceived during the recording of No Line, and as a result, the fingerprints of Eno and Lanois are present on this album, even if their names are absent from the album credits.
The results are U2 songs that sound like U2 songs but have fresh wrinkles thrown in that don't take away from but rather augment the songs. That's sort of the point of modern production, so for all of the fears of their being too many cooks in the kitchen, U2 have managed to give us an album that 'sounds' fantastic. Now, about those songs ...
This isn't a 'concept album' per se, but we certainly can hear common themes running throughout. There's a song about young Paul Hewson's mother, who died suddenly at her own father's funeral when Bono was just 14. There's a song about the street he grew up on. Another is about a bombing that took place in Dublin during the band's teenage years. The use of the word 'innocence' in the title was certainly done on purpose, and in an odd way, many of the songs are reminiscent of the band's first two albums, Boy and October, but again, with just enough modern studio wizardry to make them sound fresh. At times, it's as though primary producer Danger Mouse was given Boy outtakes to resuscitate and remix.
The album kicks off on a high note with the lead single, "The Miracle (Of Joey Ramone)." On an album where Bono mercifully avoids most of his patented forced lyrical moments (there are no mentions of cockatoos or the smell of newborn children here, thank God) I guess we can allow him one desperately forced song subtitle. The song is about exactly what its title suggests: the first time Bono was exposed to The Ramones, which for the purposes of this song gave meaning to his life and started the fire that would later lead him to life of venting his passion through rock and roll. It's a fine rocker, with a sharp, fuzzy riff from The Edge that is oddly reminiscent of "Vertigo" but with a chanting background that recalls more '70s glam rock. It's a strong moment, and a song that is sure to kill live.
Next up is "Every Breaking Wave," a song that will be familiar already to U2 die-hards, as it has been mentioned by Bono as being their next big song going back to 2008, and was played a handful of times on the subsequent 360 Tour, which ran from 2009-2011. This version is more fleshed-out than the bare-bones arrangement played live. The intro bears more than a passing resemblance to the band's signature slow dance number "With Or Without You" but quickly builds to the most classically U2 moment on the album, in that it is dying to be played live and has that anthemic quality that the band pulls off so effortlessly.
While we can check off the 'soaring anthem' from our U2 checklist, notably absent here is the usual relationship/ballad song. The closest thing we get here to a story about grown-up love is "Song For Someone," but even it isn't a love song in the usual sense.
"California" is a Beach Boys homage, and perhaps is one final attempt to nail down the vibe the band never quite got right on "Staring At The Sun." After an odd vocal intro, "California" settles into a familiar and pleasing groove that is both lightly psychedelic and smooth at the same time.
The middle of the album finds the band really looking back at its roots in earnest. Again, short of the production, both "Volcano" and "Raised By Wolves" could have been on October. "Volcano" comes on with a bass and drums combination that makes you wonder if Adam Clayton and Larry Mullen Jr. slipped off together and listed to The Misfits. Clayton's bass has never sounded fuller or richer. "The world is traveling fast tonight/you can hurt yourself trying to hold on" Bono whispers in a lightly processed voice before building to a simple chorus that again sounds straight out of 1981.
"Raised By Wolves" opens with a repeating sound effect that creates a dark, sinister mood. The ominous intro leads into Bono recounting a tale of barely escaping being involved in an act of terrorism in Dublin as a teen. He paints a vivid scene of the aftermath of a bombing, telling us
Face down on a broken street
There's a man in a corner in a pool of misery
I'm a white van as a red sea covers the ground
Metal crash, I can tell what it is
But I take a look and now I'm sorry I did
5:30 on a Friday night, 33 good people cut down
This powerful song grabs you by the head and forces you to see what the narrator saw and wishes he hadn't. The chorus turns visceral, with Bono delivering the words with a pained screech, again recalling an earlier day in the band's history.
The album closes with "The Troubles," which oddly enough is not about the violence between Protestants and Catholics that has shaped so much of U2's music (including the previously mentioned track). U2 have developed a knack for closing their albums with strong, albeit enigmatic moments. Here, we have a rare guest female vocal, itself odd on a U2 album, repeating a chorus about someone hijacking another's soul and taking control of their life. Huh. That's an interesting line to have a guest sing. This song relies heavily on a beautiful string arrangement and deep, thumping bass by Clayton. Rather than being a commentary about the external "troubles" Bono grew up around, here he focuses on his own internal troubles that are of his own making. Like other album closers before it, we leave U2 on a haunting, poignant moment that hangs with the listener long after its final notes fade.
Bono talked - too much, as usual - about U2 desperately needing to remain "relevant." Oddly, in the years leading up to Songs Of Innocence, Bono seemed to equate "relevance" not with the quality or innovation of music, but with airplay and hits. In the press blitz that came along with the sudden release, he seems to have backed away from that stance, instead focusing on music that matters to both the band and its listeners.
To that end, U2 have succeeded with Songs Of Innocence. After 34 years, 13 records, hundreds of songs and thousands of shows, they have proven with the release of this long-rumored album that they still have stories to tell and journeys to guide. The well of songs hasn't gone dry, the fire to create and explore has not gone out, and U2 still matter, even if there is not one song here that will create waves on Top 40 radio.
With all of our own troubles swirling around us, the world really needed a win right now - for something, anything to go right. A great U2 record would have been a small first step in turning this thing around.
We got it. U2 did their part; let's go and do likewise.