Listen Closer: Second Impressions of U2’s Songs of Innocence

U2 songs of innocence large

Hey, U2 fans, music lovers, and iPhone users… you’re invited! I’m joining Dr. Jeff Keuss and others on Monday night, October 13, for a live podcast conversation called “U2, Apple, and the Future of Music.” It’ll be at Hale’s Ales Brewery and Pub in Seattle’s Ballard neighborhood, and the dinner audience will be involved in the conversation, which will eventually be posted online. Want to join the conversation? Get your tickets here.

 

Okay, let’s not waste time talking about distribution methods or the iPhone6. I find all of that to be a huge distraction from the quality and content of the record itself.

Most U2 fans I know want the band to “return” to something. They want the band they heard in 1985, or earlier.

In my experience, great artists don’t repeat themselves. They’re moving targets.

On those occasions after Achtung Baby when Bono and the boys have really stuck their necks out — Zooropa, to some extent, but most notably on 1997’s Pop — they’ve been soundly punished by their fans and the press. And they took those beatings too personally. Me, I loved those records. It takes courage to keep exploring new ideas when the crowd that glorifies you just wants more of the same.

That restlessness, that eagerness to shake things up: That’s what I’ve always loved about U2. I haven’t heard them make a bad record yet. Each one has been exciting and interesting, meaningful and moving. Sure, some of them have been frustrating, even exasperating. (I’ve had mixed feelings about the last three studio albums.) But the prevailing sense on every release is a dedication to capturing a cosmic vision of faith, hope, and love in their music — not just their lyrics, but their music. In the world of emotions and responses that music can evoke, they are determined, above all, to evoke joy. And they know that the only way to do that without sentimentality is to reckon with the brokenness, sadness, and darkness of the world. Nope, they still haven’t found what they’re looking for — they always want to make things new, because they know that the spirit of hope is always in motion and will not be contained by a formula.

So… Songs of Innocence.

No, it won’t be remembered as a classic.

It isn’t a reinvention of Bono’s lyrical style or Edge’s guitar stylings. But Bono’s voice sounds stronger than it has since All That You Can’t Leave Behind, maybe even all the way back to Achtung Baby. And Edge seems to have brought all of his guitars. He refrains from any of his searing, signature solos, and he plays it fairly light in the first half of the record. But then he unloads with moments of big punchy swagger in the second.

They can’t seem to break their worst habit: overzealous crowd-stoking. You can hear them directing the audience, setting up the calls and responses. That’s when they get predictable. That’s when it’s clear they’re too nostalgic for the big arena experiences of their peak years. I’ll have to just go on hoping for more of the brave, experimental U2 records that Achtung Baby, Zooropa, and Pop proved possible.

But I hear something exciting in almost every song here. And I think it has to do with their collaborative spirit. This time, they dumped the producers that were their legendary partners — Daniel Lanois and Brian Eno — and tried out some new chemistry.

For example, they brought in Danger Mouse, the fellow responsible for Gorillaz and Gnarls Barkley and Broken Bells and the Black Keys. And what do you know? This album often sounds like U2 produced by that guy. This record’s a little too preoccupied with hooks and simplistic choruses, just like, well, a Broken Bells record or a Black Keys record. But we also get a playfulness and an up-close-and-personal noise, one that never strays too far from the sound of a four-piece band playing live in a resonant room. And where their last three records often sounded blurry and gauzy and mushy, everything sounds here sounds unbelievably crystal clear.

Some quick track-by-track notes:

“The Miracle (of Joey Ramone)”: This is a worthy tribute to the inspiring effect of the Ramones’ music on Bono… by virtue of being a song that nobody would ever mistake for anybody but U2. It resonates as if Bono took the band’s power cord and plugged it back into the very same source of inspiration that first launched them into music history. That isn’t to say like they sound like the U2 of ’70s; it’s just to say that they bring all of the tricks they’ve learned over the years to a song that positively explodes with youthful energy. While some will think it’s just an inspiring nostalgia trip for the boys — a glorification of the spark that first lit the fires in Bono to “sing like a girl” — it is actually a gospel song about the hope of singing together with all of the world’s lost voices someday. It’s only right that the song would be a big arena-style singalong… even if it does sound as predictable as what an iPhone would produce if it had a program for creating a U2 single.

Watch Bono and the Edge perform an acoustic version of “The Miracle (of Joey Ramone)” here.

“Every Breaking Wave” — A personal confession of trend-chasing, of being tossed about by cultural whims, to increasing dissatisfaction. The chorus is one of the best lyrics Bono’s penned in a long, long time:

If you go
If you go your way and I go mine
Are we so
Are we so helpless against the tide?
Baby, every dog on the street
Knows that we’re in love with defeat
Are we ready to be swept off our feet
And stop chasing
Every breaking wave

But the opening strains are unnervingly similar to “With or Without You,” and the rapid-fire lyrics and forced rhymes of the bridge nearly shatter the song’s hard-won power. They seem a little over-eager to pack every moment with something exciting, when the best U2 material allows the songs to breathe, stretch, and gather strength for truly breathtaking ascent. If they’d ditched that rap-like rush for something instrumental, letting Edge’s express what words cannot — or how about giving Larry a spotlight? — the song could have been a great U2 classic.

“California (There Is No End to Love)” — They could’ve left this nod to the Beach Boys, this remembrance of the band’s first visit to California, off of the album and it wouldn’t have suffered for it. It’s catchy, spirited, fun — it’s a sunny, breezy U2 single. But it’s the song that makes the first half of the album feel too light and airy — and I’m not just talking about the music. It’s almost like they thought, “Well, we’ve sung about almost everywhere else in America. Where’s our California song?” Not necessary.

Having said all of that, the refrain is one that will keep coming back to me:

I’ve seen for myself
There’s no end to grief 

That’s how I know
That’s how I know 
And why I need to know
That there is no end to love…

“Song for Someone” — I’ve heard people saying this is one of those U2 songs that may be sung to God or to a lover. Well, it seems pretty clear to me that it’s a sweet little shout-out to Ali, Bono’s wife. Yes, there’s a line about how he’s “a long way from your Hill of Calvary.” I suspect that’s a reference to the home where she has made sacrifices and raised a family. I just can’t make “a kiss I stole from your mouth” refer to God, or this: “I was told I’d feel nothing the first time / You were slow to heal but this could be the night.” Maybe I’m missing something. Anyway… this is, for me, the most unimaginative song on the record, distinct only for Edge’s acoustic-guitar close-up at the beginning. Powerful, sure — but U2 got this kind of powerful down to a formula a long time ago. Walk on, guys. Walk on.

“Iris (Hold Me Close)” — Bono’s glowing remembrance of his mother is also entangled in sentiments for his wife Ali, which makes sense since Bono lost his mother at a young age. There’s some rare, personal tenderness here in the visual details of his memories: “Iris playing on the strand / She buries the boy beneath the sand…” This plays like the sequel to the song for his father, “Sometimes You Can’t Make It On Your Own.” He even climbs the same ladder of notes, giving both songs the same operatic peak: “I dream … where … you … are” matches “Can you hear … me … when … I … sing?” pretty much exactly.

“Volcano” — Adam Clayton gets a big, big spotlight on this one, and there’s a quality to Bono’s performance that is taking me all the way back to October. Stomping good song. Rolling Stone thinks it’s about Bono’s dark and angry days after the death of his mother, and it might be. He’s sung about that before in “Mofo,” where rock-and-roll becomes his surrogate mother; and lo — the song climaxes in an affirmation that “You are not alone / You and I are rock and roll.

But some of these lyrics may well apply to recent days: Let’s face it — they’ve  struggled to stay on their feet in a music world that is changing at a bewildering rate. This verse could be about U2 being caught in a tug-of-war between their own glorious past and an uncertain future.

The world is spinning fast tonight
You can hurt yourself tryin to hold on
To what you used to be
I’m so glad the past is all gone…

Been out in the wild
Been out in the night
Been out of your mind
Do you live here or is this a vacation?

“Raised by Wolves” — I like the heavy guitars here, and the personal lyrics. There’s a real ache in Bono’s voice as he sings the sentiments of a childhood friend whose faith was shaken by a violent encounter: “I don’t believe anymore.”

“Cedarwood Road” — Another surprisingly heavy rock song about a friend from Bono’s past. And this one builds to the album’s most glorious height, with Bono roaring, “A heart that is broken is a heart that is open.” It’s a fiery flourish that the U2 of old would have milked for all that it was worth, bringing in a ferocious guitar solo. But no — they hit that high, and the song ends abruptly. Too abruptly? I’m inclined to think so, and I suspect that they’ll carry it even farther live.

“Sleep Like a Baby” — This one didn’t stand out on my first few listens, but now I think it may be the best song on the record. It’s dark and unsettling, with a nasty edge like nothing I’ve heard from them since Pop. I wouldn’t be surprised to see Bono don the MacPhisto horns when he performs this one in concert. [Update: Okay, more than one U2 fan is affirming my suspicion about the “purple robes” detail — that this song is about a priest in a church that people are fleeing in despair, suggesting we should be troubled indeed that he will “sleep like a baby tonight.”)

“This is Where You Can Reach Me Now” — I love the energy, the youthfulness, the hint of 1983’s War here. Bono’s singing like he feels like a teenager, and perhaps that’s because he is one in this song, complaining about the “old man” and rebelling with a vengeance. Rolling Stone’s got the scoop on this one: It’s about the band being inspired by a 1977 Clash show. But surely the “Soldier, soldier” refrain is meant to remind us of those four young guys of War and their militant approach to political rock music.

“The Troubles” — There they are, the U2 I know and love, trying something new by bringing in a guest vocalist. (When was the last time they did that?)

They chose well with Lykke Li, who sounds like a whispering Wim Wenders angel here, coaxing the singer to a realization that he’s allowed himself to become obsessed with other people’s problems — maybe his homeland’s troubles, or maybe the world’s.

The singer seems to be a character who is finally prying his fingers free of causes that preoccupied him, so that he can find his own true self for the first time. For too long, he’s lived in denial of his own problems. And what are those problems? Hard to say, but they sound like they were hurting him… physically.  Otherwise, why is the culmination of the song’s closing prayer about acknowledging that his body is “sacred”?

I love this refrain:

God knows it’s not easy
Taking on the shape of someone else’s pain
God now you can see me
I’m naked and I’m not afraid
My body’s sacred and I’m not ashamed

It’s hard to believe that this kind of creativity and energy is still possible from veteran rockers who are now 54-years-old. (Some of the reviews seem to be punishing them for not still be 28-year-olds. Me, I can’t believe they sound as youthful as they do.)

I certainly don’t expect others to agree. And maybe I’ll soon feel differently. But in a month of heavy personal losses and burdens, I am grateful beyond words for the way this album is giving me songs to sing with joy and defiance, at the top of my lungs, as I drive around in the sunshine.

I’m excited by the way they’ve “progressed” this time; maybe next time they’ll move in the mysterious ways that work best for you. It’s alright. It’s alright. Alright.

Gonna give this one an [81] on the Overst-richter Scale. But I’m tempted to divide the record in two, giving Tracks 1-5 a [75] and Tracks 6-11 an [89].

And here are some write-ups worth reading: Rolling Stone‘s track-by-track reviewThe New Yorker on “The Church of U2,” and NPR’s Ann Powers offers some excellent insights on the State of the Band in “The Dream of Ridiculous Men.

And speaking of ridiculous… did you ever think you’d see U2, Robert Downey Jr., and Graham Norton have a revealing conversation about sunglasses?


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  • Chip

    Re: SFS — While I tend to agree with your conclusion about Ali’s self-sacrifice probably being referenced in the Calvary imagery, Bono also frequently switches the referents for “you” within a song. It would not surprise me at all if Bono’s first sexual experience (which he’s said SFS is about) led him to reflect on Calvary and his own spiritual state (or that remembering that experience causes him now to think of Calvary). This is a songwriter, after all, who often links sexual imagery with God; he’s in many ways a Christian mystic. Under this line of thinking, the song mostly is about Ali, but at one point Bono’s thoughts turn instead to God; it’s not a case of a God/Ali double meaning throughout.

  • Alice

    This is the review of this album that sums up my thoughts about it best. I agree with almost every word. There is just one thing I don’t agree with and that is leaving California off the album. Sure the tune is not very special and at first I didn’t like it very much. I guess they could make dozens more of these songs. But it is the song of the album that makes me dance and sing along. And what I love about it is that it is the song that tells us the theme of the album specifically like none of the other songs do. It is in the lines:

    I’ve seen for myself
    There’s no end to grief
    That’s how I know

    That’s how I know
    And why I need to know that there is no end to love

    The album is called Songs of Innocence but there are pretty dark songs and lines in there. There is not innocence because they did not experience grief or pain, there is innocence (and naivety?) because of the thought that because there is darkness, there must be light as well. The contrast of light and dark comes back in several other songs on the album.

  • Don

    It’s made clear in the liner notes that “Song for Someone” is about Ali. It just makes the most sense when taken in that context. And the lyrics that Jeffrey quoted… whoah. I almost feel like I need to look away. We’re hearing a very, very intimate conversation between lovers.

    Jeffrey touched on this, as well, but I’m amazed at the dark places these lyrics go. “Sleep Like a Baby” enters the mind of a pedophile priest and “The Troubles” also sounds like it could be from the perspective of an abuse victim. The latter track certainly ends on a more redemptive note, but I don’t think U2 has gone this “dark” since the last three songs on Pop.

    Still amazed at how cohesive and relatively simple these songs are considering the over-abundance of pop producers and technicians involved. This album is a slam dunk. A home run. Whatever.

  • Stuart Buck

    Re “Song for Someone” — the kiss theme has cropped up in at least two previous U2 songs that were definitely about religion. “Yahweh” has the line, “Take this mouth, give it a kiss,” and “End of the World” has the line “I kissed your lips and broke your heart.”

    • jeffreyoverstreet

      Yeah, I knew somebody would bring up “Until the End of the World.” But that’s a reference to Judas, and I don’t get a Judas vibe from this song.

      Hey, I could be wrong. Maybe someday Bono will enlighten us about the song. It just feels, like so many songs on this album, like it’s a song about a very specific relationship.

      • Chip

        Yes to the Judas angle per se, but I think Stuart’s larger point is that Bono uses kissing imagery in depicting intimacy with God. Cue also the intimacy of “Your Blue Room,” which Bono said (in at least one interview) could apply equally to a human lover or God — then think of how that imagery got repeated/expanded upon in “Do You Feel Loved,” and how that in turn got repeated/expanded upon in “Yahweh.”