Let’s get two things out of the way first:
- U2 has still got it.
- It’s too soon to rank Songs of Innocence within the U2 cannon.
Bono is 54 years old, so it’s understandable to question the band’s vigor and relevance. They’ve certainly done so themselves. In short, then, the band remains vigorous and relevant. There’s also a natural tendency toward relative positioning when a band of this stature releases a long-awaited collection of tunes. But “better than X, not as good as Y” plaudits are premature, so as much as it pains me I won’t go there.
Here’s what we do know: this release was a remarkable secret. It seems to have been sprung on just about everyone, which is tough to do these days. The release was also innovative, which is equally difficult. The iTunes giveaway made this the biggest release in music history, and left some listeners scrambling to figure out where to find their “Purchases” page and others figuring out how to delete a purchase they didn’t purchase. One important quote is noteworthy before we leave this point. The album was given to listeners for free, which might leave both indie and established artists grumbling. There is a modern and wildly harmful notion among fans that they’re somehow entitled to get music for free. Consequently, Bono was careful to mention that this was a giveaway because someone else (read: Apple) helped foot the bill. “We were paid,” Bono told Time magazine. “I don’t believe in free music. Music is a sacrament.”
This is also, for once, a U2 album that’s fairly self-explanatory. Song titles allude to meaning, and if that’s not enough, what amounts to a song-by-song from Bono is in the liner notes. On this point I’m a bit torn. I honestly miss the hand-wringing discussions of song meanings, but since it’s all so autobiographical the backstories are welcome. Imagine, for example, what folks in a forum like this one who are quick to dissect every shred of spiritual content in U2’s lyrics might have made of these, from the wonderfully titled “This is Where You Can Reach Me Now”:
We signed our lives away
The only weapon we know
We knew the world would never be the same
Check it out, we might have surmised. Surrender to Christ. Changing the world! But then we would have noticed the little line under the song’s title: “For Joe Strummer”. And then we might have read the story in the liner notes about the band’s “coordinates changing experience” seeing the Clash for the first time. And they we’d say, Oh. Okay. Well that’s cool too.
That said, there are still plenty of more subtle turns of a phrase to leave faith-minded fans pondering. U2’s never shied away from layering spiritual themes atop ordinary constructs. There is humility and grace in the third chorus of the opener “The Miracle (of Joey Ramone)”. Recalling an important musical epiphany (hearing a vocalist whose sound validated Bono’s abilities and aspirations), Bono and Edge reflect on meaning and calling. “I woke up at the moment when the miracle occurred / I get so many things I don’t deserve / All the stolen voices will someday be returned / The most beautiful sound I’ve ever heard.”
“Every Breaking Wave” then ushers in an undercurrent of pain, setting the album’s title askew. These aren’t really songs of innocence, though the William Blake-borrowed title is effective. They’re songs of revelation, yes, but also songs of harsh reality and how we’re shaped by it. The theme of pain is given a powerful “moral of the story” later, in a song of childhood friendship in a “warzone” called “Cedarwood Road”. It’s even all-caps in the printed lyrics:
A HEART THAT IS BROKEN
IS A HEART THAT IS OPEN
“California” recalls the band’s wide-eyed arrival in Los Angeles, but has much more going on than one might realize after just a listen or two. There’s obvious homage to the Beach Boys and to the musical influences of that trip, but there is a bit of commentary and a sudden, jarring two-line chorus: “All I know, and all I need to know is, there is no end to love”. The idea is prefaced later by its corollary: there is no end to grief, which is why we must understand that there is no end to love. Perhaps the narcissistic glare of the city of angels necessitates a firmer understanding of the eternal.
The next track holds another unexpected reference: this time entirely biblical. “Song for Someone” would fall right in line with U2’s best arena-sized ballads, apart from some clunky lyrics (did he really say “this could be the night”?). Amidst an effective dark/light motif that paints most of the album, and, by the way, some really wonderful vocals, the tag declares, “And I’m a long long way from your Hill of Calvary, and I’m a long long way from where I was and where I need to be.” The Golgotha reference seems to refer to a particular event the song’s subject (Ali Hewson?) experienced, but its context is not apparent.
If Atomic Bomb was about Bono’s relationship with his father, an emotional core to this album appears to be his mother who collapsed at her own father’s funeral and later died when Bono was a teenager. “Iris (Hold Me Close)” is her title track, and it’s the album’s emotional zenith. The iris controls how much light enters the eye, and the image becomes profound when Bono aligns his mother’s light with the traveling glow of a star: “Something in your eyes took a thousand years to get here.” Again, the purpose and utility of pain and grief are explored: “The darkness just lets us see.”
“Raised by Wolves” is a dissonant prequel to “Bad”, the former telling in first person of the seminal event that led to the heroin addiction described in the latter. The 1974 car bombing that rocked the life of Bono’s friend is palpable in today’s ongoing reality of terrorism. The impact of the trauma is voiced in a profound way with just four words: “I don’t believe anymore.” Don’t miss the subtle inversion of a child’s innocent desire to close his eyes and shut out all the bad in the world. Here, ferocity takes over. “If I open my eyes, you disappear.” There’s also quite an indictment in a line tucked just above the license plate number of the exploding car: “The worst things in the world are justified by belief.”
Similarly scathing is a thinly veiled treatment of child abuse in the church. It’s Bono’s jarring “I can still bring the Lemon-style falsetto” couplet that defines “Sleep Like a Baby Tonight”: Hope is where the door is when the church is where the war is.
Smart listeners often look to U2’s closing tracks for their most thorough treatment of spiritual themes. The trend started with “40”, and was as clear as ever in the well-intentioned but flawed “Yahweh” and “Grace”. Songs of Innocence closes with “The Troubles”, a haunting song that could be a meditation on Jeremiah 17:9. The song’s little bit of redemption is the singer’s victory over the caustic relationship, but the song becomes fascinating when considered as a conversation with one’s own heart. The song, and album, simply fade to silence. That conversation does not end.
U2’s new production team has brought a new sound to the band. It’s not exactly fresh – that might come across as an old band trying too hard to sound contemporary – and it’s not too far off from the classic U2 sound, which has always been malleable anyway. But certain touches, like the distortion in the opener and the thick acoustic guitar on “Song for Someone”, add intriguing originality. The instruments are all in fine form, and apparently Bono even plays a dulcimer. It will play well live, though some songs don’t quite pop out of the speakers like some of their predecessors. And finally, this is important: there’s not a single throwaway song in the batch. They’re all worthwhile, and they all contribute.
Innocence is a further testimony to U2’s staying power. They make great albums, and the fact that they’ve done so for so long is beyond remarkable. They’ve still got it, and they’re well positioned to keep it at least a little while longer.