There was a moment during Apple’s big 2014 keynote, that seemed to go off-script. Bono and Apple head honcho Tim Cook were talking and Cook seemed to joke that the new U2 album was free. Bono responded by saying not really free: Apple paid them for it.
Paid them quite a lot, it seems: a report I read this morning suggests U2 was paid something like $100 million by Apple. Even to Monty Burns, that’s a lot of cash. And it was enough to ensure you, me and just about everybody we know got a copy of Songs of Innocence before we even knew it existed.
Anyone who hasn’t heard this record, but wants to is in a small minority (especially compared to the number of people who have it and don’t want it). Either they’re a rare iTunes holdout or, like me, couldn’t figure out how to fuckin’ download the thing. Turns out it’s in your cloud settings someplace, that hazy grey space where Apple can shove anything they want and hackers can take away without anyone noticing (indeed, the timing is a little unfortunate).
Lost in the shuffle is a discussion of if it’s actually good. It’d be easy to write it off as spam, U2 giving away their scraps, an album so bad they wouldn’t dare sell it. Then again, this is a band that released Original Soundtracks 1 with Brian Eno under the pseudonym Passengers. And the less said about that, the better.
Songs of Innocence opens with “The Miracle (of Joey Ramone).” It’s a decisively non-Ramones sounding song, although The Edge’s guitar has a nice crunchy, compressed sound to it. “I was aching to be somewhere near your voice,” sings Bono, about the time when a young him and the band snuck into a club to see the Ramones, inspiring them to start their own band.
I’m tempted to call Songs of Innocence a concept album about youth and looking back in your middle age.It’s not really one, but most of the album’s songs are linked thematically. They’re stamped with U2’s impressions of Ireland from the late 1970s: experiencing punk rock for the first time, witnessing the horrors of domestic terrorism, and escaping with their first trip to America.
It even sounds like something from back then, too. “Volcano” opens with Adam Clayton’s thumping bass, pushed right to the front of the mix. By the chorus, Bono is chanting “Vol-ca-no, something about to blow,” and The Edge is slashing jagged guitar lines. It sounds downright post-punkish and a lot like U2’s early records, at least until the choir joins in.
Likewise, everything comes together on “Raised by Wolves:” The Edges razor-sharp guitar lines, Bono’s chilling lyrics (“I’m in a white van as a red sea covers the ground”), and the band’s slow, tense buildup to the chorus. Bono paints a picture of a bombed-out city street, covered in gore. Bono has claimed he narrowly missed being in the 1974 Dublin bombing himself. If so, he probably knew some of the victims. Hence the line: “If I open my eyes, you disappear.”
Still, there are a few moments where U2 goes back to where they always go. There’s the slowish ballad, “Song for Someone,” the big loud guitar song, “Cedarwood Road,” even a vaguely dance-influenced tune, “This Is Where You Can Reach Me Now.” Sometimes it works, especially when they’re appropriating elements from indie rock: I swear, “Sleep Like A Baby” sounds like Bono’s been listening to CHVRCHES and sometimes it doesn’t: with the touches of strings and keyboards, “California” sounds like a bad Coldplay impression.
I’m sure if you asked Bono, he’d tell you U2 is the biggest band in the world. And on some level he’s probably right: who else would have the sheer audacity to push their new album on so many unsuspecting people, so many of whom couldn’t care less? Given Bono’s massive ego, one shouldn’t be surprised by Songs of Innocence’s sudden appearance in their iTunes library. Or by Apple’s handy tool to scrape it out of your life forever.
What should be surprising is how consistent this record is: it’s been a while since U2 had an album that held together so well, since they had a handful of strong new songs. It’s not quite a return to form, but it’s a welcome return. If nothing else, you’ll get your money’s worth.