A Re-Examination of U2’s ‘Songs of Innocence’

With the publicity surrounding its Apple-sponsored release now a thing of the past, let's examine U2's conversation-starting Songs of Innocence for what it actually is.
Songs of Innocence

Now that the dust has settled, let’s return to the latest U2 album, Songs of Innocence, and get to the bottom of it, shall we? What say we ignore the media hullabaloo, the obligatory mini-biography insert, the wooden appraisal of legacy, you know, the standard machinery of criticism in general, and just focus on the songs on hand?

“The Miracle (of Joey Ramone)” reads well on paper, being the story of these Dublin boys’ first Ramones concert), boasting a crunchy headlining riff. The track is produced ne plus ultra, which is also the reason why many people hate the present deodorized-fresh incarnation of U2.

The song falls a little flat. You have to dig deep to appreciate it, deeper than you’d probably want to; anything more complicated than a half-assed Google search unearthing some simple trivia and you’ll likely pull the plug; we’re not talking Bob Dylan-esque intricacy here. You’ll have to understand what the song means to the band, how it fits into their greater legacy, and how it thematically launches the album.

This is maybe too much work for such a small tune; don’t get me wrong. “The Miracle (of Joey Ramone)” has all the right pieces in all the right places, and that precisely is the problem with U2’s current inductive method of working: lyrical expressions that reach for an arch theme coupled with tried-and-tested instrumental accents that are fitted into a cookie cutter template. What is with U2’s obsession with the pop formula in the ’00s? Every song seems to be fashioned with the same recipe: introduction-verse-pre-chorus-chorus-verse-pre-chorus-chorus-bridge-verse-chorus-conclusion. For a band that made its bones with rambling asymmetric song structures, U2’s obsession with traditional song formats smacks of faintheartedness.

“Every Breaking Wave” is an all time classic U2 song, and is reason enough for them to have made Songs of Innocence. The lyrics are evocative and timeless. The vocals are tender and romantic. The instrumentation is rich and sweeping. The various musical parts all work together in harmony, boasting one of U2’s best-ever bridges. The production is seamless. “Every Breaking Wave” will be one of U2’s most enduring but subtle anthems, standing shoulder-to-shoulder with the likes of “With or Without You” and “One” in ten years time. Mark my words.

“California (There is no End to Love)” is a startling tune of reinvention on first listen. I don’t know who gets the credit here: is it U2, or the various A-list producers? Ultimately, it doesn’t matter when they get it right. Three songs into the album and I feel a little unbalanced, which is a good experience to be had when you know an artist so well. The track’s synthesizers a thing of beauty, and the guitar parts are punchy, out of the Edge’s comfort zone. Here Bono is still being Bono, but slotted just right. The rhythm section does what it is supposed to. In short, “California” is pop music done right for a change; it belongs on the radio, but it won’t get there because it doesn’t sound like U2 should sound.

“Song for Someone” is an awful song to choose for this album: too safe, too ordinary, too dull. This tune derails the momentum of the last two that precede it, and it almost has me reaching for the stop instead of the skip icon. Bono soars here, but the group should have buried this pablum in the B-side pile, or waited for another album of thoughtful strummers to come along. If it’s for the sake of sonic diversity, think again. What did “I’ll Go Crazy if I Don’t Go Crazy Tonight” accomplish on their previous album, No Line on the Horizon (2009), or “A Man and a Woman” on the album before that (2004’s How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb), both of which are better songs than “Song for Someone?”

I struggle with “Iris (Hold Me Close)”, because I know what the song must mean to its author. Like “Sometimes You Can’t Make It on Your Own” from How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb, it’s a self-important song, full of honest, soul-searching emotion about the early death of Bono’s mother, but it doesn’t have the musical thrust to propel the lyric forward. It’s the age-old workshop dilemma: you know the artist across from you has written about a subject that is deeply personal, and they’re nearly brought to tears from reading it aloud. You feel the drama never really lifts from the page, so you reluctantly criticize the artist when he’s at his most vulnerable, but you finesse the criticism just enough to keep the class together.

The indirect anti-chorus of “Iris” is a bold move; the throbbing guitar, not so much. For a guitarist who seemed so innovative in the ’90s, the Edge’s parts are sometimes blunter than anvils these days and I’m sick unto death of the repetition in his playing. Don’t tell me the pulse of “Where the Streets Have No Name” and “City of Blinding Lights” isn’t all over “Iris”. A spooky tune that fits disconnectedly to U2’s back catalogue (“Lemon” from Zooropa and “Tomorrow” from October being the other weirdos).

“Volcano” is one of the cheesiest songs in the U2 canon, with Bono writing himself into the hall of shame with his volcanisms. Adam Clayton, perhaps sensing the baton drop, takes the lead and carries the song single-handedly with some of the funkiest fills this side of Flea. “Volcano” is a decent cut because of its fiery bridge and the gangbuster bass riff at 2:24: “You are rock ‘n’ roll.” Sadly, if you have to say it, you ain’t it.

The album takes a decisive turn for the better when the skitter and skulk of “Raised By Wolves” is set in motion. These next four songs on Songs of Innocence decisively save the career of U2. The lyrics have prosaic depth and the strength of acute observation. The vocals are controlled and understated, simmering under the pressure cooker, venting steam just enough to keep the pot from exploding. The music has a novelistic complexity for a change. The helter-skelter changes in “Raised by Wolves”, the strapping bluegrass chords of “Cedarwood Road”, the ragged bellowing solo of “Sleep like a Baby Tonight”, and the off-kilter squalling crescendos of “This Is Where You Can Reach Us Now” all feature the Edge in top form, showcasing his ability to innovate guitar playing within the modalities of his minimalistic brick-by-brick approach.

Songs seven to ten are the result of a band putting hard work into the studio. Every aspect of the songs, from the playing to the production, is executed flawlessly. What Mullen and Clayton pull off on “This Is Where You Can Reach Us Now” is pretty much unheard of in their back catalogue. U2 has never sounded so funky and been so danceable in such an un-ironic way.

The chilling spareness of “Sleep Like a Baby Tonight” bespeaks of a delicateness only years of blunders and careening can furnish. Why? A song can be too sparse, like “One Step Closer” on How to Dismantle and Atomic Bomb, so bare that a bedeviled listener might fall right in while gazing at his own reflection, and then find himself wading for a hook to pull him out of the deathly still pool. The songs are great but not classic, which is okay, because classic can sometimes be exhausting for a listener, too. These final tracks reveal another heretofore unseen side to the band, with an almost Springsteenian complexity that I’ve been secretly hoping for and waiting upon for nearly a decade. U2 is owed some props for delivering the unexpected against all odds.

“The Troubles” is a good song, but one that belongs on another album, as the guest vocal by Lykke Li simply doesn’t work. This song sounds like something Coldplay would do (and has done). U2 do it better, but not good enough to make me think past the saccharine taste in my mouth.

U2 would have done well to ditch “Song for Someone” and “The Troubles” from the album and instead have brought in the underrated “Invisible”, which features on the Japanese deluxe edition, from the bench. I also would have suggested renaming “This is Where You Can Reach Me Now” to “The Only Weapon (The Clash)” and “Sleep Like a Baby Tonight” to “The Troubles (Sleep Like a Baby)”. A far preferable sequencing of the album would look like this:

1. The Miracle (Of Joey Ramone)

2. California (There is No End to Love)

3. Invisible

4. Every Breaking Wave

5. Iris (Hold Me Close)

6. Raised By Wolves

7. Cedarwood Road

8. The Only Weapon (The Clash)

9. The Troubles (Sleep Like a Baby)