Written by Matt Kelly
By now you’ve heard about this. During Apple’s press conference, U2 came out and announced a new album called Songs of Innocence. Then they announced it was being released that day. Then they announced that we already had it. That’s right: a free secret U2 album. The question remained. Was it any good? Was it more Joshua Tree or Spider-man: Turn Off the Dark? Thankfully for Bono and the boys, Spider-man is waaaaaaaaay in the past. This is the future of U2.
The one thing you cannot miss when reading about this album is that it is NOT a concept album. After listening to it a couple times through, I have started agreeing with them. The “concept” seems to be that the songs are about crossing through a threshold and moving on which, on its own, is a pretty thin concept. In an interview with Rolling Stone, Bono said that the Edge joked that this would be their Quadrophenia. Songs has a thrust, good but not tight enough to be a true concept album. Instead, the general idea of Songs of Innocence seems to be that it is a U2 greatest hits album with all new hits. They all feel familiar to U2 fans and they hit a lot of the notes we are already acquainted with but offer new stories and original melodies. It is a weird concept but bear with me.
To start, the big single is what seems to make or break a U2 album. How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb had the mega-hit “Vertigo.” It was a memorable song that helped to introduce younger audiences to U2 while zeroing in on what the sound of band would be like for the next decade. On the other hand, “Get on Your Boots” was a huge flop. It was incredibly bland and had a confusing grab bag of lyrics that included the repeated line “Your sexy boots” for what really seems like no reason. It gave everyone a bad feeling about No Line on the Horizon, which is a real shame because No Line has some really excellent songs. Go listen to “Moment of Surrender” now. It’s great. But, one bad single can ruin the album. So how does Songs of Innocence look, single wise?
The hardest part of reviewing Songs of Innocence was getting past “The Miracle (of Joey Ramone).” It is so good. I probably listened to it about 10 times before I could even touch “Every Breaking Wave.” The guitar that opens the song is impossible to ignore and it holds you for the next four minutes. Bono is in excellent form. The lyrics are great. They seem fun and accessible until you realize the song is actually about the band going to a Ramones concert as kids and realizing they wanted to be musicians. That gives it such a cool and genuine feeling. It is definitely going to be a huge hit and you will be hearing it all over the place.
We get a lot what you expect from a U2 album in the rest of the songs. You have your edgy (no pun intended) political unrest song in “Raised by Wolves.” You get your touching song about Bono’s late mother in “Iris.” The album even has a song that’s lyrics are nothing but clichés in “Every Breaking Wave.” Don’t get me wrong. Songs of Innocence isn’t predictable. It’s familiar. It’s U2 doing what they know best, but with new subject matter.
The best case for this album is “California.” It is the third track on Innocence. Astute U2 fans may recognize the title’s similarity to another state-based U2 song, “New York.” Really astute U2 fans are also sure to remember that “New York” was one the most boring songs U2 has ever created. Go ahead. Listen to it. I dare you. It’s five and a half minutes long and is pure nonsense. The worst part about “New York” is that it’s on All That You Can’t Leave Behind which, besides Joshua Tree, is probably the best record they’ve ever created. The comparison between “New York” and “California” cannot be overlooked but thankfully U2 really learned something in the last 14 years.
“California” is far and away the strongest track on Songs of Innocence. Besides the really weird opening vocal track which repeats the words Santa Barbara, “California” has everything that makes U2 great. The tempo is fast. “California” is clearly supposed to be enjoyed. The Edge gets to really drive through the song to create a fun beachy sound. Larry Mullen, Jr. crafts a really interesting rhythm, especially by using the symbols to simulate the sounds of crashing waves. Vocally, Bono is doing what he does best. His range really comes through with the phrase “All I need to know” during the chorus. Lyrically “California” also really does something cool. On the surface it is another fun Beach Boys-inspired song about California love, but when you get a little bit deeper it is really referencing the struggle of an artist to persevere in the face of unending grief. According to Rolling Stone, this is also based on the band’s first trip to California in the ’80s. The song is fun, skillful, personal, and most importantly memorable. It really is the opposite of “New York.”
The general idea of Songs of Innocence seems to be that it is a U2 greatest hits album with all new hits.
This album is shaping up to be one of the better U2 albums. We will see if it withstands the test of time, but I would say it has a really good shot. When you get down to it, Songs of Innocence just really embodies the essence of U2. It has everything.
- It is really fun to listen to.
- It has a lot of meaning.
- It is by U2.
- It has a lot of replay value.
- It seems really genuine.
- It is really all about them. (Technically and figuratively)
- It is gonna make a great live show.
- It is all just a big marketing thing.
Do yourself a favor. Download this Songs of Innocence and listen to it for yourself. You have no reason not to. It is free. Sure, Apple is gonna put you in some database or something but whatever. This is free music from the internet. You are not going to get this chance again.
In all seriousness, I think this album is excellent. There is something for everyone. I cannot wait to hear “Miracle” in promos for CW shows and in malls and stuff so much that I get sick of it. It’s that good.
Matthew Nando Kelly is a contributing writer for Pop-Break. Aside from U2 reviews, he also writes about films, television, and video games. Matthew also has a podcast called Mad Bracket Status where he discusses pop culture related brackets with fellow Pop-Break writer DJ Chapman. He loves U2, cats, and the New Orleans Saints. He can also occasionally be found writing lists on Topless Robot. His twitter is @NationofNando