Review: U2 Are Pilgrims on Their Way in “Songs of Innocence”

songsThe common knock against latter-day U2—one that’s routinely delivered even by the band’s most ardent fans—is that the band never quite recovered from the commercial and critical failure of Pop; that ever since that 1997 album sunk from the charts—in many respects the first true misstep from the biggest, most successful rock band of the last 30 years—Bono and crew have been desperately chasing down their 1980s muse, striving to make albums cut from the same comforting, well-worn cloth of The Joshua Tree and The Unforgettable Fire.

It’s a neat little narrative, both convenient and, at first blush, pretty truthful—but dig a bit deeper into their albums of the new millennium and it becomes apparent that it may be a bit too easy to accuse U2 of merely pining away for their 80s heyday. While it’s true that their latter-career reset album, All That You Can’t Leave Behind, eschews the irony and experimentation of their 90s albums in favor of big anthems and open-hearted emotion, it’s also true that they carried some of the lessons learned in the 90s with them, particularly about pop songcraft. “Stuck in a Moment You Can’t Get Out Of” is a lightweight slab of blue-eyed soul that never could have fit on the brooding Unforgettable Fire or the tumultuous Joshua Tree, and even when U2 does self-consciously reach for past glories—as on “City of Blinding Lights,” a new-millennium anthem that hits the very same emotional notes as “Where the Streets Have No Name”—they can’t help but come at it from a different perspective: They hoist the song atop their shoulders like elder statesmen, wizened rock and roll survivors all too ready to take audience members by the hand and lead them toward inspiration and hope—not at all the same vibe as the searching, hungry “Where the Streets Have No Name.”

There are plenty of other examples besides, and sure enough: Songs like “A Man and a Woman” and “I’ll Go Crazy if I Can’t Go Crazy Tonight” offer hooky, lightweight pop, compact and focused solely on melody—songs that have more to do with the tight songraft of Achtung Baby than with the sprawl and the roar and the angst of their mid-80s albums; songs made by experienced craftsmen rather than rock and roll firebrands. Whether one finds such songs appealingly breezy or vaguely embarrassing is an open question, perhaps, but the point is this: While U2 may have spent the last 15 years making music that sounds like cookie-cutter U2, they’ve not actually made an album that returns to the specific spirit of any particular U2 classic, nor could they: They’re older now, and carry with them every experience and every lesson learned in their pursuit of the muse. They’re not repeating themselves: They’re finding new wrinkles in a signature aesthetic, allowing the sound of U2 to grow along with the men of U2.

What, then, does one make of a record like Songs of Innocence—an album that references vintage U2 as pointedly as any album they’ve made (listen to how “Every Breaking Wave” opens with what could almost be a sample from “With or Without You”) yet sounds as distinct, as much its own thing as any of their post-Pop recordings? Not only that, but the record—for all its anthemic reach, for all its stadium-ready chants, for all its open-hearted enthusiasm—is as clearly indebted to the studio effects of Achtung Baby and to their burgeoning skills as true pop songwriters as anything they’ve made since the 90s? One almost laments that the title Pop was already taken; it would have fit just fine here.

You can hear it most obviously in the more experimental numbers, first and foremost the album’s incredible closer, “The Troubles”—as rich and as moving a song as they’ve made in ages, an elliptical and haunting funhouse of voices and studio effects, Lykke Li singing the otherworldly hook but Bono rooting the song in clear-eyed self-realization. There are other songs here that vaguely recall the experimental bent of Achtung and Zooropa—the synth-driven “Sleep Like a Baby Tonight,” for example—but that’s merely one aspect of the album’s curious refraction of U2 past and present. While no one will mistake the album for anything but a carefully produced and thoroughly polished piece of music, “Cedarwood Road” rides a nasty, raucous guitar lick that’s more rock and roll than anything they’ve done this side of War. Though it isn’t as immediate as “Vertigo” or “Get on Your Boots,” the pummeling opener “The Miracle” is a crowd-riling singalong that’s actually more carefully written and arranged than either of those tracks, and thankfully less goofy and embarrassing. And about those new wrinkles: “California” opens with a harmonic ode to The Beach Boys, of all things, and though it morphs into an Edge-driven rocker, it’s far too breezy to be just another U2 anthem.

There are hooks throughout the album—big ones—and no song that drifts into atmospherics, extended soloing from The Edge, or “Streets”-styled grandeur; everything is tight, lean, and to the point. It’s appealing, actually, and is made all the more so by the nimbleness of the melodies and rhythms. Therein lies the biggest surprise on Songs of Innocence: Though U2 is notorious for its perfectionism, fussing over each song to the point where there’s nothing that could ever resemble true spontaneity or improvisation, and though this album was infamously worked on for a span of five years—multiple producers credited, and nearly half a dozen keyword players listed for the first track alone—the real miracle in all of this is its comparative lightness of touch. Yes, it’s still immaculate rather than raw—and really cutting loose and getting their hair ruffled a bit is what U2 still so desperately needs—but the heavy-handed Lanois/Eno production has been lifted in favor of a punchier sound masterminded by Danger Mouse. The result is U2’s most melodic album; its most fun; in many ways, its most straightforwardly appealing. The biggest difference between this album and the last two: Songs of Innocence offers the illusion that it wasn’t quite so fussed over.

You can hear the difference best, perhaps, on “Every Breaking Wave,” the closest thing the album has to a by-the-numbers U2 anthem. And it is a by-the-numbers U2 anthem, maybe, not just for its “With or Without You” intro but for its measured lead-up to an explosive, fist-bumping chorus. What’s notable is what the song lacks: There’s no Edge solo, no wooo—wooo refrain, and one of the sludgy production that bogged down, say, “Magnificent” or “City of Blinding Lights.” It draws its power from its mighty hook, it makes its point quickly, and it doesn’t contain a single wasted second. Not for nothing, the song also breaks away from the thematic material one tends to associate with U2 anthems: It’s neither a fight song like “Pride” nor a restless longing like “Streets,” but rather is an anthem of surrender, Bono singing about waves on a beach as though it’s his parting line before falling backwards into them, carried along by the song itself.

There is another way in which Songs of Innocence marks itself as distinct from other U2 records: It is, according to Bono’s typically half-reliable testimony, the most intimate and personal album U2 has ever written. When we talk about intimacy within the context of this band, of course, it means something a bit different than when we use the word to describe any other band: U2 belongs to the world and is zealous for turning every song into a battle cry; they are content with intimacy only when it’s sweeping enough to fill a stadium, and that’s as much a defining characteristic of U2 as anything. Nevertheless, there is a real sense in which Songs of Innocence marks a return to something, something the band has never really explored on tape: It’s a song rooted in childhood and adolescence, as seen from the vantage point of wisdom and age. It captures the hurt and the anger and the hopefulness, the fighting spirit that led these four men to become rock and rollers and to develop so great a Christ complex to begin with; they are indeed Songs of Innocence sung from a place of experience, the remove of time adding perspective and nuance but leaving some of that visceral, roiling emotion very much in place.

The album is, indeed, as flagrantly emotional as it is flagrantly melodic. The best way into its world is through its final song: “The Troubles” is a kind of self-reckoning, Bono coming to terms with the fact that he’s spent so many years trying to solve the world’s ills because he has been running from his own demons, the specters of his own troubled past. It is a conscious decision to turn his gaze, finally, inward, and it casts a light back over the ten songs that come before it.

Even their sequencing is revealing. “Iris” is a song of devotion to Bono’s mother—long his muse, but never referenced as explicitly as she is here. Iris Hewson died of a brain aneurism when her boy was still quite young, and it is, perhaps, no coincidence that her song is followed here by “Volcano,” which is all frayed nerves and bristling anger, a portrait of the artist as a young hothead, a flamethrower, a street fighting man. Hurt gives way to anger, and that anger colors much of what Bono delves into here; “Volcano” leads to the particularly Irish rage, indignation, and disillusionment of “Raised by Wolves,” and the troubled spiritual and political landscape of Bono’s youth shows up elsewhere in the predatory priest of “Sleep Like a Baby Tonight.”

Salvation comes in the form of Joey Ramone—who else?—whose rallying call in “The Miracle” sends Bono down the road to rock and roll stardom, toward belief in both his ability and his duty to turn his rage into holy ruckus. Critically, Ramone is not himself the door to Bono’s redemption, but merely a signpost for it: “The Miracle” shifts subtly from a song about the transformative gospel of rock and roll to a Gospel of another kind, Bono hearing Joey’s song as a distant echo of some heavenly anthem that brings total restoration and peace.

Again, what isn’t present on Songs of Innocence is as notable as what is. There are songs about acts of political violence and religious abuse that Bono witnessed as a young man, but there is no sloganeering, no crusading, and nothing that could rightly be characterized as an openly political song: Even when he’s singing about an IRA bombing in “Raised by Wolves,” the song isn’t actually about the bombing at all, but about the brokenheartedness and fractured psyche that Bono was left with. “The Miracle,” meanwhile, only tips its hat to Joey Ramone in the title, the lyrics left more ambiguous—and while some listeners may lament the lack of specificity, the song is hardly vacuous: It’s a song about awakening, discovery, passion, and hope. Joey Ramone is the catalyst but not actually the subject matter.

So here is the funny thing about Songs of Innocence: It’s an album about all the things U2 albums have always been about—remaining hopeful in a broken world, knowing that the kingdom come is both already and not yet here—but it’s about them in a different way. It’s an album about Bono, but a different side of him than usual. It’s an album that sounds, with every yelp and every guitar pedal, like a U2 album, but not like any particular U2 album, or even a particular U2 era.

Maybe its key is “Every Breaking Wave.” Maybe surrender is more than just an idea to these men: Maybe they’ve stopped running and are instead just floating—not stagnant and not complacent, but letting the waves of song and spirit carry them where they will. To me, this album doesn’t sound like U2 trying to be U2, but neither does it sound like U2 avoiding being U2; they’re simply doing what they do and what they’ve always done, but from a vantage point they’ve never been able to reach before. The change of perspective is everything, and it’s what makes Songs of Innocence sound so sweet—what makes it sound, for all the world, like the old made new again.

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