Endless ink and computer bytes have been spent discussing, arguing, moaning and praising U2’s surprise release 'Songs of Innocence'. For an enlightened review you need go no farther than my colleague Mark Millar’s excellent review on this site. It seems that it has all been said, so why beat a dead horse you might ask? The justification is the additional new music on the hard disc release. In addition my belief that the album deserves another review now that the fervor over the surprise release has settled and tempers have cooled. I am the designated clean up crew.
It is probably still too early to answer the question of whether this album did what it was intended to do, which was prove that U2 was still relevant in the popular music market. Arguments can be made that U2 shouldn’t be bothered to ask the question. Many rock groups currently don’t see it as necessary to be “relevant”, they still make a nice living and are worshipped like modern day gods. U2 however has never been happy unless everyone in the audience had their eyes focused on them.
The band is attempting to again catch lightning in a bottle with another generation of impressionable youth. U2 are playing for high stakes, made more difficult by a music industry that is at best adrift with too many options or on its last dying gasp, all depending on who you talk to. Initially the shock of how the album was released and the backlash over Apple’s marketing strategy distracted from the ability to take in the release. Many felt the move was a bit contrived for U2, and there was some disappointment and concern that U2 had finally gone over to the dark side.
Consider for a moment what U2 are really attempting. They are trying something pretty novel, they are releasing a very personal record packed full of historical band references which long term fans relish, but conversely attempting to lure new devotees with that same bait. It will be a grand accomplishment if they can pull it off. It is a tightrope walk over shark infested waters.
In recent years most critics have divided into two camps, either rubber stamping as brilliant anything U2 releases, or dismissing out of hand anything U2 releases. The band probably doesn't help matters by chasing the ephemeral idea of staying relevant and never resting on their past accomplishments. The hard release will eventually reveal if the marketing decisions made for the initial release are vindicated or if U2 will need to accept the inevitable and move on to the legacy route.
The deluxe release of 'Songs of Innocence' includes an additional disc offering two original songs, two remixes, the hidden track 'Invisible' and five previously released songs recorded acoustically. The second disc is for the collector and avid fan, or anyone interesting in a different version of the songs. Undoubtedly many critics will slam the band yet again for not offering a lot more new material with the second disc.
Left behind in all of the prior palaver has been the actual music. After a couple of spins I have come to really enjoy the majority of the songs, this is the takeaway. 'The Miracle of Joey Ramone' is a grower, reminding me a lot of 'Elevation' and I have no doubt it will be amazing in concert. I actually like the disc 2 rendition better, but that is only my preference. The choice of this song as the first release was much better than with their previous album 'No line On The Horizon' where I had always thought 'Magnificent' would have been better than the much lauded 'Get On Your Boots'.
'Every Breaking Wave' scratches an itch. Just say aahh and enjoy. The song is actually very reminiscent of the overall sound on 'How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb'. Both versions of the song prove that Bono still has the vocal chops for the job. On the original I could have used more Edge guitar brilliance and Larry percussion.
One of the best mixing decisions of the deluxe alternative version is the dropping of the silly opening to 'California'. The original release opening was a real put off. With the acoustic version you can hear all the good things going on in the song. The second version is far superior to the first.
On 'Song for Someone' we get the treat of hearing Edge’s backing vocal. This song is the cousin of 'Sometimes You Can't Make It on Your Own'. The musical payoff in the song is in the last third when Edge’s guitar is unleashed. The acoustic version conveys more emotion and many will find it more inspiriting.
The absolute emotional peak of this album is 'Iris (Hold Me Close)', I knew this song would be special when I saw the title on the playlist. It gets better with every play.
Bono has sung many songs about his mother and her tragic untimely loss. This go round Bono reveals that time has healed the wound but the scar will be there for all time. There is a deep meaning to the lyric, “Iris says,” That I will be the death of her”, it was not me.” The images Bono is painting here are so poignant; I could overlook any mistakes on the entire release because of this song.
Speaking of possible mistakes, with 'Volcano' I dismissed it out of hand as just plain silly. File it under a desperate middle aged attempt to be hip. After a few listens I have reconciled to it being listenable, but one of the weaker tracks on the release. It is 'Elevation' like, but 'The Miracle' is already filling that slot. My impression is U2 are attempting Franz Ferdinand. Keep in mind that in concert it will be a highlight, because Edge will tinker with this one till it becomes something else entirely.
There were three songs that on first pass did little for me. The aforementioned ‘Volcano', 'Raised By Wolves' and 'This is Where You Can Reach Me Now'. 'Raised By Wolves' is 'City of Blinding Lights' with edger lyrics. The music is solid, but I had to adjust to the chorus, which sounded a bit strained, the first few times I listened. Then the lyrics and atmosphere took over, I have been converted to liking this song, with one reservation, it would be better with fewer keyboards and a bit more mix on the drums. The alternative released acoustic version is very direct and the lyrics have more impact.
The second song that was an immediate personal winner was 'Cedarwood Road'. If you are a fan you know Bono grew up on Cedarwood and that Guggi, who the song is dedicated to, is his life long friend and growing up was his “partner in crime”. The song expresses all the dreams and fears of these lads from the wrong side of Dublin as they were becoming adults. There is amazing passion and Edge’s buzz saw guitar work is awesome. The original release is better than the acoustic version.
My first impression of 'Sleep like a Baby Tonight' was a song that reminded me of 'If You Wear That Velvet Dress' from POP. The subject matter however is a million miles away. Bono is talking about a subject many would not want to tackle and handles it quite deftly. The lyrics speak of the ease of rationalizing away evil, the result of making infallible gods of fallible men. The song is contrasting innocence to the utter evil of priests taking advantage of trusting children. The alternative version of the track on disc 2 is even edgier and does not provide the comfort offered in the ethereal sound of the original release. Both versions are exceptional.
I love The Clash, but 'This is Where You Can Reach Me Now' still does nothing for me. I can’t figure it out. The song just lays there for me. It is too long and the lyrics are so so. It sounds like an attempt at a Shins song or a b-side off of 'All That You Can't Leave Behind'. There is nothing drastically wrong with it but I expected more when I saw it dedicated to Joe Strummer.
Admit when you saw 'The Troubles' on the playlist you thought 'Sunday Bloody Sunday' version 2.0. Think again, even better a great duet between Swedish singer Lykke Li and Bono. The closer to the original release is a dreamy song where the lyrics can be read different ways. Edge performs some of his great guitar magic. Both versions of this song are compelling and I can’t choose which I like the best.
Disc 2 delivers two original songs, 'Lucifer’s Hands' and 'The Crystal Ballroom'. 'Lucifer’s Hands' I took to immediately, Larry shows up to do some major work on drums and Edge is dialed in on the riffs. The song fits in nicely with the rest of the album, and has this funky vibe. Fans take note to the switch up of the lyrics from October’s 'Rejoice'. In 'Rejoice' the achingly young Bono sings, "I can't change the world, but I can change the world in me." On 'Lucifer’s Hands' an adult Bono sings, "Yes I can change the world,… but I can’t change the world in me." 'The Crystal Ballroom' has a 'Love Is the Drug', Roxy Music vocal and bass line. There is a very techno vocal treatment at the end.
Immediately after the alternative version of 'Sleep like a Baby Tonight', there is a hidden track. The band’s Super Bowl released single 'Invisible'. A track that reminds me a lot of producer Danger Mouse’s other gig, the band Broken Bells. The only surprise here is that the song was not on the original release. A worthy likable tune that gets better with age.
The album makes a serious attempt to introduce a new generation to U2’s musical offerings. However for those unacquainted with the band, the release is not a slam dunk. I will never fault any band for changing things up; some of the best music comes from experimentation. So I will throw no stones at U2 for shaking things up. The songs where U2 are most recognizably being themselves are the best tracks. We will soon know how well the hard disc release performs and if the band’s intentions for this release will be achieved.
Regardless of that outcome, the album should bring no apprehensions to their long term fan base. All the things fans enjoy remain. Excitement still exists when U2 puts out original tunes, and after over thirty plus years in the business that is a grand accomplishment. I look forward to seeing how these tracks morph as they are played live, and rest assured our impressions will change about these songs yet again.