Review: “Songs of Innocence”

738aa476It has taken me some time to sort through the unexpected release U2 dropped on the world last Tuesday: “Songs of Innocence.”  Though my first listen-through left quite a bit to be desired, my appreciation of the album has grown since then.  Even so, I have doubts about whether today’s U2 can ever recapture the magic that propelled them to their original heights.  Here, then, are a some thoughts on the individual tracks as well as a few summative notions:

1.  The Miracle (Of Joey Ramone): I’ll be honest: I really, really, really don’t like the title of the song.  Nothing against Joey, but I have no need to see his name in the title of a U2 song.  It really takes what could be a more poetic and mysterious set of lyrics and limits them rather unfortunately.  To top it off, I’m not too musically excited about it as the first song on their first album in five years.

2.  Every Breaking Wave: Now this is more like it.  This song is clearly U2 at some of its most, well, U2.  A catchy song with some good lyrics: “Are we so helpless against the times?”  and “It’s hard to listen while you preach.”

3.  California (There is No End to Love): Was there some kind of fire sale at the parentheses factory?  It isn’t unheard of for U2 to use these kind of naming conventions, but this still seems excessive.  The song itself is quirky and fun, reminiscent for me of the similar geographically centered song “New York.”  Once it gets going, it is full of joy.  Not one of their most important songs, but not a dog by any means.9afc2556-0341-46a6-9cbf-dafa2c604307-460x276

4.  Song for Someone:  I’m a big fan of this anthem as an example of everything U2 can be.  I daresay it is an instant classic and quite possibly the best track on the album.  Remember: “…there is a light, don’t let it go out.”

5.  Iris (Hold Me Close):  I don’t mind the parentheses here so much because they don’t overdefine the song or give it a cornball veneer.  Listening to this song is a unique exercise, because I think its power is limited unless you realize it was written for Bono’s mother.  Knowing that she died when he was only 14 gives it a depth well-signified by the hypnotic and repeated word “Iris” heard multiple times throughout the song.  Truly a heartbreaking journey.

6.  Volcano: I think this song might rock the most of any track on the album, and I like it quite a bit.  It is rollicking with a solid amount of attitude.

7.  Raised by Wolves: The song (especially the refrain) can be a bit “on the nose,” but the more I listen to it the more I like it.  As they sing the words “raised by wolves” I hear a rather deliberate throwback to their early days circa Boy/October/War.  It is worth spending some time U2-GQ-Magazine-u2-32147518-465-590with.

8.  Cedarwood Road: Hint: it’s the road where Bono grew up.  Not the best track on the album, but it has soul.  Reflect on this: “You can’t return to where you never left.”

9.  Sleep Like a Baby Tonight: A slow jam, here.  Just OK.

10.  This is Where You Can Reach Me Now: I like when they sing “soldier, soldier.”  I’ll leave my comments at that.

11.   The Troubles: As haunting/spiritual/ponderous songs at the end of U2 albums go, not their best.  I like the guess vocalist, though.

A friend of mine said that the first part of the album was solid, while the back half was rather mysterious to him.  In most parts, I tend to agree.  Tracks 9 and 10 are definitely not a highlight for me.  In general, though, I think the album is a good one.  In terms of ratings, I’m going to place it at number 9 out of the 13 U2 albums I have now rated (see here for the others). It is, therefore, not as good as How To Dismantle an Atomic Bomb but better on the whole than War.

328477e9163d1f4d15f754dd7fb84770For an album entitled Songs of Innocence, it definitely does spend time reflecting on the younger days of the Bono and the band.  That said, this innocence is never entirely pure as we encounter the volcanoes, wolves, soldiers, and–of course–Iris.  But then that’s U2: always better with the shadows than the light.

In the end, this is a good album, but therein lies the problem: it’s only a good album.  U2 can make a good album in their sleep.  What they needed now, five years from their last release with Bono in his 50s, was a truly great and transcendent album.  And this one isn’t.  At this point, it is more than reasonable to ask whether we might ever get one from them again.  Unless Songs of Experience can do it–and soon–I’m afraid it may be time for the boys to hang up their instruments and walk gently into the night before they embarrass themselves and/or make a misstep that mars their legacy forever (if–all things Apple considered–they haven’t already).

A good try, surely.  But that’s all this one is: a good try.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars

Things I Would Like To See (Part VI)

U2-in-Washington-DC-001Today’s wish is short and sweet: I would really like to see one last great U2 album.  That’s all.

Bono and the boys have been together now for over 30 years, and in that time have provided the world with some of the most consistently powerful rock music ever made.  Music, poetry, beauty, and truth: it’s all been there, with a lot more thrown in as well.  They’ve earned their place as the best rock band in the world at numerous points in their career.

I realize that U2 could go on until the band’s members expire of natural causes, meaning that we could have them juhala-meme-generator-i-saw-the-rolling-stones-when-i-was-10-years-old-628acaaround for 20 or 30 more years.  But I don’t want that.  If you want evidence of why not, take a look at the Rolling Stones, who recently celebrated their 50th anniversary as a band.  They’re clearly suffering from “way-too-little-butter-scraped-over-too-much-bread syndrome.”  For a rock band, there is a time to simply call it a day.

For U2 that day has already, or has nearly, arrived.  But before last curtain call, a final push for greatness and last defining mark on the musical scene would be amazing.  I realize, considering everything they’ve already done, that I’m asking a lot.  I’ve previously spent some time reflecting on their top albums.  You may disagree with my idiosyncratic numbering, and that’s fine.  But: even having produced only one of their best albums woU2_fashion_1uld mark them as an amazing band.  To have made all of them?  That’s what sets U2 apart.

The group has shown at some key moments in their career that they could reinvent themselves, making some of the best music in the world in the midst of changing times.  This may be more difficult now that at other times in their career…but if anybody can do it, my hopes are on U2 to make one, last, great album before retiring.  At least that’s what I’d like to see.

Tuesday Remainders

In honor of…Tuesday, some interesting links from the past week or so:

1. Bono’s Effervescent Wisdom:  The rockstar never ceases to amaze, even if the article’s author seems a little trite.

2.  NYC Saves Civilization:  Apparently, some very offensive words are appearing on standardized tests.  Words like “dinosaur,” “television,” and “religion.”  Fundamentalists, Luddites, and secular humanists must have been enraged by these words poisoning their children.  Unfortunately for them, NYC schools have decided NOT to eliminate them from their exams.  Finally.  Now students can enjoy reading about “rock n’ roll” on their Scantron tests!

3.  The Hunger Games is Deviant: Apparently, it has become a “most challenged book” by those who object to its themes.  As a friend of mine said on Facebook, don’t people realize that the book itself is a critique of our modern society rather than a blanket endorsement of violence and the like?

4.  Last but not least….my favorite picture of the week:

Bono & Karl Barth

As I continued my Lenten reading last night in Karl Barth’s Romerbrief, I lighted upon a passage that spoke to me in an interesting way:

“Fugitive is the soul in this world and soulless is the world, when men do not find themselves within the sphere of the knowledge of the unknown God, when they avoid the true God in whom they and the world must lost themselves in order that they may both find themselves again.

This is the Cause of the Night in which we are wandering: this is also the Cause of the Wrath of God which has been manifested over our heads.”

Barth’s words resonated with my own understanding of a world deeply caught in night–as violence in Syria and bloodshed in Ohio remind us even today.  Issues of lostness and soullessness and darkness pervade our existence, and only in God’s Light may we find our way out.

I also liked his words because they reminded me of one of my other favorite theologians: Bono of U2.  In their seminal album Achtung Baby the band has a track called “Ultraviolet (Light My Way).”  Almost psalmically, Bono implores “Baby, baby, baby light my way”:

And the day is as dark as the night is long
Feel like trash, you make me feel clean
I’m in the black, can’t see or be seen

my favorite lyric, however (and perhaps my favorite line of all time) is the crescendo he hits right here:

When I was all messed up
And I had opera in my head
Your love was a light bulb
Hanging over my bed

I don’t know if Bono intended the meaning I draw from this song, but I’ll take it anyway.  Powerful stuff.  This on the same album, of course, where Bono earlier claims “It’s no secret that the stars are falling from the sky/It’s no secret that our world is in darkness tonight” before baldly stating that “The universe exploded ’cause of one man’s lie.”

Thankfully, one Man’s Truth has provided the way back from the depths of our shared night.