U2 – Songs of Innocence (review)

U2 – Songs of Innocence (Island) review

The band boldly released the album on iTunes FOR FREE

Songs of Innocence, U2’s thirteenth album, is both an in-depth look back and a brash move forward.  As the album title implies, many of the songs deal with life in the early stages of the band – something revealed clearly in the frank liner notes.  But, by giving this record away for free, it represents a huge risk – one the band hopes will pay off.

If you look back at their previous album, 2009’s No Line on the Horizon sold a paltry 1 million copies in the US.  Yet, the tour for that same record became the highest-grossing concert tour of all-time – $736 million.  So, the band is hoping that lightning strikes twice.  U2 are not the first band to give away an album for free – many, from Radiohead to Prince, have done it already.  Unique is the way the band made it available, mysteriously showing up in every iTunes user’s library (an estimated half a billion people).  The exposure alone should help generate interest for their upcoming tour.

After the detached and meandering No Line album, the band decided to refocus and delve into their roots.  The album opens with “The Miracle (Of Joey Ramone).” Driven by a very simple punk riff and repetitive chanting of “whoa oh,” Bono reminisces about hearing the punk rock legend for the first time – “Everything I ever lost / now has been returned / in the most beautiful sound / I’d ever heard.”

Another change for the band is in producers. For their entire career, the band has rotated Steve Lillywhite, Daniel Lanois, Brian Eno, and Flood in and out of records.  Songs of Innocence marks the first time the band has moved out of their comfort zone to work with a new person (in this case, Danger Mouse).  The results are like a new coat of paint – their classic sound is in tact, but the band sounds incredibly reenergized.

And that is the one quality that seems to define this album – youthful vitality.

While some of this looking back has a wistful lean, others reveal wounds that still have not healed –  “Iris (Hold Me Close)” is a song about Bono’s mother, whom he lost when he was only 14.  The track begins with ethereal, ghost-like vocals, before building into a very classic-sounding U2 song – like something off of October.

“Every Breaking Wave” is extremely melodic and Bono’s voice sounds fantastic – bearing none of the rasp that had begun to creep in on previous records.  “California (There is No End to Love)” is one of the real surprises – opening with a very Beach Boys-like wash of vocals, something you probably never thought you’d hear on a U2 record. “Song For Someone” features an element rarely heard on a U2 record – acoustic guitars.

There is a conscious effort on several tracks to evoke sounds of the past – “Volcano” reminds of Echo & the Bunnymen, with its fat bass and danceable rhythm, while “This is Where You Can Reach Me” has a ska feel that is a throwback to early Eighties punk.

The strangest track on the album, “Sleep Like a Baby Tonight,” begins with a heavy, repetitive synth line, then features some of the most distorted guitar the Edge has ever laid to tape.  The fitting ending sounds like a music box lullaby.

The disc ends with a typical moody ballad – in this case “The Troubles,” featuring Swedish singer Lykke Li

Eleven songs, clocking in at just under 50 minutes, the album seems like a perfect length – not too long, not too short.  And every one of the tracks has a melodic hook.

We tend to devalue things that we get for free.  But, don’t let the lack of a price fool you – Songs of Innocence is one of U2’s finest albums of the last twenty years.  —Tony Peters