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 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.

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

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4 comments on “Review: “Songs of Innocence”

  1. ApolloAndy says:

    I’m inclined to agree with your takeaway, though I think I found more to like in general.
    I’ll give the first 3 songs on the album (as well as Invisible) 5 stars, if not more, and I’ll be surprised if This is Where You Can Reach Me and Troubles don’t also end up there.

    I wonder if it’s a sign of the times that radio-friendliness and popular impact seem to have so little overlap with rock and roll and lyrical and musical depth. (Also, you kids get off my lawn.) I’m a sucker for radio hits and U2, for a long time, were the masters of crafting a radio hit that, in a world of “I’m mad at my dad” and “Don’t you want to have sex with me” songs felt like it mattered. Songs like “Beautiful Day” and “Vertigo” were both catchy and explored actual profound aspects of the human condition, not just in words but in notes. I’m not sure the radio has room for such songs and I’m not sure if that’s because of the changing nature of radio, the changing tastes of people who listen to radio, or just my imagination. (Again, you kids get off my lawn.)

    As I look back over the U2 catalog and my list of favorites, I’m noticing that there really aren’t that many transcendent albums. Achtung Baby is THE one that I think everyone points to, but there’s such wide variety of opinions on my other favorite (ATYCLB). Joshua Tree is widely acknowledged to be the second example of a transcendent album, but I’m honestly not that in love with it. What I do find looking back through the U2 discography is transcendent songs – songs which pair a musical richness with a lyrical poignancy. Songs which I actually conjure emotions in me when I listen to them. I find at least 3 and maybe more such songs on Songs of Innocence. Even just the opening riff and Bono’s call of “California” transports me to San Francisco staring out past the Golden Gate Bridge to the ocean – to the excitement, the hope, the anticipation of what’s to come. On “Every Breaking Wave,” when Bono cries “If you go your way and I’ll go mine” and Edge’s guitars follow, I can see the waves breaking on the shore, one after the other. However, other than Achtung Baby and ATYCLB, I can’t find a U2 album that I’ll listen to end-to-end anymore and even those strain my patience at times (Trying to Throw Your Arms Around the World, So Cruel, Wild Honey, Peace on Earth).

    What I find interested about this album is (for now) there are very few songs that I find myself immediately skipping. Unlike NLoTH and HTDAAB which were rife with tracks which I’ve probably only listened all the way through two or three times (Cedars of Lebanon, White as Snow, Fez-Being Born, Moment of Surrender (gasp!), A Man and a Woman, Sometimes You Can’t Make it On Your Own, Miracle Drug, One Step Closer, Original of the Species) I can find something worth listening to on almost every track. Iris, especially and Song for Someone are the only tracks I find myself skipping right now, though Raised By Wolves is close to being relegated.

    So my takeaway – In retrospect, with a few exceptions, I’ve never listened to U2 (or any band for that matter) for transcendent albums. My loyalty rises and falls on the back of a few transcendent songs and I have no problem discarding the chaff. Songs of Innocence knocks it out of the park enough times (3, so far) and has enough other interesting stuff going on that I put it in my top 5 U2 albums.

  2. ApolloAndy says:

    I forgot to mention, I give it 4 stars out of 5.

  3. Thanks, Andy! You’ve given some good food for thought here.

  4. Andy says:

    Having spent a few more months with the album, I can definitely say it’s taken Joshua Tree’s #3 spot (behind Achtung Baby! and ATYCLB). Just on the strength of the first three songs and Invisible (which I consider as part of the album, even though it was buried as a hidden track on the bonus album) it already has more 6-star songs than any album since Achtung Baby. It lacks a little bit in the middle, but finishes solidly with Sleep Like A Baby, This is Where You Can Reach Me Now, and Troubles. I really think this in one of U2’s best.

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