Album Reviews | U2 – Songs of Innocence (2014)

U2, for whatever reason, never seems to be able to get it right when it comes to their relationship with the public. So strident is their belief in their own self-importance that they opted to give their new album away to every iTunes customer for free, because of course what 500 million people want is the latest offering from the self-appointed best rock band in the world. In my case, I want to hear a new U2 album when one comes out, so the message that greeted me on September 9 that U2‘s new album had automatically been added to my iTunes library didn’t bother me, at least not at first. My first thought was, “Well, that was nice of them to do that.” But it wasn’t long my thinking transitioned to, “Uh, what’s the difference between an album magically appearing on iTunes versus the same album popping up on Spotify?” To be honest, I’d rather it just be on Spotify. Because what if suddenly this started happening every week and my iTunes library got clogged up with albums I don’t want? No thanks.

So as well intentioned as the gesture was — and let’s not forget that U2 still got paid for the album by Apple, so the band didn’t actually give it away at all — it doesn’t get a passing grade from me. I think it sets a dangerous precedent, to be honest, and to be frank, my loyalty to iTunes has just about reached an end anyway — given the proliferation of the Internet access these days, I can access just about any song on Spotify from anywhere. And make no mistake, Apple agreed to sink cash (reportedly $100 million) into this stunt because it knows it has lost considerable ground on the music front. As the music industry shifts rapidly towards streaming and away from downloads, this is obviously leaving iTunes in the dust. A year ago, Apple offered what it thought was a fix in the form of iTunes Radio, a Pandora-like service that allowed for easy purchasing on the spot. But it bombed, so in order to gain ground, Apple reached outside its own ecosystem — a rare move for them — and bought Beats Electronics for $3 billion, which of course includes the streaming service Beats Music.

And now Apple has gone out of its way to offer its iTunes users a free U2 album, as if that will make us look at iTunes as something more valuable than it is. This just doesn’t seem like a particularly sensible strategy to me, not because there is something intrinsically wrong with U2, but because it reeks of desperation. It was almost like a “Hey! Remember iTunes?” reminder — like I said, I’m not sure it communicated that iTunes had actually gotten any more valuable. I still use iTunes pretty much every day and use it to play all the digital music I actually own, but it has long since passed the point where I felt like music is something you really “own” anymore; instead, it’s something you merely access. That’s what you’re paying for, whether you download a song on iTunes, stream the song on a premium streaming service, or watch the song as a video (with a commercial) on YouTube.

U2 - War (Reduced)But I was still quite keen on listening to Songs of Innocence, because, well, I like U2. I count War (1983), The Joshua Tree (1987), and Achtung Baby (1991) as among my favorite albums. I may be, generally speaking, quite a cynical person, but I wouldn’t write about music as much as I do if I weren’t hopeful that an album turns out to be great every time I sit down to listen to it for the first time. Unfortunately, even though Songs of Innocence provides some enjoyment the first couple passes through it, I can definitively say that it is not a great album, or anything close to it. Here’s the central problem with U2‘s approach over the past fifteen years: ever since Pop was panned upon its release in 1997, the band has solidified its sound with a straight-ahead rock approach that frankly isn’t that interesting, which is why each album released since Pop has yielded increasingly diminished returns.

No Line on the HorizonAll That You Can’t Leave Behind is very good, How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb not as good but still an album of some merit, and No Line on the Horizon an “experimental” album (yeah, right) with weaker songwriting that doesn’t actually try anything new aside from some uninteresting production touches. Yet as I listened to No Line on the Horizon again in preparation for this review, I couldn’t help but notice how much more vibrant it is compared to Songs of Innocence, which only reveals how the band has reached a dead end with their current approach, since let’s face it, No Line on the Horizon isn’t a great album either. But at least there were some winning tracks on that album, such as the excellent song “Breathe” and the pretty good single “Magnificent.”

Songs of Innocence, on the other hand, offers nothing beyond partial pleasures, as not one of the tracks fully comes together. Sure, the opening (and closing) chants of “Santa Barbara” on “California (There Is No End to Love)” are really well done and enticing, but the rest of the song falls flat. The chorus of “Volcano” is undeniably catchy, but the song never really becomes anything of note. “Cedarwood Road” almost comes close to seeming like a fully crafted song, but its verses, too, fall flat. It’s a familiar feeling that permeates my reaction to this record: I’m just not sure these guys have enough of an edge (aside from their guitarist, of course — sorry, couldn’t resist) anymore to really assemble songs with purpose. After all, how organic is art if it can be uploaded to the accounts of 500 million people with a single click? There’s no sense of wonder and discovery in that.

In the case of U2, they certainly have gotten too far into the forest to see the trees anymore. After all, Bono actually wound up apologizing for the iTunes rollout:

“I’m sorry about that. I had this beautiful idea, but (we) got carried away with ourselves. Artists are prone to that kind of thing. A drop of megalomania, a touch of generosity, a dash of self-promotion and deep fear that these songs, that we poured our life into over the last few years, mightn’t be heard. There’s a lot of noise out there. I guess we got a little noisy ourselves to get through it.”

Magna Carta... Holy GrailIt’s actually pretty revealing that U2 went to all this trouble to force-feed Songs of Innocence down people’s throats, because it betrays a lack of confidence. Obviously, they just wanted people to like the album by agreeing to the deal to let everyone have it for free, which is of course perfectly fine since they have made enough money. But art has to come from some kind of adversity or it just isn’t vital. This was the case with JAY Z‘s bland Magna Carta… Holy Grail last year, which was given away for free on Samsung phones, and it goes a long way towards explaining why Songs of Innocence falls so flat. When you get to be that age (40+ or so), with this kind of money, making these kinds of deals, the art becomes arbitrary. And at this point, it seems unlikely that U2 has another really good album in them. But I remain hopeful, as I always do.

U2's latest is a decent offering, but ultimately the material just isn't strong enough to recommend giving it more than just a cursory listen.
  • Breezily entertaining; as usual, U2 are palatable
  • Wide dynamic range
  • Songwriting is remarkably lackluster; not a single standout track
  • Neither the album nor the songs individually really pull together

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