U2 album hearkens back to familiar sounds
To be a fan of a long-running music group or artist is to live with perpetual disappointment. The newest album will never match up to that first hit that made you fall in love. The band will break up. Or, worst of all, they will sell out, only playing music that will earn money.
However, the band U2 has come back in full force with their newest release, Songs of Innocence. Any iTunes or Apple product user has surely discovered that a U2 album they had not purchased has mysteriously appeared on their Apple devices. U2, in partnership with Apple for the release of the iPhone 6, gave a free download of the new album to anyone who uses iTunes, an iPhone, an iPod or the iCloud.
At first, I was skeptical. Surely U2 was just pulling a publicity stunt to make up for the much-maligned 2009 album No Line on the Horizon. There was no way that the album would actually be fun to listen to. I downloaded it as a fan, out of duty more than passion, and because I wouldn’t be wasting my money on it.
If you are looking for a return to Joshua Tree or Achtung Baby, arguably the two best U2 ablums and emblematic of their late ‘80s style, you will probably be disappointed. That’s not to say that Songs of Innocence is not a good album. Rather, it is a remarkable set of music that harkens back to some of U2’s earliest sounds, updated for the 21st century. The album combines the religious lyricism of the band’s Catholic faith (commentary on how spirituality can be both a blessing and a curse) with an arena concert feel. It’s like listening to rock in a cathedral, wild and sacred all at the same time.
No song gives the listener the sensation of listening to stadium rock in a church quite like “Cedarwood Road,” an autobiographical piece about Bono’s childhood in Ireland. Bono, the product of a Catholic-Anglican marriage, sings about the struggle of navigating a bi-religious identity, especially given that Ireland “was a warzone in my teens,” he sings on the track. “Cedarwood Road,” with its themes of faith, youth and violence, harkens back to U2’s 1983 hit “Sunday Bloody Sunday,” successfully tying together the violence of Irish history to reflection on youth. The sound is overwhelming, with the The Edge’s signature guitar effects, but it is also intimate.
One of my favorite songs on the album, “California (There Is No End To Love)” has echoes to some of U2’s most famous ballads. “California (There Is No End To Love),” like many of their other songs, opens with chords and a haunting repetition, of, in this case, the lyrics “Barbara/Santa Barbara.” The build in the middle and drive of the chorus to U2’s signature bridge signals that the song is not quite over. It follows the same structure that has made so many U2 songs memorable hits. Even the lyrics, with references to love and searching for identity, are reminiscent of 1987’s “Where The Streets Have No Name,” one of U2’s greatest songs.
Perhaps the catchiest and oddest song on the album is “The Miracle (Of Joey Ramone).” The chords and guitar riffs are upbeat, and the repetition of the chorus and rhythmic “ohs” in background give the song a very pop feel. However, the lyrics are intense and deeply religious, referencing pilgrimages and the search for a miracle in life. That is in sharp contrast to the title, a reference to punk rock god Joey Ramone. The dissonance of the song—its sound, its lyrics and its references—is what makes it so great. To one listener, Bono and the rest of the band is paying tribute to an artist from a completely different genre; someone else can interpret the album to be yet another ode to God.
Songs of Innocence appropriately ends with a song titled “The Troubles,” a direct reference to Na Trioblóidí, a three-decade period from the 1960s to 1998 when the ethno-religious tensions in Ireland and Northern Ireland were at their peak. The song is slow and haunting, with a woman, Lykke Li, a Swedish pop singer, singing the eerie refrain of “Somebody stepped inside your soul/somebody stepped inside your soul/little by little they robbed and stole/till someone else was in control.” “The Troubles” is both about Na Trioblóidí and the internal struggle to fight one’s demons. The lyrics can be interpreted either as historic references or as being meaningful in the contemporary world, and that is what makes it so powerful.
Songs of Innocence is not a mid-’80s hit LP, and that is a good thing. If U2 had been a band that formed in the early 2000s in the era of the European Union and the Celtic Tiger rather than the late 1970s in an era of confusion and violence, Songs of Innocence would have been their first album instead of Boy. Songs of Innocence is nothing innovative, but it is a call back to U2’s youth, and that is what makes it so satisfying.