Now that the clamouring over the marketing strategy/ploy/what-have-you of U2‘s surprise new album is done and those offended have figured out how to delete the album from their iPhones, can we now just listen to Songs of Innocence?
Early reviews out of the gate criticize the album for not being as ground-breaking as The Joshua Tree or Achtung Baby — and honestly, how could it possibly be? I’m not entirely sure what people are expecting from U2 in 2014. When the band released All That You Can’t Leave Behind in 2000, it was pretty clear that they were no longer interested in innovating their sound but interested in craft and refinement. Since then, U2 has settled into a comfortable role as one of rock’s elder statesmen.
Every move U2 makes is deftly calculated, so it’s refreshing to see an album from such a huge band that doesn’t have an obvious singles strategy. With a fresh listen to Pop or All That You Can’t Leave Behind, it’s easy to spot the songs that are designed to overtake radio waves. That’s not to say there aren’t single-worthy tracks on Innocence. The album is top-heavy with typical U2 fare (as if the band is a genre unto itself); early tracks like “Every Breaking Wave,” “California (There is No End to Love),” and “Iris (Hold Me Close)” are anthemic and undeniably catchy. The lead single, “The Miracle (Of Joey Ramone),” though, aims high but can’t get off the ground.
Its cover art suggests a tossed-off sort of feel for the album, but it’s also an indication of how the album should be received. Yes, it currently may only be available in the form of ones and zeroes (unless you are one of the lucky and very few that can get your hands on the extremely limited run of vinyl the band is pressing), but Songs of Innocence is designed to be listened to as an LP. And it’s on the second side where the album is strongest: “Raised by Wolves” and “Cedarwood Road” are two of U2’s tougher tracks, while the last three songs are the band’s strongest closing set in some time. “This is Where You Can Reach Me Now” sees the band move like the Clash‘s “The Call Up” and “The Troubles” recalls the sleepy intensity of trip-hop by way of Duran Duran‘s “Come Undone” (with a hook by Lykke Li). Yet, it’s “Sleep Like a Baby Tonight” that’s the album’s best moment. The menacing, slow-motion keyboards indulge the band’s weirder tendencies and make me wish they’d do this more often.
It seems, however, that the strategy to release the album will overshadow anything that’s actually contained on it, which is unfortunate. In terms of the post-2000s U2 canon, it’s one of the band’s better efforts — not as explorative and open as No Line on the Horizon, but far better than the aimless How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb, thanks in part to Danger Mouse‘s terrific production. Songs of Innocence, will always suffer from the release backlash and the seemingly ever-outrageous expectations of the band.