U2- Songs Of Innocence 5.6
One of Saturday Night Live’s better skits in the last few years was a fake ad for match.com, featuring the amazing Kate McKinnon as Martha Stewart. When asked why she joined match.com, McKinnon deadpans “because I’m Martha fucking Stewart.” It’s in that same spirit that, alongside Apple’s announcement of the iPhone 6, U2 announced the immediate release of their new album for free on iTunes. But not only was it free, it had already been put on your iTunes account for you. With that, Songs of Innocence immediately became the most widely distributed album in history by an incredibly wide margin, with copies given away to all 500 million of iTunes’ customers.
The question is not only who is universally popular enough to get away with this, but who else would have the gall to engage in such a ballsy distribution tactic? The answer can only be U2, the most world-conquering rock band there is. Their singer went to the White House and, incredibly, succeeded in making George W. Bush give a shit about the spread of AIDS in Africa. They set new worldwide box office records with every tour they go on, selling out the world’s largest stadiums in minutes. They’ve gotten their own iPod and started their own fashion trend/wildly successful clothing line for charity. It can be incredibly easy to forget amidst their status as global semi-ambassadors that U2 are actually still a band who actually still makes and records music once every few years.
What always constituted U2 at their best was a complete lack of modesty or reservation about what they were doing. They wanted to not only be the biggest band in the world, but the most important and the most influential one as well. The album that blew them up, The Joshua Tree was, in that way, a perfect storm of universe-sized ambition, unforgettable songs and an incredibly diverse sonic palette. Who can forget the stunning guitar work of the Edge on “With or Without You” or “Bullet the Blue Sky”? Its difficult to, because at the time, U2 truly sounded like no one that had come before them.
In their more recent days, the quartet has taken to fully acknowledging their status as the biggest band in the world. And really, they did make a couple good records once they became comfortable with the reality of their position. All That You Can’t Leave Behind and How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb did as well as they did because they were both loaded with great, adrenaline-loaded stadium rock songs. “Beautiful Day,” “Walk On,” “Vertigo,” and “Crumbs From Your Table” did their jobs, and did them incredibly well. U2 became truly the most universal rock band in the world once they began to fully acknowledge themselves as the preachy, syrupy, socially conscious stadium-rock band that they are.
But 2009’s No Line On the Horizon showed quite a few cracks on the surface. It was an “experimental” album, one that actually came off as more preachy than usual in its desperate attempts to not be preachy. Musically, it was all over the place, but its production made it sound like the same shade of white and grey that adorned its cover. Five and a half years, and countless promises of new sounds and genre experimentations later, and we are brought to Songs of Innocence.
Songs of Innocence really desperately tries to set itself apart from the rest of the band’s discography. If nothing else, it certainly sounds as expensive as it likely was to make. A total of five producers handled this record, including Danger Mouse, Paul Epworth and previous collaborator Flood. And while it certainly isn’t bland, it doesn’t really have the sonic dynamics, the explosive eruptions of emotion, that a U2 album needs to be a real success. While it’s title is a reference to the band’s formative years in the late 70’s Dublin, the hungriness of the band’s youth doesn’t really permeate the music as much as the quartet probably wanted it to. Bono writes in the album’s liner notes that Songs of Innocence is the “most personal” U2 album ever. And maybe that is the case for him at least, because this is without question the most Bono-centric U2 album in the band’s long history. With the Edge, Adam Clayton and Larry Mullen mostly relegated to the sidelines, Songs of Innocence is the weakest U2 album in at least fifteen years.
"The Miracle (Of Joey Ramone)" cuts right to the chase, vaguely detailing the band’s first experience at a Ramones concert. Where Bono could have been unusually detailed and heartfelt, he uses his typically over the top lyrical view to make the encounter sound more like some spiritual vision. "I woke up at the moment when the miracle occurred/heard a song that made sense of the world," he croons over some unfortunately fuzzed-out riffing. That fuzz is the first sign of the sad fate the Edge suffers on this record. Regardless of the track, or producer, the Edge is completely buried in the mix, reducing his contributions to little side statements here and there. Rather than leading the charge as he always has, the Edge (and the rhythm section of Clayton and Mullen, really) are made auxiliary to Bono, taking a backseat to whatever he has to say.
Even songs like “California (There Is No End to Love,)” which has something that approaches a soaring chorus, never gets to the height where it needs to be. Ballads like “Song for Someone” are too vague and plodding to match the band’s usually cheesy, but affecting slow numbers. Closer “The Troubles” (which, no, isn’t actually about “The Troubles,” of course…) wastes the considerable vocal talents of Lykke Li, by stringing out her contributions over another poorly mixed, Bono-centric, slow-burner.
Although there were five producers on Songs of Innocence, Danger Mouse is listed by the band as the primary producer, with the four others acting more as overseers. Songs of Innocence continues his tradition of diluting the excitement and dynamics of great artists (Beck, the Black Keys, James Mercer) and turning them into a muddy, indistinct pile of fuzz. Although this is far from U2’s finest batch of songs, one once again has to wonder how this album would have fared without Burton in the control room.
Songs of Innocence, at its heart,is a batch of contradictions. It features U2 trying to experiment, and move away from a strictly stadium-rock sound, while simultaneously keeping things mellow enough so that half a billion people can enjoy it. The band are trying to echo the relentless drive of their past, while trying to sound like the future. And the gaping holes in this strategy are far from flattering.