A Rock ‘N’ Roll Crucible: U2–Songs Of Innocence (2014) Reviewed

U2 Songs of Innocence album coverNot counting last year’s “Ordinary Love” from the Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom film and this year’s “Invisible” for Product Red, it’s been five years since we last heard from U2.

No Line On the Horizon, the band’s twelfth studio album, released in early 2009, was a relative failure in terms of sales, even if the resulting world tour was the highest grossing concert tour in history. It was evident: people still wanted to hear and see U2. For that reason and that reason alone, the aged Irish rockers can still be deemed as being relevant musically, politically, and culturally. With the surprise album release of Songs of Innocence last week, five long years since their last proper album, U2, the long-lasting survivors of rock and roll, test the theory of relevancy once more.

And they come through that crucible in one of the most unexpected ways imaginable: if not through the music itself, then through the musical process.

It’s no secret that I was, and still am, a fan of No Line On The Horizon. It was one of my Top 5 albums of 2009 and words exalting its attributes, that the album makes for an outstanding final third of a trilogy that consists of The Unforgettable Fire (1984) and Achtung Baby (1991) can be found right here. I know what you’re thinking, but it’s not so crazy an idea.

Still, at the time, and as a lapsed U2 fan (I completely avoided their musical output from 1995-2008) who found himself interested in the band once again, I was really looking forward to the promise of their No Line sequel, a sister album tentatively titled Songs of Ascent. Here was an album that was to contain material unused on the previous offering: meditative songs, hymns even, following a theme of pilgrimage; threads picked up from No Line and followed to a logical conclusion. Over 50 songs had been recorded it’s said and, in late 2009, Every Breaking Wave was announced as the first single.

But that proved premature.

Dissatisfaction with sounds, uncertainty over relevancy and indecision over direction (all the while performing in a top-grossing world tour), U2 was now working on three albums with various producers: a rock album, a club album and still, in the background, Songs of Ascent.

And then four more years of delay, until the most recent Apple event, this past Tuesday, September 9, 2014.

U2 at Apple eventIn a rush, Songs of Innocence was birthed: produced in the majority by the acclaimed Danger Mouse (Gorillaz, Gnarls Barkley, Beck, The Black Keys), along with Paul Epworth (Adele, Florence and the Machine, Coldplay, Bruno Mars) and OneRepublic’s Ryan Tedder (who has also produced Beyonce, Maroon 5, K’naan), it’s a rock heavy, bright and driven album consisting of a clutch of deeply personal songs detailing the band’s youth. Here are childhood experience of love, loss, inspiration and regrets.

Really, the album is more the idea of innocence lost then anything else – an album of firsts, which does tie into the ideals behind the scrapped Songs of Ascent. Still, these aren’t hymns. Although the production is slick, this is straight ahead rock that reminisces U2 in three distinct stages: the twenty-first century, the nineteen nineties and the nineteen eighties, when they first hit the scene.

Volcano begins with a dull bass roar, a rumble foretelling an explosion to come – and indeed it does: timed with Bono’s vocal wail in the chorus, the Edge’s guitar erupts like hot lava, emanating from that bass pulse. This is early U2, screeching sounds that would feel at home on their 1981 release, October. “You and I are rock and roll,” Bono confirms in that track, whose lyric couldn’t be any truer than on Raised By Wolves, another song seemingly ripped form the early eighties. Here’s the story of an act of terrorism during the band’s youth in Ireland, a well dipped into regularly by U2 during their career, to be sure. The song kicks off with ominous piano before snapping samples set the listener off kilter even more. But again, it’s the guitar that strikes out of nowhere, like the act of terrorism that is the subject of the song. It grabs your attention. And it’s Bono’s vocal shriek that once again elevates the song into the realm of infectious importance. With its rolling drums and driving bass, It’s a fist pumper to be sure.

Sleep Like a Baby Tonight, with its more electronic formulation, might be the sound outlier on the album, but it’s still a fantastic track. It ‘s calm and meditative, like a lullaby – until Edge’s guitar rips through the slumber and the lyrics stating that “tomorrow dawns like a suicide, but you’re gonna sleep like a baby tonight” hit home.

U2 live at Apple eventThere’s a lot on Songs of Innocence to listen to, songs and sounds that resonate and provide surprises on a subsequent listening. The four musicians of U2 are in their full power here, and although I felt that the collection of eleven songs somehow didn’t make for a brilliant album (probably due to the fact that there didn’t seem to be much in terms of highs and lows, sonically, on the album – that it was such a straight-ahead rock effort) it’s still an amazing collection of songs. There’s isn’t one here that asks to be skipped: from the first track, the first single, The Miracle (of Joey Ramone), through to Every Breaking Wave (one of my favourites), to the Joe Strummer inspired, This is Where You Can Reach Me Now, to the album closer The Troubles, featuring Lykke Li, it’s all great music with something for everyone.

From abandoned songs and ideas and producers, to a questioning of their own relevancy, U2 felt that they were on to something musically important five years ago when they were first creating the songs that would make up Songs of Innocence. Multiple attempts, false starts and new producers finally brought the right energy for creation and eventual release – a veritable crucible of musical process. Something so rock and roll.

Say what you want about the way the album was announced (pushed free into the accounts of Apple iTunes clients), Songs of Innocence is a collection of great songs that deserve to be heard, by a group of musicians utilizing all of their powers and experience to detail tunes of life firsts. It’ll be interesting to hear the rumored upcoming sister album, Songs of Experience – and how that might sound in comparison.

You can watch U2 at the Apple event from last week, performing The Miracle (of Joey Ramone) live at the 1:44:00 mark in the video below.

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