U2 | Songs Of Innocence | Rating: 6.8/11 |
Regardless of how you feel about being conspiratorially ‘spammed’, it happened. Granted, all other unsolicited media ending up in one’s inbox promptly gets the thumbs down/mark as spam treatment but, alas, this is what occurs when the biggest band in the world (U2) and a titanic of music delivery and technology (Apple) join forces.
Welcome to Songs of Relevance. Sorry: Songs of Innocence.
The problem with today’s U2 is that – fairly or unfairly – every record they continue to make will be held up against the best record(s) they’ve ever made. Now in their 36th year of existence with nothing particularly pressing to say and seemingly all the time in the world to say it, they are waving the “very personal” record banner (which is deliciously digestible fodder for diehards for whom anything from U2 is better than nothing). Why the “very personal” route? Because without the usual outward pressures and discomforts that traditionally spur the artist mind into action, Bono, the Edge, Adam Clayton and Larry Mullen Jr. must look inward, backward, anywhere-ward to find something to sing about. Hence a laundry list of producers including Danger Mouse, dredging up the homeland violence (again), yet another song about the missus, homage to a rock n roll inspiration (aka a song ready made for an Apple ad) and a poignant parental ode. All things formative to U2 or – specifically – Bono.
The lads have traded in their trademark sounds bloated in self-importance for sounds bloated in production with results that vary from pretty and spacious, to adventurous and underwhelming. You know the album wants to go somewhere and many roads are travelled in the process: pop, rock, electronica and an odd foray into reggae (the underwhelming and unyieldingly titled “This Is Where You Can Reach Me Now”). If tracks “Every Breaking Wave,” “Iris (Hold Me Close)” and “Song For Someone” (a pretty solid love song) were playing in the background and in succession, good luck telling where one song ends and another begins because they would seamlessly blend into one extensive sonic heartstring pull; something U2 are well-versed in. Fortunately the songs are not tracked one after another or listeners would fall asleep.
Adventurous comes into play when U2 start sounding Boy era-ish. There is a mash up of modern and retro as “Raised By Wolves” draws on Bono’s distinct yelp to carry the message of the strained days of car bombings and religious zeal (“Blood in the house, blood on the street / The worst things in the world are justified by belief”). And Clayton finally emerges from the background and into the spotlight on “Volcano” but more beautifully so on “Iris (Hold Me Close).” Hint: Listen to this album with headphones on lest you forget he’s even in the band. With all of its mid tempo and dark electronic swagger, “Sleep Like A Baby” feels like a leftover from Pop that actually works especially when Bono steps into an unexpected falsetto in case you forgot he can still go there. Is it strange when it’s considered “adventurous” to sound the way that you used to sound? That’s an honest question.
Bono’s accounting of the street where he grew up in “Cedarwood Road” provides a genuine flash of stunted promise that should have been pure dynamic with a guitar intro that smacks of Black Rebel Motorcycle Club’s “Rifles” with shades of “As Sure As The Sun” thrown in. Stunted because, while the Edge’s buzzing guitar and Mullen’s punctuated percussion stack a wall of tense sound throughout, as soon as the less than urgent vocals kick in, the songs gets flattened. And that’s a damned shame but perhaps dynamic is no longer what they are aiming for. Apparently neither is a radio-ready single.
Songs of Innocence is essentially a serviceable record: something akin to U2 doing Coldplay doing U2 (take that in and roll it around for a minute). It’s a comfortable, even comforting, listen steeped in sentimentality with occasional sparks spliced in which means it will probably fill the U2 void while it’s long term durability is truly questionable. Periodically they have claimed that they still have something to prove and some do, indeed, believe that they still have a fully cohesive, banger of an album left in them – somewhere – that would redeem them for 2009’s listless and somewhat embarrassing No Line On The Horizon. If that’s true and U2 have even the slightest desire to do more than rest on their serviceable laurels, it would behoove them to work with a producer of heft (a single producer, not an army of them) who can and will exert critical pressure, harness their best and take them even slightly out of their comfort zones (and reliance on synths, effects, etc.), no matter how well earned those comfort zones are. Less production, more four guys in a band playing basic instruments and writing damned good songs. So here is a suggestion: Somebody put a call in to Jack White, Nigel Godrich, Josh Homme, Rick Rubin or Butch Vig before folks like me officially stop caring. Thanks in advance.