opinion byPETER TABAKIS < @ptabakis >
Congratulations! Chances are you’re an iTunes user and, as such, the recent owner of the new U2 album Songs of Innocence. Since U2 still holds the title as the Biggest Band in the World, you were probably thrilled to discover this gift while live-streaming Apple’s announcement of two beefed-up iPhones and a timepiece that will shackle our wrists early next year. You no doubt rushed to your nearest compatible device and shared a monumental experience with 499,999,999 others across the planet. As a bonus, we joined together to speak a common sentiment, which has been brewing in the culture for some time now: Take that, Beyoncé! We’ve all been aching for someone – particularly an aging rock band – to knock her down a peg. Tuesday was a tremendous day for every fan of popular music. Nay, it was a high-water mark for mankind.
Ha, ha, ha.
I kid, of course. The default reaction to U2 – almost a religious belief – is one of white-hot enmity, if you hadn’t yet hit puberty when Boy was released in 1980, or ecstatic celebration, if you lost your virginity to “Two Hearts Beat as One” in the backseat of a Datsun. Skewering Bono, and by extension U2, is part of the fun of appreciating the band and its music. The very impulses that still make Bono such a phenomenal frontman (with Mick Jagger as his lone superior) – a walking, talking, and singing embodiment of an ethos – also subjects him to endless and rightful scorn. This mixture of bombast and sanctimony should make you bristle. But that’s the very reason U2 has established the template for delivering grandeur, which critical darlings such as Radiohead, Arcade Fire, and Kanye West have studiously followed to overwhelming acclaim. U2 taught them that in the right hands, more is more. When it comes to ego and ambition, bigger really is better. And gigantic is best of all.
U2 has never been fashionable, not when it was a scrappy quartet of Irishmen making ringing post-punk anthems about love and war in the 80s, and certainly not when it was a stadium-busting delivery system for both sincerity and irony in the 90s. But the greatness of War, and The Unforgettable Fire, and The Joshua Tree, and Achtung Baby (hell, even Zooropa) established something of a (begrudging) critical consensus. The band’s decision to straighten the smirk altogether with All That You Can’t Leave Behind finally split a tenuous accord into warring factions. As legacy publications continued to lavish praise on U2, newer upstarts unleashed a feeding frenzy of takedowns. And so, a well-worn and ongoing binary has dominated the conversation ever since. U2’s output in the new millennium either deserves breathless encomia, or invectives reserved for Coldplay’s worst. Never mind that ATYCLB and How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb were flawed, but regularly solid, and at times terrific, late-career affairs. No Line on the Horizon, hardly a calamity, remains a fascinating case-study of a misstep writ global. (Much like Pop, the album ATYCLB was meant to wipe from our collective memory.)
Reviews of Songs of Innocence began pouring in within hours of its surprise release. Familiar lines were re-drawn. It’s an instant classic! No, it’s trash! For those of us with no dog in the larger cultural fight, Songs of Innocence is merely a second-tier U2 effort. It soars in all the right places (the wonderful opener “The Miracle (of Joey Ramone)”), falters with bizarre overreach (the unfortunate Brian Wilson homage “California (There is No End to Love)”), and eventually squeezes together with a Velveeta-squish of familiarity (the future sing-along “Song for Someone”). And yet, the album sounds tremendous throughout. Gone is the greyscale bluster Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois brought to No Line. Songs of Innocence is sparkling and punchy, beaming and fiery, largely thanks to Danger Mouse’s expert handicraft, here in top form. Contributing producers Flood, Paul Epworth, Ryan Tedder, and Declan Gaffney likewise add buoyancy to often thunderous material, which could have easily plodded into the sonic muck.
Songs of Innocence is being marketed as a retrospective of U2’s early years. But The Edge, Adam Clayton, and Larry Mullen, Jr. mostly stand in the album’s vast wings. We instead follow Bono through the formative events of his life: when he discovered his conscience (“This is Where You Can Reach Me Now”) and singing voice (“The Miracle”), first confronted near-death (“Raised By Wolves”) and Angelino sunshine (“California”), reckoned with his mother’s passing (“Iris (Hold Me Close)”) and a breakup (“Every Breaking Wave”). “Cedarwood Road,” a crunching highlight, is named after Bono’s childhood stomping grounds and “Volcano” is basically his white-knuckled manifesto.
Given the price of admission – zero dollars for the next few weeks – Songs ofInnocence is a bounty of riches, however mixed. It withstands all the snide swipes, but also falls short of the booming hosannas. Both sides are building in opposition, hoping to dominate the overall narrative. The truth, however, is somewhere in the middle. This is no disaster, nor is it a masterpiece. Songs ofInnocence is a competent U2 album, always a good thing. No other rock band of a similar vintage could incite such a debate nowadays. When it comes to U2, perhaps the naysayers protest too much. B