Review: Songs of Innocence by U2

Yesterday, U2 unexpectedly dropped a new album, Songs of Innocence, on the world, and released it for free to anyone with an iTunes account.  But, is it any good?

U2's surprise album, Songs of Innocence. Free on iTunes until mid-October!

U2’s surprise album, Songs of Innocence. Free on iTunes until mid-October!

I say they released the album unexpectedly because although there has been chatter about a new album for years, we’ve grown accustomed to U2 taking a long time in the studio. They certainly don’t need the money, so they go to great lengths to get the songs right before releasing anything.  At the same time, there’s been a general sense over the last couple of albums of a band growing middle-aged and questioning whether they still have what it takes to create new music. Everyone changes, but U2 have clearly been asking themselves “Why are we doing this? Do we what to keep making music?” At a time when younger bands are coining it in on the nostalgia circuit and making no attempt to record new material, surely the temptation must be to take the easier road of touring a greatest hits show and reveling in past glory?

Songs of Innocence shows that any thoughts the band might have been entertaining about taking that road have been banished unceremoniously!

The one-off song they released on iTunes earlier this year, “Invisible,” may not feature on Songs of Innocence, but it accurately hints at the band’s current direction musically: taking the best of their past sound and building from there. (Although “Invisible” displayed more influence from the Zooropa-era, while the new album hearkens back to the WarJoshua Tree period.)

(image source: U2.com)

(image source: U2.com)

“The Miracle (of Joey Ramone)” is a homage to a moment the band seem to consider their musical birth: a Ramones gig they snuck into in Dublin in the 1970s. It’s an excellent, radio-friendly number.

“Every Breaking Wave,” starts out reminiscent of “With or Without You,” Adam laying down an seductive but not overpowering bass line, and a subtle melody coming in from Edge. Unlike the earlier song, this one is about two lovers needing a little encouragement to take a chance on love. Is it a more mature perspective on love? Perhaps. It’s certainly less the black and white world of The Joshua Tree and evidence of their growth and experiences since then.

Cedarwood Road is the street where Bono grew up, and the song of the same name is a rocky hymn to best friends, youth, and growing up in Dublin. It’s another nod to beginnings, to a celebration of personal history, and drawing strength from the past. As Bono explained to a reporter for the Irish Times yesterday, Songs of Innocence is “a Dublin album, all about being teenagers on the northside and how our city shaped us both as men and musicians,” and there are references to the city and youth throughout the album.   

I won’t try to analyze every song — there are plenty of newspaper reviewers out there doing just that — except to single out “Iris (Hold Me Close),” Volcano,” and “Raised by Wolves” as standout tracks. “The Troubles” closes the album, and does depart from most of the other songs by being a more lushly melodic ballad, with ethereal guest vocals by Swedish singer Lykke Li. Perhaps this reflects the blunting of the raw, vividly felt emotions of innocence, and hints at the wisdom and possible emotional equilibrium experience can bring? Or, maybe it’s just a great song.

For a literary nerd like me, the reference to visionary poet William Blake in the album title immediately made me wonder if there would be a second album, Songs of Experience, to follow, and sure enough there will be!  A letter from Bono on U2.com says ” If you like Songs of Innocence, stay with us for Songs of Experience. It should be ready soon enough… although I know I’ve said that before…” Many of the songs on this album hark back to youth, first times, and formative experiences, and musically, it’s possible to hear traces of earlier songs on this album, particularly from The Unforgettable Fire and Joshua Tree. Perhaps the next album will see the band push their sound in new directions?

Unlike some of their recent (read last 12 years or so) albums, this is one I am listening to over and over, and it rewards repeated enjoyment. I haven’t felt this way about a U2 album since I was much younger, and had the time to listen to things over and over. Zooropa was probably the last U2 album I was obsessed with in this way (and still am).

Songs of Innocence is fabulous, a joyous return to the classic U2 of my, and the band’s, youth.

Notes

Go download it from iTunes if you haven’t already…

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