The question could’ve been, is it worth the hype? But a couple of weeks after U2 surprised many with the release of their 13th LP Songs Of Innocence as a free iTunes download, the backlash is in full-swing.
“More hated than Nickelback!” yelped one blogger’s headline while making a fact-ignoring case for U2’s downfall being a desire to please everyone. New Zealand’s Stuff.co.nz news website amended their initial tame headline “U2’s album giveaway a ‘punk rock thing'” to “U2’s horrible album giveaway…” Horrible??
As Apple (who reportedly paid U2 up to US $100 million for the “free” album) belatedly provided how-to guides for removing the album for angry customers with the hitherto unheard gripe: “I don’t want free stuff unless I choose what the free stuff is,” grumpy celebrities like Sharon Osbourne waded in.
“No wonder you have to give your mediocre music away for free,” she ranted in a two-day Twitter diatribe, while others bemoaned the Irish supergroup as having been musically irrelevant for the last 20 years.
While that’s a sentiment often heard, it’s not rooted in reality. Aside from past-20-year critical triumphs like last year’s Oscar-nominated Ordinary Love single or 1993’s Zooropa* LP (21 years – forgive me), even U2’s maligned previous album No Line On The Horizon (2009) still sold five million copies.
What gets me with the “U2 have jumped the shark” articles of the past fortnight is that they share a boring narrative that’s too often used to describe a major artist’s career. Whether it’s Dylan, the Stones, the Bee Gees, Springsteen, McCartney or U2, it’s embarrassingly easy to paint the picture of critical acclaim followed by early commercial success followed by bigger commercial success followed by commercial and critical decline and maybe one late career highlight. While broadly this might be the career arc of most greats, its simplicity is breathtakingly boring.
Boring in the sense that what the hell is the point of writing about music if you’re not going to listen to it? Excellent but accessible albums like All That You Can’t Leave Behind (2000) get limply slapped as being “safe.” Inconsistent but intermittently fine works like No Line On The Horizon get defined by their weakest tracks in order to make a point, namely that LP’s disastrous lead single Get On Yer Boots. One of this week’s anti-U2 articles derided No Line for being light and throwaway in nature. Had they not listened to the seven minute Moment Of Surrender? A musical sequel to 1984’s Bad in both lyrics and scope, this Bible-referencing meditation on the perils of heroin was hardly “throwaway.”
Personally I like that there’s a band of big ideas, big ideals and even bigger ambition. I like that there’s a band who write songs that attempt to mean something. And maybe U2 would be an even better band than the one who’ve sold 150 million records, had a truckload of hits and can still break touring records had they had a little less desire to keep breaking the mold. But maybe more immediate albums like All That You Can’t Leave Behind and How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb (2004) can’t exist without the experimentation of Pop (1997), Zooropa (1993) and Achtung Baby (1991) before them. Maybe Achtung Baby couldn’t have existed without Ruttle And Hum (1988) and The Joshua Tree (1987) before it. Perhaps the possibly outstanding sequel to Songs Of Innocence couldn’t exist without this current decent offering.
As for this “current decent offering,” it’s a thoughtful work focusing thematically on the life of the young Bono. All of it sounds as competent as you’d expect of U2 and some of it is quite arresting and is a more consistent listen than its predecessor. I unashamedly love this band and believe the polarising Bono to be infinitely more complex and self-deprecating than his detractors realise. Bono On Bono (2005) stands as the single most inspiring book I’ve read as it depicts conversations between an articulate atheist fan (the journalist Michka Assayas) and a mightily well-read, good-humored, non-judgmental believer (Bono). In particular, the dialogue-battle between karma and grace in the book is an essential discussion to anyone spiritually minded.
It could be the PR for Songs Of Innocence has damaged U2, making them appear more brand than band. It might be too soon to tell, though there is the risk of not leaving people wanting more if you grandly deliver something the masses don’t want. That said, I suspect U2 have got the last laugh with people talking about them in ways they may not’ve in years. Ultimately, let’s have the music itself be the judge. Here are my three best picks from the album:
In descending order, first is the rock ‘n’ roll with hints of new wave and punk, Volcano. A dominant Adam Clayton bass and an upper-register Bono chorus are the standouts. Volcano has the aesthetic of the songs of Atomic Bomb and All That You Can’t Leave Behind with the some of the attitude of pre-The Unforgettable Fire (1984) U2.
Second is The Troubles. A sombre work unusual in the U2 cannon in that it features a hook sung by an outside vocalist, Swedish-born indie artist Lykke Li. Despite the title, the song isn’t necessarily about Northern Ireland but could be interpreted as more of a personal examination. The most haunting track on Songs Of Innocence.
And third is the lead single, the Joey Ramone tribute The Miracle. It’s important to note that amidst the backlash to this album, 5 star reviews have appeared in publications like Rolling Stone. And surviving members of The Ramones themselves have written of their appreciation and admiration of this song. While not as filled with hit-potential as Vertigo from 10 years ago – also an Apple tie-in – The Miracle is not in a dissimilar vein.
*The Wanderer from Zooropa – with Johnny Cash on guest vocals – is one of the great, lesser known U2 songs. With lyrics worthy of much analysis, I gave it my best shot about three years ago when this song came to mean something to me. Click here for that article.