Monday, September 22, 2014

album review: 'songs of innocence' by u2

On September 9th of this year, Apple unveiled its newest tech lineup, which included the newest iterations of the iPhone and the Apple Watch, the latest tech gimmick to try to replace the common wristwatch and will likely fall into the same fate unless Apple fetishists embrace it. But that wasn't the only thing revealed at that press conference - because rock band U2 announced that their newest album Songs Of Innocence would be arriving in your iTunes that very day for free should you choose to pull it off the iCloud.

And consumers revolted. Suddenly the big story was the backlash leveled against U2 for not only allying with Apple - which they've done extensively in the past - but that U2 had suddenly injected their newest album into everyone's iTunes library whether they wanted it or not. And the response was emphatic: people did not want this album, to the point where Apple released a tool specifically designed for iTunes users to get rid of the album instead of just waiting for the iCloud download window to expire. And honestly, I was a little shocked by this reaction - I mean, it's free music from one of the biggest rock bands on earth who hadn't dropped an album in five years, why the backlash?

Well, I suspect part of it is that people tend to be protective of what they put in their iTunes libraries, but the larger truth is that many people tend to have complicated feelings regarding U2. They started as one of the most potent and explosive mainstream rock acts of the 80s, known for earnest, explosive power, sweeping scope, and socially-minded lyrics... until Rattle & Hum exposed the mind-boggling pretentiousness and swaggering rock arrogance beneath it that made the band come across as more than a little preachy. Without warning, the band pulled a 180 and went straight for the self-aware shields of irony with Achtung Baby, throwing earnestness aside for a highly artificial image of cool that paid diminishing returns as the 90s wore on and U2 drifted more towards electronic music. This experimentation eventually ended in the flashy and intentionally empty-feeling record Pop, the mixed reception of which pushed U2 back towards the earnest, politically-minded anthems that made their fortune in the 80s. Unfortunately, the shift took a while to stick, mostly because the instrumentation lacked visceral punch and Bono's lyrics had taken a turn for the self-indulgent. And while they would fix some of the former - it was plainly apparent U2 was never going back towards the explosive power of War any time soon, which would probably be my favourite U2 album after The Joshua Tree - the lyrics remained spotty across 2004's How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb and 2009's even more scattershot No Line On The Horizon. And considering the opening buzz for this album was that it was going to be produced by Ryan Tedder, Paul Epworth, and Brian Burton aka Danger Mouse, the last whose work has taken something of a downturn this year on the new albums from Broken Bells and The Black Keys, I wasn't really looking forward to this album. But hey, it's U2, one of the greatest rock acts of all time, surely they could pull something together, right?

Honestly, they didn't pull together much. For an album that U2 has called one of their most personal, it's a record that feels stifled in vague platitudes, insubstantial production, and instrumental misfires. Or let me put it this way: it's a damn good thing that U2 is as talented as they are at maintaining a firm foundation of guitar-driven rock music, because in the hands of a lesser band, an album this disjointed and shaky would have broken most bands. In other words, Songs Of Innocence is not bad, but I'd hesitate to call it more than decent.

So let's talk about what I like about this album, most of which comes in the instrumentation and the majority of it is courtesy of The Edge and Adam Clayton on bass. In an extremely welcome instrumental shift, someone finally decided it was okay for the guitar tones to have some grime and texture again from the shimmering tones that dominated their last three albums, and U2 take advantage of it as much as they can. As much as I didn't think the thick fuzz worked against the rest of the production of the opening single 'The Miracle (of Joey Ramone)', it did add some visceral texture to a pretty slick and generally unimpressive indie folk-inspired track with the backing chorus and handclaps that Joey Ramone probably would have laughed at. And near the stronger back-half of the record, that texture comes back in earnest: the menacing crunch of the bass against the spiky heaviness of the guitar on 'Volcano' that featured The Edge doing what he does best, the prominent guitar leads on 'Raised By Wolves', the pretty solid guitar melodies on 'This Is Where You Can Reach Me Now' cutting through the oily film of Danger Mouse's keyboards, and of course the grimy and pretty damn kick-ass 'Cedarwood Road' that stands out as one of the heaviest and darkest songs U2 has written in recent years. Hell, The Edge's guitar solo is pretty much the only redeeming element of 'Sleep Like A Baby Tonight' that features some of Bono's worst ever falsetto. Sure, none of it is anywhere near as visceral as U2's early work, but I don't entirely blame the band for that. Hell, I don't even blame Bono for it, because honestly, he sounds like he gives more of a damn about this record and delivers a pretty solid performance devoid of the ironic disaffection that I've never liked about his post-Achtung Baby work.

Nope, this problem comes to production - and some of you are going to say it's unfair to compare Danger Mouse, Paul Epworth and Ryan Tedder to some of the legendary producers U2 worked with in the past which include Steve Lilywhite, Flood, and Brian Eno. But look, I can't deny what worked, and the production is one of the biggest weaknesses of this record. Ryan Tedder probably fares the best - his sweeping grandeur is a natural fit for U2, and while I do think he's a little too slick and percussion-heavy, he's not really a problem on this album... well, except on 'Iris (Hold Me Close)', which feels swallowed in reverb, but it at least manages to give the guitars some presence. But Brian Burton... I don't know what the hell has happened to Danger Mouse this year, who used to be a producer I respected a lot, but his recognizable contributions on this record don't work at all. At best, his keyboard tones feel tacked on and the vocal production for Bono is only a little exaggerated - which fits, given Bono's delivery. 'California (There Is No End To Love)' is one of the better examples - it's got a pretty solid guitar line and spacious punch and U2 gets washed-out California dreams pretty well, but across the entire mix the inert synthesizer tone feels slathered on, burying the guitars and any sort of punch. But 'Raised By Wolves' suffers by having the steady chug of the guitars behind these breathy vocal interjections and a chorus that shoves the drums in front of even Bono and completely loses impact. The worst comes on 'Sleep Like A Baby', which features these stiff and inert synth leads and Bono sounding like he's singing through an autotuned tube full of water, which might just be the worst possible production for his voice especially in his falsetto range, or on 'This Is Where You Can Reach Me Now' which features incredibly thin organ lines that completely undercut the heft of the track. Yes, I like the strings arrangements and the fact that Burton knows enough to bring the guitar texture forward, but he uses them as punctuation instead of for the melody to drive the song, and letting The Edge play through a haze of reverb at the back of the mix on 'Sleep Like A Baby' on his guitar solo strikes me as a complete misuse of a great guitarist.

But now we have to talk about lyrics and themes, and let's get the obvious problem out of the way: if U2 were trying to go for a more personal album, picking every producer besides Greg Kurstin known for drowning their mixes in reverb and sucking away visceral punch at every turn was the wrong choice from the get-go. And I won't lie and say that U2's choice not to go back to the visceral punch of their early days instrumentally - which apparently provided more of the influence for this record lyrically - wasn't a disappointment, because it is. But there are points where U2 gets some of that youthful disaffection pretty well that comes from innocence lost. The chugging fist-pumping populism of 'Volcano', the disaffection of 'Raised By Wolves', hell, I even liked the political edge of 'This Is Where You Can Reach Me Now'. And 'Cedarwood Road' kicks all amounts of ass because it feels immediate and specific and real in its lyrics.

If only the rest of the album were like that. U2 has run into problems before in relying on platitudes and common iconography - normally religious, which crops up here on 'The Troubles' - instead of detailed stories that contain that potent human element, to pull you in beyond the distance. And let me stress that that element is essential - sure, the heady rush of rock star grandeur is potent, but without a foundation, it's all so empty. And that's the feel I get throughout a good half of this album. Because let's be honest, as much as I get the tribute to Joey Ramone and that youthful connection, Bono could have written that song about any dead punk rocker with fuzz-heavy guitars because there's barely any detail to it. And the exasperating part is that this keeps happening: 'Iris (Hold Me Close' is a song Bono wrote about his dead mother, and while there is some maternal imagery, if I hadn't known about the connection from an outside source, I'd assume Iris was just some girl - the song doesn't really stand on its own lyrically without outside knowledge, and good art needs to do that. 'Song For Someone' is another example, which starts out with the unflattering line 'You've got a face not spoiled by beauty' and then proceeds to get maddeningly vague with the chorus that this is a uplifting song for someone. And look, U2 has used broad platitudes in the past to reach a broad audience, but when you've written songs like 'One' and 'Beautiful Day' and then you come out with something this thin, you don't get a pass. 

The absolute worst song on this album, however, is 'Every Breaking Wave', a song that on the surface seems to be a resignation that you can't fight every wave, gamblers go in knowing they'll lose, and we just need to be able to accept it. First of all, what in the Nine Hells is U2 doing writing a song like this - for a band known for their uplifting anthems, this is one of the biggest surrenders I've heard on record. But I won't deny it fits thematically, because when you think about it, this really isn't an album filled with 'songs of innocence', but innocence lost. Icons die, California reveals its hollowness, you get swallowed by the machine and become cynical, and to quote 'The Troubles', 'Someone stepped inside your soul / Little by little they robbed and stole / Till someone else was in control'. Now that song tries in the third verse to show Bono showing he's finally cast all of that pain and disaffection aside, but when the song is played like a dirge with Lykke Li on the hook and Bono's lyric 'God knows it's not easy / Taking on the shape of someone else's pain', it loses that personal connection. Bono, what about your pain? For an album speaking about innocence lost, it rings incredibly hollow because it feels like U2 is trying to mimic that existential crisis rather than live it themselves - and if anything, that's the real heartbreak.

Look, I don't hate or even dislike this record. U2 is still a good enough rock band and there are enough solid moments on this album to save it. But it's definitely a weaker album in their discography and a worrying sign that U2 is trying to recapture old moments and memories rather than live new ones. And for a record that supposed to feel personal, thanks to the production it feels nearly the opposite. I'm feeling a very light 6/10 and only a recommendation if you're a hardcore U2 fan. But even still, most of you will have probably deleted it from your iTunes, and while I won't do the same, I completely understand why.

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