@U2 Staff Review: Songs Of Innocence is a Winner
@U2, September 19, 2014
(As we've done with each U2 album since All That You Can't Leave Behind, several members of the @U2 staff have written short reviews of U2's latest album, Songs Of Innocence. Those are presented here in alphabetical order by author.)
Put simply, I love Songs Of Innocence. It's U2's most energetic and cohesive album since their Achtung Baby reinvention. While the music is undeniably classic U2, the lyrics are Bono's most personal to date. The album's thematic parallels to Boy, along with a sound suited for the 2010s, make for a unique record. Tracks such as "The Miracle (Of Joey Ramone)," "Every Breaking Wave" and "Cedarwood Road" stand out as fresh, fully realized takes of previous efforts. It's not hard to imagine these songs as mainstays in U2's live arsenal for years to come. But this is not to say that Songs Of Innocence is without flaws. The carousel of producers hinders the overall flow of the album, an issue made worse by a less-than-optimal tracklist. There are occasions when the album stumbles over an awkward hook or lyric. Regardless, it's still an excellent album. It is not destined for greatness, but it does have a home in the top tier of U2's catalog. With Songs Of Innocence, U2 are finally modern again.
I think this album is very rock ’n’ roll but with some beautiful ballads, which means it is the U2 we know and love. Edge, Larry and Adam are playing very well, their sound is so mature, and Bono's voice is better than ever. It's incredible how they can reinvent themselves as musicians but keep the same essence.
The album is also very personal and true with meaningful lyrics. The "tribute songs," like "The Miracle (Of Joey Ramone)," "California (There Is No End To Love)" and "This Is Where You Can Reach Me Now,” show how the respective groups -- The Ramones, Beach Boys and The Clash -- have influenced U2. At the same time, songs like "Iris," "Raised By Wolves" and "Cedarwood Road" are the background of U2’s adolescence, when they formed the band.
All of this is important to express who they really are because it tells us a story: theirs. We need the past to understand the present and do the future. Besides, you can find cohesion connecting all the songs; it's a whole. That's why, for me, Songs Of Innocence is already a classic U2 album. It's historical.
I love the textures and ambience that Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois have created for U2 over the years, but now with Songs Of Innocence, I can hear what No Line On The Horizon would have sounded like if it had been given some vigorous shakes, as a fine carpet will need from time to time to bring its pile and hues back to life. Songs Of Innocence is a hungry grab of all the good stuff of early U2 played by the band that became latter-day U2. What I hear sounds all at once fresh, simple, intricately composed, intimate and inviting. Favorite tracks right now are "Iris (Hold Me Close)" and "This Is Where You Can Reach Me Now," but the whole album is a brisk journey from a joie de vivre to a strident facing-the-facts of there being two (at the least) different Irelands, Americas, believers, doubters, lovers, haters and Bonos, as well as you's and me's -- all of which are in need of reconciliation. Thank you Danger Mouse, Paul Epworth and Ryan Tedder: You just might be the Eno, Lanois and Steve Lillywhite of U2's future.
Some albums hit you instantly. Some are "growers" that require work on the part of the listener. I didn't have very high expectations for the new U2 album. At first glance, I thought that Songs Of Innocence was over-produced, perhaps too slick. I was underwhelmed, yet grateful just to have new music from U2. This album was either going to be a "grower" or another disappointment, like No Line On The Horizon or How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb.
That night, I listened to Songs Of Innocence while lying in bed with the lights out, using a pair of quality headphones. It finally clicked. Four things sealed the deal for me:
1. Adam and Larry really shine throughout the album.
2. The brilliance of "Every Breaking Wave" and "Song For Someone." Classic U2 songs. Perfect future singles.
3. Edge's guitar at 3:52 of "Sleep Like A Baby Tonight" mixed with the chimes. I only wish this could have played out longer.
4. "The Troubles" -- in my opinion, the best album closer U2 have done since "Wake Up Dead Man" on Pop.It's not a perfect album, but it's definitely better than I expected. Rating: 8.5 out of 10.
Songs Of Innocence reminds me of Janus, the two-faced Roman god who looks into both the past and the future (and is the namesake of the calendar year's first month). The album is a reflection on U2's past that also serves as a preview of the future of the band's sound. It sounds instantly familiar but is also contemporary and fresh. This record is immediately accessible to longtime fans, casual listeners and newcomers in a way that No Line On The Horizon was not. Bits and pieces from just about every other U2 LP can be heard on SOI, essentially making it a kind of U2 highlight reel. Yet this is a cohesive album, tied together by the intensely personal themes that are portrayed musically with a raw, "dirty" sound. The mix adds to the intimacy by emphasizing the vocals, while the guitar has a more supporting role than on previous albums. Make no mistake, though: All four band members are at the top of their respective games. SOI is a brilliant, tightly produced, melody-driven update to the trademark U2 sound that was well worth the five-and-a-half year wait.
Listening to Dave Fanning on 2FM last week play the first release of new U2 material, I wasn't sure what to expect. It had been five years since the release of No Line On The Horizon, which needed a few listens for me to appreciate it. That, coupled with the dramas of recording after No Line -- writer's block, ditching producers, promises of Edge being on fire -- left me a bit skeptical of what was to come!
What transpired upon hearing the album was that perhaps this was the only time since the release of Achtung Baby that I was hooked from the start. Give or take one or two tracks, here was an album that wouldn’t make me hit the skip button repeatedly on my iPod or go for the beer/bathroom break at a U2 show. This really surprised me, as I am quite the cynic, and I really hadn't expected this to happen!
"Cedarwood Road," "Volcano" and "Raised By Wolves" are standout tracks for me. Vocally, Bono sounds better than ever, but he really stands out on "The Troubles" with Lykke Li. If it's relevance and radio airplay U2 are after, this song will be the one to achieve that.
In Songs of Innocence, U2 have released a concept album. But as concept albums go, this is a subtle one. It has great melodies, abundant riffs and very personal lyrics, culminating in thoughtful reflections of a period of growing up and living in Dublin. I am particularly impressed by the sonic qualities of this album -- a little research determines that U2 have studiously avoided a modern sound, and managed to transport themselves to the late '70s and early '80s with their producers. A quick look at the album credits shows they have used a variety of studios that all have one thing in common: vintage studio equipment. (For the sound nerds, the Neve recording desks from the early 1970s have been used on all the tracks.) Time will tell, but at the moment I feel that SOI is almost a companion album to Boy -- this time with the benefit of hindsight and living a life. For a band entering its 39th year of existence, SOI is an extraordinary brave album to be making at this stage of their career. But amazingly, they pull it off with some aplomb. Bring on Songs Of Experience!
It has been over five years since the last U2 album. I worried that I would like anything they released simply because it was new, but would fall out of favor with it as time moved forward. Since Achtung Baby, I haven't found a U2 album where I felt compelled to start with Track 1 and listen to all the songs in order. I feel this way about my favorite U2 albums. I don't feel like this about my less-than-favorite ones.
On the first listen to Songs Of Innocence, I immediately liked it. On the second and third listen, I realized just how personal the lyrics were to the band's beginnings. Subsequent listenings showed me that while the lyrics spoke to early U2, the music spanned the varying styles of their career. "The Miracle" sounds like "Vertigo." "Volcano" could be off Boy or War. "Song For Someone" is "With Or Without You." It improves with each listen as I hear a new layer, a new nod to the past, a new sound.
Quite simply, I love Songs Of Innocence. I just need to make sure I have 49 minutes available each time I hit play.
When I first listened to Songs Of Innocence, I didn't have specific expectations other than "I hope it's worth the long wait." I wasn't disappointed. Although the themes on the album are not new to longtime U2 fans, the more personal approach works better than the third-person perspective of some songs from No Line On The Horizon. The songs that stand out to me are "Song For Someone," "Raised By Wolves," "Every Breaking Wave" (although I had to get used to its polished shape at first, having heard it live), "The Troubles" and "Sleep Like A Baby Tonight." There is no song on it that I really don't like, which is a first for me. I do tend to skip the intro of "California,” and I don't care much for "This Is Where You Can Reach Me Now," but other than that, I love the complete album. It has a sense of wholeness, which is why I've listened to the album so far only in its intended order. Usually, I'm a big fan of the shuffle button, but this time that's not the case.
So all in all: Well done, U2, and I'm looking forward to Songs Of Experience.
After all of Bono's talk about "relevance" and wanting U2's new music to be played in clubs and on the radio, I have spent the time between NLOTH and Songs Of Innocence feeling some dread. So imagine my surprise that Songs Of Innocence has turned out to be not only a rock album, but also one of their best since the hallowed ‘90s. This is what How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb should have been.
I'm usually not a fan of U2's rockier works as opposed to their atmospheric ones, but I really enjoy the muscular, tight rock of the album. That's not to say the album doesn't have its experimental moments, with songs like "Raised By Wolves," "Sleep Like A Baby Tonight" and "The Troubles."
I'm also pleased that I haven't found any cringe-worthy lyrics on the album, and that there's not a single song I feel compelled to skip when I listen to it, which may be a first for me with a U2 album. The lyrics are also strikingly personal and vulnerable, and I think paint an interesting portrait of a young Bono that has never really came out so explicitly in their music before.
Ultimately, I'm beyond pleased that my expectations for this one were wrong.
Aaron J. Sams
I'm already waking up singing songs. "Iris," "Sleep Like A Baby Tonight" and "Volcano" have all been on my mind in the morning. "The Troubles" has gotten under my skin; it's an earworm I can't get out of my head. Lykke Li's voice haunts me. "Every Breaking Wave" takes me back to my European vacation in 2010. But my favorite song is turning out to be "This Is Where You Can Reach Me Now." The second half of the album reminds me of the experimental side of U2 I love but has felt muted lately. Sadly, I struggle with the first few songs, some perfectly good pop music, but lacking some punch and feeling too safe. "California" has reached the level of dislike that only "Wild Honey" has reached before. I struggle to listen and already it is skipped more than it is played. Overall, I'm enjoying the album and it probably sits in the middle of their catalog if choosing my favorites, although time and familiarity seem to push it higher each day.
With my favorite bands, I look forward to new music to listen for signs of the personal and professional experiences of band members. Human nature is that our experiences influence our creativity, and U2 are no exception.
For me, Songs Of Innocence bears the fingerprints of Bono and The Edge's induction into the world of musical theater. The mixture of sounds reminds me of a musical soundtrack. The vocals of some songs seem repetitive and at times disjointed from the flow of the accompanying music, again giving a live theater quality. I also hear a distinctive Coldplay-esque quality to some songs. The most prominent example of this to my ear is "Every Breaking Wave."
My overall feeling is that it’s a typically unique U2 album. Some songs I like, some songs I skip, and I will add a couple of gems to my list of favorites: "Cedarwood Road," "The Miracle" and "The Troubles." There are examples of poetic phrases and lyrical truths. There are bold and dominant guitar riffs and sequences by both The Edge and Adam. All in all, I'm loving Songs Of Innocence -- and the price was only icing on the cake!
(c) @U2, 2014.