These are troubling times for U2. After the floundering experimentation of the 1990s, typified by the divisive (to say the least) Pop album and tour, the Irish rockers found a sense of purpose and renewal in the new millennium by setting their sights on world domination once more. Bono made his intentions clear at the 2001 Grammys, U2 were going to reclaim the title of biggest band in the universe, by hook or by crook. To their immense credit, the aging rockers actually pulled it off. All That You Can't Leave Behind with its lead single "Beautiful Day" and the "Vertigo" fronted How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb topped charts across the world: Bono was a man of his word.
The problem for U2 in the 21st century is that bigness, particularly bigness for rock bands, is an illusion. The monoculture, the mainstream, whatever you may choose to term it, is simply the largest minority no longer holding the cultural capital it once did. Measuring accomplishment by chart positions feels archaic, while slumping sales may be used to beat an old band in decline, no one bats an eyelid when a new album hits No.1, because, quite frankly, its easier to achieve than ever before. In an age of self-sufficient niches and eclecticism, superstardom is measured by media presence and brand strength, rather than hit records.
In response to this ever changing climate (and with the relative failure of 2009's No Line On The Horizon), U2 find themselves in the unenviable position of needing a weather man to tell them which way the wind blows. The event (or non-event to be precise) album has proved the one sure fire way of galvanising the public at large. Bowie and Beyonce mastered the art: dropping their hotly anticipated comeback records completely out of the blue. The former relied on mystery and distance to whip the public into a frenzy, while the latter offered a new musical-video experience while simultaneously side stepping her usual ferocious PR machine to catch the world off guard.
The quality of both albums ultimately ensured triumph, but it was what the marketing big wigs describe as FOMO (fear of missing out) that appeared to create a bigger buzz than the most expensive marketing campaigns. The shock, the novelty of the moment, the media void that a million and one Twitter voices and Tumblr blogs rushed to fill created a tangible happening. U2 appear to have got the wrong end of the stick. Running to their friends at Apple (ensuring a massive payday in the process) they released Songs Of Innocence without prior warning, but eschewed the thrill (and inherent risk) of slipping the record out in silence, by playing at Apple's latest product launch. Worse still, this corporate collaboration saw Songs Of Innocence implanted in the libraries of any and every registered iTunes customer, without their consent.
The insidious stench of collusion and direct marketing has already dogged the album's launch. Unsurprisingly, fans of all stripes do not like having music foisted upon them - it plays to our collective worst fears about the powers of the digital giants and our own vulnerability in the internet age - even if the intrusion comes in the form of a "gift". The backlash was inevitable, but the trouble ultimately lies in U2's struggle to understand the fundamental premise behind the guerrilla release. The Irishmen bypassed any potential fear of missing out, by making it almost impossible for anyone to avoid their new album. The imagery was uncomfortable, Bono espousing a new marketing diktat: you will not miss out, or perhaps, you cannot hide, least of all from U2.
In a perverse but predictable, and not altogether undeserved turn of events, FOMO did come into effect: not as fans leapt to express their joy upon discovery, but as they rushed to their keyboards to see who could most eloquently or vitriolically express their disgust at having woken up to find the new U2 album on their phone. But hey, U2 can console themselves with another great marketing diktat - all publicity is good publicity - right?
The medium may well be the message: Songs Of Innocence will, in all likelihood, be remembered for the manner of its release rather than its artistic content. This would be a great shame as U2 are at a fascinating point in their career; for the first time in decades their monolithic grandeur is coming apart at the seams. 2009's solemn and conflicted No Line On The Horizon was (entirely unintentionally) an album that chimed with the times. Putting its dad rock outbursts ("Put Your Boots On") and its desperate last stab at a hit ("I'll Go Crazy If I Don't Go Crazy Tonight") to one side, the insular, Eno driven, LP was a low key, tonal, record that saw U2 exploring their own sonic niche - an unashamedly 21st century way for a rock band to operate.
Songs Of Innocence is a clearly designed change of tact. The Eno/Lilywhite/Lanois comfort zone has been jettisoned in favour of new, younger, producers (chiefly, Danger Mouse). This time last year, U2 had released a lead single (which does not appear on Songs Of Innocence) and were beginning to appear on talk shows as they worked with chart topping electronica king pin Avcii. The suggestion being that U2 were preparing a second stab at a dance record, which they abruptly scrapped. In its stead, 12 months later than expected, stands what Bono has described as a deeply personal album that harks directly back to his youth.
This is a thrilling concept. U2 have dealt in stadium sized severity for so long that the idea of a confessional offering is undeniably alluring. What would happen if U2 dropped their guard, stripped away the bigness that has defined their third decade and let the world see Paul David Hewson rather than Bono?
Sadly, Songs Of Innocence doesn't remotely begin to answer this question. Sonically, the record takes the smooth tonal textures of No Line On The Horizon and trims them into more traditional pop structures, before overlaying a healthy dose of instrumental muscularity and vaguely haunting, but irresistibly melodic, vocal cries (woah-ahs). The result is certainly not akin to intimacy. U2 appear to have set aside their typically gargantuan hooks and looked to delicate addictive tonal chants that everyone from Arcade Fire and The Maccabees to Coldplay and Imagine Dragons have been employing in recent years. Masters of serene control and sophisticated sonics, U2 have managed to instil a sense of delicacy into even the most primal grunt or cloying cry.
Bono is certainly given more scope by his new sonic surroundings, but without foreknowledge or a helpfully instructive title (like "The Miracle (Of Joey Ramone)") it is almost impossible to discern what each supposedly precise and personal track is actually discussing. This is still U2 and, even when detailing childhood inspiration or meeting a loved one for the first time, universality reigns. They've spent so long painting with the broadest of brushstrokes that they can't quite give themselves over to the narrow and definitive pen point.
Behind its blend of chugging guitar work and flailing cries "Cedarwood Road" is driven by quickfire couplets, loaded with specific narrative content that disappointingly disappears as the nominal chorus approaches. The end result is strangely enigmatic, recalling a mid-album effort from the Red Hot Chili Peppers' seminal By The Way - minus the killer chorus. Still, "Cedarwood Road" feels like a bastion of clarity compared to the two tracks that buttress it. "Raised By Wolves" is frustratingly neutered. Bono details bloody violence on the streets, crises of conscience and mysterious sexuality, but the composition is tone deaf. The aching to be cool pacing of the verses and the bland chorus undercut what should have been poignant subject matter. The tonal key driven experimentation of "Sleep Like A Baby Tonight" offers plenty of skeletal, spacious, beauty (Edge's initial flourishes are sublime, before the clunky lead riff arrives), but stands as a painful example of just why a bright spotlight should not be shone on vague, open-ended, songwriting.
This is not to say that Songs Of Innocence is an unpleasant listen. The Edge and Adam Clayton remain in lockstep, creating gorgeous soundscapes with ease - knowing when to inject some genuine heft and dissonance to their otherwise serene productions. Despite the odd clanger, Bono is largely on point on "The Miracle (Of Joey Ramone)", a satisfyingly bold concession to modern arena rock that effectively conveys the thrill of finding a form of self-expression in music for the very first time. "California (There Is No End To Love)" is a joy, starting with warped Beach Boys refrains it bursts into life. Bouncing atop Clayton's bassline Bono crafts a really rather excellent post-U2 single. It might be strange to hear U2 so clearly echoing the bands that they directly influenced, but there is no denying how damn good they are at it.
The album perhaps best summed up by its closer, "The Troubles". Not a sequel to "Sunday Bloody Sunday", but a tonally delightful musing on the damage caused by an unwinding relationship. The bitterness and pain is, yet again, frustratingly imprecise and woolly, but U2 deftly avoid mawkishness by fully embracing a sense of placeless drift. This is not big bulldozing sentiment or pile-driving pop, but it is quietly rewarding artistry. 12 tracks of this quality could have made Songs Of Innocence sneakily essential, as is, U2 have served up masterfully recorded mediocrity - pleasant, but not necessarily pleasing.
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