Songs Of Innocence


Universal, 2014

REVIEW BY: Benjamin Ray


For months, U2 and assorted characters had hinted that the band's new album would be out in 2014 and that it would be released with little fanfare. Then, in early September, all iTunes users woke up to find out that a new U2 album was sitting in their downloaded folder.

As expected, the Internet went batshit crazy, with people either scrambling to listen to an album they had no idea was coming or decrying the marketing ploy and the cynical, awkward, nauseating Apple press conference that went with it. I didn't see the conference, but reference was made to "Vertigo" being released 10 years ago this year (wow...) and how it was used in an iPod commercial, back when that was a snazzy new device. (Digression alert: I also began writing reviews for the Daily Vault 10 years ago, which has been a joy, and I thank all of our loyal readers. Anyway.).

Users took to message boards and articles to express disgust at the invasion of privacy, at how perhaps the world's biggest rock band forced their new album into the libraries of 500 million iTunes accounts without permission. For U2 fans, it was like Christmas - free music after 5 years of waiting? Score! - while those who already disliked the band did not have their mind changed by this stunt. There was nothing innocent about it, making the title ironic by nature.

With all this hoopla, though, not as much attention has been paid to the actual music other than a few cursory reviews; one that I read said that the album "sounded like U2." (Note: If I ever start writing reviews like that, I hope our editor locks me in a cabinet with an album of nothing but polka covers of Nickelback songs on repeat as punishment.) [Editor's note: We aren't that cruel. Polka covers of Miley Cyrus, maybe.] Here's what you need to know: The music and lyrics harken back to U2's storied career and personal histories, making it an effective travel through time as well as a modern update on the classic U2 sound.my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250

The themes and lyrics are quite personal yet also vague enough in spots to be universally relatable. Bono may be talking about meeting his wife ("Song For Someone"), discovering that band that changes your life ("The Miracle (Of Joey Ramone)"), looking back on one's childhood home and strife ("Cedarwood Road") and finding that special place in the world that means something to you ("California (There Is No End To Love)"). To that end, the album's title makes sense, since these are all innocent times in our lives as well as turning points. It also means Bono shies away from the political, the awkward, the absurd and the overtly religious, and the album is stronger for it.

The music follows suit, coming back to a more grounded state after the somewhat unfocused No Line On The Horizon, which was a fine album but tended to meander. Still inclined to experiment, explore facets of the U2 sound and meld past and present, the Edge,. Larry Mullen and Adam Clayton infuse many of the songs with personality and little flourishes that enhance them. Check out the Beach Boys-inspired multi-tracked vocal harmonies on the introduction to "California," the modern guitar skronk on "The Miracle," the lovely acoustic finger-picked guitar that carries "Song For Someone" or the female backup vocals and strings that lend weight to "The Troubles."

Most notable is the center of the album, a triptych of songs that bring to mind the band's first three albums. The excellent "Volcano" blends Adam Clayton's rumbling bottom-end bass and an Edge guitar lick straight off 1983's War, while the quietly intense "Iris" features guitar tones that The Edge has not played with in some time (and a lovely tribute to Bono's mother, at that) and the jittery, compelling "Raised By Wolves" features Bono's best singing on the disc and a restrained Edge performance until the chorus explodes with another War-esque riff. It's not a sound we have heard in quite some time and it is fantastic to have it back. Points also for the warm but somehow disconcerting "Sleep Like A Baby Tonight."

As all serious U2 fans know, the band's album tracks can be just as good or better than the big obvious radio hits, if one takes time to appreciate the details. To that end, there are two points here: one, tracks like "Cedarwood Road," "Iris" and the stomping dance-pop "This Is Where You Can Reach Me Now" (which brings Pop to mind) unfold subtle but naggingly catchy charms once they are fully absorbed. Two, there really is no big obvious song here, one of the few U2 discs without one. Oh, the band is sincerely hoping it will be "The Miracle," but that will never happen, as that song's spastic, inert rhythm and intermittent guitar fills only make it sporadically necessary. The closing "The Troubles" brings the story up to date with a sobering sound and a bridge to whatever the next U2 project is (Songs of Experience, maybe?).

Ignore the marketing and your cynical thoughts and just listen to the disc, one of the best of the year.

Rating: A-

User Rating: Not Yet Rated


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