Review: U2 - Songs Of Innocence (Deluxe)

A good album enhanced by the bonus material but only the diehards will need it. Oh, and what's up with that cover?
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So now that the great iTunes fiasco has come and gone, and you actually have to pay for U2's new album, Songs Of Innocence, if you want it, let's talk about the deluxe version of the band's 13th studio album.

First, the elephant in the room: What is up with that cover, or more to the point, what is going on in the picture on the cover?

Well first off, get your mind out of the gutter. That's U2 drummer Larry Mullen Jr., displaying what is believed to be the band's only tattoo, which honestly has GOT to be the record for the fewest cumulative number of tattoos in any rock band, ever. He is embracing his oldest child, 18-year-old Elvis (LMJ is a big fan) around the waist in a grainy, black-and-white photo that seems to be making many around the interwebs a little uncomfortable. Some have suggested the image is homoerotic, why others have gone so far as to suggest the image suggest age-inappropriate pornography.

Oddly enough, this isn't U2's first go-around with this controversy. The original cover of the band's 1980 debut Boy shows a young, shirtless child, as does the cover of 1983's War. The former caused enough of a stir that the band pulled the cover in America for decades before returning to the original photo for a recent remastered version of the album.

Personally, I believe there is no way U2 would have chosen this image to be the cover of their first record in six years had its physical release not been preceded by the free download from iTunes. Only diehard U2 fans (or those who don't use iTunes) are going to buy the physical copy anyway, so honestly, U2 could have put a photo of a whale mauling a trainer at SeaWorld and the exact same number of people would have bought the album as would have had the cover been a more traditional U2 cover shot. (That likely would have involved a stoic, black and white photo of the four band members each looking in different directions. Don't believe me? Buy the deluxe version. The photo is there; they just didn't put it on the cover.)

While the cover isn't something I want on a t-shirt or a poster, I do think it ties in with the album's intended theme of innocence and youth. The photo is strange-looking and the pose is awkward, because they are supposed to be. Here we have a grown man - a father - cradling his son in an attempt to protect him. Why are they shirtless? I would submit it is to show vulnerability. Why is Larry at his son's waist? Well, that's the part of the photo I like from an artistic point-of-view. Larry is crouching to hold his son the way you would hold or protect a small child - a toddler. But Elvis is not a child anymore; he is all grown up, so Larry's attempt to shield him is not only failing, but it is awkward and out-of-place.

His boy isn't a boy anymore. And it should also be noted that Elvis appears to be wearing the gold cross favored by Larry, most notably visible in the Red Rocks show. Do with that what you will.

OK, right. Now, on to the music found on disc 2 of the deluxe edition. We start off with a pair of songs that didn't quite fit on SOI for whatever reason, "Lucifer's Hands" and "The Crystal Ballroom." I like them both. "Lucifer's Hands" is a riff-driven rocker about free will - a source of eternal trouble for the character mentioned in the title - and we hear the singer freeing himself from the hands of the fallen archangel. It's classic later-career U2 and would have improved 2005's How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb, but would have been out of place on SOI.

"The Crystal Ballroom" brings to mind that peculiar - and for me, life-changing -- moment when punk and disco procreated to produce New Wave. The song easily brings to mind Blondie's "Heart Of Glass" and The Clash's venerable "Rock The Casbah." U2 had yet to discover their funkier side in the early days, but if they had, "Ballroom" would surely have fit on Boy. This is a particularly strong non-album cut that would be a welcome addition to the tour's setlist.

Now we have an odd moment. For whatever reason, an acoustic session is included in its entirety on one long track rather than being separated. I don't know what genius decided to do this, but I hate it, because some of these songs work better than others, and I really don't want to have to fast-forward through 15 minutes of music to get to something I want to hear. U2 have notably never done a session for MTV's Unplugged because frankly, they are not a great acoustic band. Oh, there are notable exceptions, but by and large, The Edge really needs to stay plugged in.

The strong moments here are "Every Breaking Wave" and "California." These melodic numbers work well in their (mostly) acoustic arrangements. The clunkers are "Raised By Wolves" and "The Miracle" which are much better in their fully-formed regular versions.

We have a couple of alternate takes up next, of "The Troubles" and "Sleep Like A Baby Tonight." The latter was the weakest moment on the album for me, while "The Troubles" has emerged as my favorite song from SOI. I prefer the original version because the chorus is simply more compelling, but the alternate is a worth-hearing look at what might have been.

Now, speaking of fast-forwarding, we have a hidden track, a longer version of the previously released "Invisible." "Invisible" is a hidden track - see what they did there? How cute. Anyway, "Invisible" was released earlier this year as a charity single for Bono's (Red) campaign. You might remember the Super Bowl spot, or U2 playing it on the first episode of The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon. It's a good song that, apart from a longer intro, is much like the version we have already heard. Again, this is a song that would work on tour, and I very much expect it will be out there on the road next year.

Overall, if you are a U2 fan, this is a no-brainer. If you like the band enough to buy the CD after already getting it free from iTunes, spend a couple more bucks on the deluxe. If you are a casual fan, I would advise picking up the two unreleased songs from iTunes and leaving the rest alone.