It 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.
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 with.
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 guest 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.
For 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