There’s something Bono once said that sticks in my mind as impossibly Bono-in-a-nutshell and emblematic of U2 as a band in whole post 2000. It might not be exactly what he said, I may be misremembering it, but it doesn’t matter. He probably said it, and probably would/will say it again. Its utter Bononess is undeniable. He was praising Johnny Cash on the occasion of the Man in Black’s death. Bono said, amongst other flowery eulogizing, that “his voice was like honey and locusts.”
Please take a moment to punch something remotely Bono-face-shaped near you.
That’s the overriding thought bouncing around my head with Adam Clayton’s Viagra basslines and Edge’s five-o’clock-shadowed riffs when listening to the “surprise” new U2 iLbum, Songs of Innocence (ugh). The Irish stadium dinosaurs wrestle with the same issue any group faces on its thirteenth album, three-plus decades into their career. (For perspective, the thirteenth Rolling Stones album was Black and Blue, but chronologically Mick and Keef were at Bridges to Babylon at this point in their life.) You’re damned if you experiment, damned if you don’t. Here, they don’t.
The public smacked U2, album sales wise, with its prior offering, the Berliners-on-vacation-in-Morocco No Line on the Horizon. Or As-salamu Alaykum, Baby, if you will. Which makes Songs of Innocence (oof) an Apology Album. Thing is, they’ve already made the mea culpa, “our-rebid-for-the-biggest-band-in-the-world” record with All That You Can’t Leave Behind, fourteen years ago. Even the new LP title shows the band cautiously approaching the public with its hands up. Indeed, Songs of Innocence (christ) smells of lotus and the airport like ATYCLB and the following HTDAAB, albeit pressed into the Danger Mouse mold as to sonically mimic his work with Broken Bells, Black Keys, Beck, Gorillaz, Gnarls Barkley, et al. It practically comes packaged with a Super Bowl.
Here is how it breaks down track by track.
“The Miracle (of Joey Ramone)”
No, that’s the actual title. Even the Manic Street Preachers are snickering at that one. Please take a moment to pile drive a Bono-face-shaped pillow near you. Okay, ready? Bono singing “pilgrim” count: two. The chorus goes, “everything I ever lost now has been returned,” which would have been the album title if not being exactly like that other one. Oh, it sounds like “Vertigo” on heavy dose of pinot noir and Cinnarizine.
“Every Breaking Wave”
Before the release of every U2 album Bono “accidentally” leaks a tune by blasting it out the windows of his French Riviera home. Shockingly, it was not this one (that’d be a couple tracks down), the one about the sea. Good thing some things are too on the nose even for Bono. The song kicks off desperately like “With or Without You” but coasts innocuously like the new Coldplay.
“California (There Is No End to Love)”
Every single parenthetical subtitle on this album is a uppercut to the soul’s gonads. Bono alludes to Hollywood (“everyone’s a star”) and citrus fruit (“blood orange sunset”). There are echoes of the Beach Boys with Bono and the Edge chanting “Santa Barbara” a la “Barbara Ann” as if it were grace over sushi. Because of course. Overall, “California” is the shallow, spiritual yoga fuck-buddy to “New York.” If this band penned a tune about Chicago, you know there would be bits about “the wind,” “Curtis” and “hot dogs.” Goddam church bells open the track.
“Song for Someone”
This would be the song billowing from Bono’s Riviera vacation chateau like translucent white curtains. The slow-dance ballad tries to humbly dress its grandness in an aww-shucks pronoun like “Someone” when it clearly pompously means “Everyone.” A quarter century ago, it would have been the soundtrack to stepped-on toes at the prom. Now it comes off as soundtrack filler for a Rachel McAdams flick.
“Iris (Hold Me Close)”
Ah, there are those trademark Edge guitar licks. “The universe is beautiful but cold,” Bono croons. That’s really all you know to figure out how this one goes. A schmear of vocoder vocals can’t help make this anything but U2-by-numbers. Which is generally the target on this safe comeback attempt.
The upbeat rocker here also starts with V, just to hammer the point. Unlike “Vertigo,” however, the production is polite. Twangy surf guitar licks and the refrain of “You are rock & roll” fail to raise the mild breeziness. Five years ago, this would be been awkwardly fussed with to death, like “Get on Your Boots,” which at least would have been interestingly embarrassing. Sure to be reluctantly but prescriptively used over a montage of football highlights.
“Raised by Wolves”
“Face down on a broken street, there’s man in the corner in a pool of misery,” Bono opens before evoking the Red Sea in a schmaltzy number about gun violence…or runaways…or heroin use…or the ghetto or something. The sounds of chopped up breathing try to make the thing new-wave its way into a sort of Peter Gabriel art-pop staccato, but end up in the realm of a middle aged man having an orgasm/heart failure.
Considering “Cedars of Lebanon” and the “cherry blossom tree” in this song’s lyrics, Bono is seeking inspiration from flooring samples. At this point do I need to even point out his spiel about flowers and the Bible? Meanwhile, the Edge copies his hot lick from “Bullet the Blue Sky” to far lesser effect.
“Sleep Like a Baby Tonight”
I realize I might by now come off as U2 hater. Though, when I mentioned writing up this record, everyone in the office made a face like I asked them to smell an old yogurt I found in the back of the fridge, I honestly had some hope for it. Achtung, Baby is a masterpiece, and I’ll argue Zooropa and Pop are misunderstood equals to anything Radiohead did that gets them free massages for life. Heck, even No Line on the Horizon would have been a lovely impactful whole with a trim of the goofy outliers (“Boots,” “Crazy”). Built from little more than Giorgio Moroder–esque synths and Bono’s “Lemon” falsetto, “Sleep” is far and away the most intriguing bit of this batch, one that could have easily fit between “Miami” and “Mofo.” You do realize that U2’s current mediocrity is entirely the public’s fault. Whenever the band crafts something fresh, fans dump on the band, crying for more echoing Edge Guitar Riffs™ that he probably wishes he never invented. Which is why bands need to break up.
“This Is Where You Can Reach Me Now”
At this point we are into the quasi-interesting Songs of Innocence (barf) that might have been. While heavily costumed in Danger Mouse production techniques—pitched up keyboards, dry drums, treble, warm bass—to the point of mimicking the latest Portugal. The Man, the cut at least takes some risks with wah-wah guitars, even if Bono can’t help himself with going on about “soldiers.”
Another Danger Mouse touchstone—spaghetti westerns. Broad strokes of that here, with big sky strings and a slow percussive trot. Guest vocals from Lykke Li are a saving grace, as her voice drifts in like tumbleweed and lilac… Oh fuck, now I’m doing it.
U2's Songs of Innocence (kill me) has already been downloaded to your iCloud. Really.