Yesterday, U2—easily the biggest rock band left on the planet—surprised everyone when they released their long-in-gestation new album for free.
Songs of Innocence was made available to everybody with an iTunes account, which allows most everybody who listens to digital music to hear it; a physical version will be out on October 14, at which point it will be eligible to chart.
After a solid 12 hours of digesting the record — their first since 2010’s generally disappointing No Line on the Horizon — EW music experts Kyle Anderson and Miles Raymer fired up their e-mail machines, and their critical judgment.
KYLE: My relationship with U2 has always been a bit fraught: I don’t care at all for their early work, and while I’m not 100 percent on board with their ’90s output, I’m really glad it exists (Zooropa is probably my favorite album that I never, ever listen to). I’ve been pretty neutral on their 21st-century music—I know a lot of people thought No Line on the Horizon was a dull disaster, but it made me feel nothing at all. So I approach every U2 release with a healthy skepticism and nothing in the realm of expectation.
Having spent some time with Songs of Innocence, I have come to the conclusion that I think I actually kind of like it. Bono’s lyrics (with multiple assists by the Edge, according to the digital liner notes) remain deeply wonky in their earnestness—he still writes the kind of poetry hyper-literate 11th graders scribble in yearbooks. But sonically, I really like what producers Danger Mouse, Ryan Tedder, Paul Epworth, and Flood have done with the songs. I’m especially jazzed to hear the return of the Edge’s bumblebee distorted guitar, a crunch I don’t think I’ve heard since “Discoteque.”
There’s a lot to unpack here, both with the album itself and the surprise rollout. But Miles, where do you stand on U2, and how does Songs of Innocence play into that stance?
MILES: U2 and Guns N’ Roses were the first two rock bands that I got into as a kid after the stuff my parents listened to. I still think War is one of the best rock records of the ’80s, and I rode hard for them all the way through Zooropa, but I lost faith somewhere around the point where we started to figure out that the hyper-narcissistic character Bono had begun playing on stage was actually just where Bono was at (and where he’s stayed since). Their past two decades have been a joke, albeit a pretty hilariously self-important one at times.
That being said, I listened to Songs of Innocence four times yesterday and although I literally LOL’d at points on the first listen (the lyrics to that Joey Ramone song are still killing me), I eventually started coming around. Most of the credit goes to the producers, who keep enough respectably weird sounds coming to distract you from the corny-ass songs themselves, but I have to give it up to the band for going there with them and making music (“Sleep Like a Baby Tonight” for instance) that could conceivably weird out the older, more conservative classic rockers who make up so much of their fan base.
Still, I find it highly suspect that a band that’s supposed to be back on its game has to literally shove their record down 500 million people’s iTunes. “Thought you weren’t interested in another U2 record? Well too bad, you already own it!” Does that seem a little desperate to you too?
KYLE: In my mind, there are two ways to look at the roll out. The first way is that U2 essentially operate like, say, Pearl Jam or Prince now, where the albums are merely mile-markers that offer a reason to hit the road again. Since nobody makes any money off of selling albums—not even a band as universally huge as U2—then the release is actually a smart way to get people to buy tickets to next year’s inevitable stadium tour.
Of course, the other way to look at this is that U2 worked hard on an album, realized it wasn’t very good, and attempted to cut their losses by masquerading as a benevolent content provider offering up a hugely-anticipated album suddenly and for free. I think either way it’s a smart business move, though one that only people with the financial liquidity and cult of personality like Bono and Jay Z can really pull off.
I agree that there are a lot of problems here, starting with the very title of the first single “The Miracle (Of Joey Ramone).” I like how “Song For Someone” builds, but I wish that it was built on a better hook. And I like that Lykke Li shows up to coo on “The Troubles,” but it’s a bummer that it’s by far the worst song on the album. (We could have a whole separate conversation about the problematic nature of the last songs on U2 albums.) But the production really carries a lot of this, and I think Songs of Innocence really makes a case for Danger Mouse being one of our most underrated knob-twiddlers.
So we’re both kind of shruggy on this album, though I can say that I genuinely love the self-conscious weirdness of the Joe Strummer tribute “This Is Where You Can Reach Me Now.” Do you have a favorite song, Miles, or is this another U2 album that doesn’t get an entry on the greatest-hits package?
MILES: Like I mentioned, I really like the sonics on “Sleep Like a Baby Tonight,” especially the John Carpenter-esque synthesizers and the part where Bono goes into a weird screechy falsetto bit, but the song itself isn’t memorable at all–I can’t imagine liking it if it had an acoustic arrangement. I think “Raised by Wolves” is kinda cool, although its Bloc Party-style dance punk thing would have been a lot more interesting if this was ten years ago.
The Pearl Jam and Prince comparisons seem apt, but it reminded me more of recent Bowie albums where no one with any sense goes into it expecting to get their wig flipped by its greatness, but there’s a pleasant surprise in finding them making semi-decent music that obviously shows they’ve been listening to some new stuff that’s actually cool. I want to give them a clap on the shoulder and a “Good for you, guys,” but odds are I will never listen to this album again after this conversation’s over.
KYLE: I agree. U2 are like Paul McCartney or the aforementioned Prince—even if this album was shockingly excellent, it still probably wouldn’t be in the top five (or maybe even the top 10) of the band’s all-time releases. Those spots are all locked up. The sudden rollout has made Songs of Innocence inherently more interesting than No Line on the Horizon was, which maybe justifies dropping it into everybody’s pending downloads queue.
It certainly has made me curious about the rumored forthcoming collection Songs of Experience, but ultimately I agree with you: Outside of an inevitable spin to remind myself how goofy “The Miracle (Of Joey Ramone)” sounds, it’ll probably stay in the single digits on my play count until the end of iTunes.