Reviewing a new U2 album is a difficult task. The reason is because U2 is almost like a brother or child to me. I don’t have a son, but I can imagine what it must be like to evaluate your own son’s performance at some task: he’s your son, so you want to think the best of him, and you want him to excel, but since he’s your son, you also expect a little more out of him. Maybe sometimes it’s hard to be entirely pleased?
U2 holds a very high place in my music-listening life. I’ve seen them live four times. There was a time when I could play the entire “Boy” album on guitar. My band played “I Will Follow” probably more than any other song in our repertoire. And when it came to my attention early on that some of the guys in U2 were Christians, I thought I’d finally found what I was looking for.
“Songs of Innocence” is the 13th studio album by U2. It was released on Sept. 9 with no preliminary announcement or promotional hype. Most surprising, however, was that the album was released to iTunes customers for free in what Apple claimed was the “largest album release of all time.” A more official album release (with more official album art work) is slated for Oct. 13.
All the gimmickry surrounding the release of this album might detract from the question of whether it is any good. I’m happy to report that it actually is. Admittedly there is an indie rock snob in me that finds the album kind of bland and conventional. “Every Breaking Wave” sounds like an FM power ballad that any Top 40 rock band could pull off. It’s not that there is anything intrinsically wrong with a mainstream rock song; I just never thoughtU2 would be cranking them out. “Cedarwood Road” begins with a guitar riff that pretends to be Jimmy Page, but comes across as pretty puny and juvenile in comparison. And then there’s the opening track, “The Miracle (Of Joey Ramone),” which pays homage to one of the great ground-breaking punk bands of all time, but does so through a stadium rock tune that was precisely what the Ramones stood against.
The review of the album at Allmusic.com sums it up well: “Where the U2 of the 90s looked forward, the 2014 U2 are looking back.” If U2’s game plan for the future is to settle into a posture of looking back, then maybe it’s time to call it a day.
But for now, for at least one more album, “Songs of Innocence” proves that U2 can still master its winning formula. “California,” “Volcano” and “Raised by Wolves” will probably go down as U2 classics, and will be worth the price of admission to hear live. There are singable hooks galore on the record, which gives the album a clear advantage over the flat and bloated “No Line on the Horizon,” their previous album. And the album is impressively consistent from start to finish, as repeated listenings reveal the melodic staying power of almost every one of these songs.
Lyrically, Bono makes some strong statements. In the haunting “Sleep Like a Baby Tonight,” my favorite song on the album, Bono addresses the topic of sexual abuse in the church, singing, “Hope is where the door is when the church is where the war is.” On “Song for Someone,” he gives a poignant description of having been saved from the penalty of sin but not yet from the power of sin: “I’m a long way from your hill of Calvary, and I’m a long way from where I was and where I need to be.” Probably the best line comes from “Cedarwood Road” — “A heart that is broken is a heart that is open.”
U2 has been consistently active and relevant for almost 35 years now, which is something that can’t be said of any other band in the history of rock music. That’s an enormous achievement. Perhaps we can excuse them for playing it so utterly safe on this record. Let’s just hope that on the next release, they start looking forward again.