It’s almost poetic that U2 decided to drop Songs of Innocence at Apple’s annual expo on Tuesday; a group of middle aged white men releasing their latest offering to their obsessive fans, with some quick to take to the social media bandwagon to once again lambast the overly wealthy egomaniacs for yet another tired attempt to catch up. Though the method of delivery caused some grumbles from those who never set out to get the album in the first place, it would be wrong to review the release itself (which can hardly be called novel for a high profile band in the wake of releases by David Bowie, Jay Z, and Beyonce). Despite this oh-so-modern release, the album itself finds the band looking back on their time together and presents a radical departure from the more unorthodox soundscape heard in their previous 2009 effort No Line on the Horizon. This may be due in no small part to the absence of that album’s producer Brian Eno. Gone is the broad, airy ambience and North African tone and instead a far more upfront style from new producer Danger Mouse, though stalwarts Paul Epworth and Flood also lend a hand throughout.
Each song seems to call back a different era of the band’s lifetime; early tracks ‘Every breaking Wave’ and ‘California’ recalls the focused, uplifting rock from 2000’s All You Can’t leave Behind, while later tracks ‘Volcano’ and ‘Raised by Wolves’ bring back the dark disco/funk rock experiment attitudes of the Zooropa/Pop era. Unfortunately there is also a remainder of when they try too hard – opening track ‘The Miracle (Of Joey Ramone)’ aims for a fiery, anthemic entrance but comes off as unengaging, and ultimately a bit boring.
It is in the lyrics, however, that the album truly performs. Though Bono has always paid attention to what he writes, he is more vivid and evocative in this album than he has been in years. In the album’s lyrical and musical centrepiece ‘Iris’ he gives an arresting portrait of the loss of his mother in a track that deserves to stand alongside the band’s very best work, sounding like an unreleased cut from The Joshua Tree. Though having come a long way since losing her at 14 Bono begs her to “hold me close/like someone you might know.” The common thread of most of the album can be summed up when he notes “the ache in my heart/is so much a part of who I am.”
The band has rubbished the idea, but the sentiment underlying each song would point to this being somewhat of a concept album. Throughout there are attempts to pinpoint the losses of innocence, be they the loss of a mother, the arrival in an alien country, or realising that in punk music can be a political statement as well as an artistic one. No song better illustrates this than ‘Raised By Wolves’, which details a childhood friend witnessing the Dublin car bombing of 1974 – an event which would later lead to heroin abuse. The changes in styles throughout also give the album the suggestion they are emphasising their musical chronology as well as an emotional one.
While it is enjoyable to hear their breadth of styles on one album, you would be forgiven for thinking they are reverting a little bit, as though they’re playing it safe after last time (in U2 terms, the last album was a dud). Had they kept the complete previous crew, they certainly would have risked releasing an inferior album. As it stands Danger Mouse keeps his influence to a minimum, and can mostly be heard during song intros before letting the band do their thing. Nonetheless, both band and producer sensibilities mix brilliantly on the ominous, synth-driven ‘Sleep Like a Baby Tonight’ and the excellent ‘The Troubles’ (featuring a duet with Lykke Li) and keeps the album feeling contemporary rather than too much of a nostalgia trip. As such this is the quintessential, though not necessary the essential, U2 album. The hard-core and even the most casual fans will get something out of this, though for others the most appealing part of this album may be the price.