Now that the dust has settled and the noise has diminished, let’s return to the latest U2 album, Songs of Innocence, and try to get to the bottom of it, maybe gear down on the compositions how an admirer of the band and a lover of music would, you know, the reason why we bought records in the first place; what say we ignore the media hullabaloo, the obligatory mini-biography insert, the wooden appraisal of legacy, you know, the standard machinery of criticism in general, and just focus on the songs on hand? Or is such a thing impossible nowadays, when impossible is nothing but seeing and feeling what is right in front of you?
As far as introductions go, The Miracle (of Joey Ramone), reads well on paper, being the story of these Dublin boys’ first Ramones concert; boasting a crunchy headlining riff, the track is produced to the nth degree, which is another reason why many people hate the present deodorized-fresh incarnation of U2. The song does fall a little flat upon first hearing it and you’ll have to dig a little deeper to fully appreciate it, deeper than you’d probably want to: anything more complicated than a quick Google search capable of unearthing blurb-speak trivialities and you’ll likely pull the plug (being U2, we’re not talking Bob Dylan-esque levels of lyrical intricacy here). You’ll probably have to understand what the song means to the band, how it fits into their greater musical legacy, and how it thematically launches the album. And maybe that is too much to ask of your audience for such a small tune. Don’t get me wrong, The Miracle (of Joey Ramone) has all the right pieces in all the right places, and that precisely is the problem with U2’s current inductive method of working: they craft librettos that reach for an arch, sometimes universal theme, and couple it with some tried-and-tested instrumental accents, which are then machine-pressed into latter-day-U2’s version of a 45. What is with U2’s obsession with formulaic pop in the ’00s anyhow? Every song seems to be fashioned with the same recipe: introduction-verse-pre-chorus-chorus-verse-pre-chorus-chorus-bridge-verse-chorus-conclusion. For a band that made its bones with rambling asymmetric song structures, U2’s obsession with “traditional” song formats smacks of timidity, faintheartedness, and lethargy.
Track two, Every Breaking Wave, on other hand, is an all-time classic U2 song, and is reason enough for them to have made Songs of Innocence. The lyrics are evocative and timeless; the vocals tender and romantic; the instrumentation rich and sweeping. The various musical parts all working together in harmony, boasting one of U2’s best-ever bridges. Production seamless. Every Breaking Wave will likely be one of U2’s most enduring but subtle anthems, standing shoulder-to-shoulder with the likes of With or Without You and One in ten years time. Mark my words.
Track three, California (There is no End to Love) is a startling tune of reinvention on first listen. I don’t know who gets the credit here: is it U2, or the various A-list producers? Ultimately, it doesn’t matter who does what, when it’s done right. Three songs into the album and I feel a little unbalanced, which is a good experience to be had when you know an artist’s back catalogue so well. The track’s synthesizers, a thing of beauty, and the guitar parts, punchy, out of the Edge’s comfort zone. Here Bono is still being Bono, but slotted just right. The rhythm section does what it is supposed to. In short, California is pop music done right for a change; it belongs on the radio, but it won’t get there because it doesn’t sound like U2 should sound, and the radio isn’t doing what it’s supposed to anymore.
Track four, Song for Someone is an awful song to choose for this album: too safe, too ordinary, and too dull. It derails the momentum of the last two that preceded it, and almost has me reaching for the stop instead of the skip icon. Yes, Bono soars here, but the group still should have buried this pablum in the B-side pile, or waited for another album of thoughtful strummers to come along down the road. If it’s for the sake of sonic diversity, think again. What did I’ll Go Crazy if I Don’t Go Crazy Tonight accomplish on their previous album, No Line on the Horizon (2009), or A Man and a Woman on the album before that (2004’s How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb)? Both of which are better songs than Song for Someone.
Track five, Iris (Hold Me Close), is a song I struggle with because I know what the composition must mean to its author. Like Sometimes You Can’t Make It on Your Own from How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb, it’s a self-important song, full of honest, soul-searching emotion about the early death of Bono’s mother, but it doesn’t really have the musical thrust necessary to propel the lyric forward. It’s the age-old workshop dilemma: you know the artist sitting across from you has written about a subject that is deeply personal, and they’re nearly brought to tears from reading their composition aloud, and yet you feel the drama never really lifts from the page, so you reluctantly criticize the artist when he’s at his most vulnerable, but you finesse the criticism just enough to keep the class together and avoid damaging the tender fraternity of the workshop. Truly, the indirect anti-chorus of Iris is a bold move; the throbbing guitar part, not so much. For a guitarist who seemed so innovative in the ’90s, the Edge’s parts can sometimes be blunter than anvils and I’m sick unto death of the repetition in his playing. Don’t tell me the pulse of Where the Streets Have No Name and City of Blinding Lights isn’t all over Iris. A spooky tune that fits disconnectedly to U2’s back catalogue (Lemon from Zooropa and Tomorrow from October being the other weirdos).
Track six, Volcano is one of the cheesiest songs in the U2 canon, with Bono writing himself into the hall of shame with his volcanisms. Adam Clayton, perhaps sensing the baton drop, takes the lead and nearly carries the song single-handedly into Valhalla with some of the funkiest fills this side of Flea. You could even say Volcano is a decent cut because of its fiery bridge and the gangbuster bass riff at 2:24: “You are rock ‘n’ roll.” Sadly, if you have to say it, you ain’t it.
The album then takes a decisive turn for the better when the skitter and skulk of Raised By Wolves is set in motion. In fact, the next four songs on Songs of Innocence decisively save the career of U2. The lyrics have prosaic depth and the strength of acute observation. The vocals are controlled and understated, simmering under the pressure cooker, venting steam just enough to keep the jam from exploding. The music has a novelistic complexity for a change: the helter-skelter changes in Raised by Wolves, the strapping bluegrass chords of Cedarwood Road, the ragged bellowing solo of Sleep like a Baby Tonight, and the off-kilter squalling crescendos of This Is Where You Can Reach Us Now all feature the Edge in top form, showcasing his ability to innovate guitar playing within the modalities of his minimalistic, brick-by-brick approach.
Tracks seven to ten are the result of a band putting hard work into the studio. Every aspect of the songs, from technique to production, is executed flawlessly. What Mullen and Clayton pull off on This Is Where You Can Reach Us Now is pretty much unheard of in their back catalogue. U2 has never sounded so funky and been so danceable in such an un-ironic way.
The chilling spareness of Sleep Like a Baby Tonight bespeaks of a delicateness only years of blunders and careening can furnish. Why? A song can be too sparse, like One Step Closer on How to Dismantle and Atomic Bomb, so bare that a bedeviled listener might fall right into them while gazing at his own narcissistic reflection, and then find himself wading for a timely hook to pull him out of the deathly still pool. The songs are great but not classic, which is okay, because classic can sometimes be an exhausting swim for a listener, too. These final tracks reveal another heretofore unseen side to the band, exhibiting an almost Springsteenian complexity that I’ve been secretly hoping for and waiting upon for nearly a decade. U2 is definitely owed some props for delivering the unexpected against all odds.
The last track, The Troubles, by contrast, is a good, if tepid, song, but one that arguably belongs on another album, as the guest vocal by Lykke Li simply doesn’t work in the context of the album (were not in Zooropa territory after all). This track sounds like something Coldplay could do (and has done). U2 do it better, but not good enough to make me think past the saccharine taste in my mouth.
U2 would have done well to ditch Song for Someone and The Troubles from the album entirely and instead have brought off the bench the underrated Invisible, which features on the Japanese deluxe edition. I also would have suggested renaming This is Where You Can Reach Me Now to The Only Weapon (The Clash) and Sleep Like a Baby Tonight to The Troubles (Sleep Like a Baby). Alas, this is only the postscript of an unacknowledged reporter and not the executive correction’s proper.