When I became a fan of U2, it was still cool to do so. Something happened in the past decade that made them one of the most divisive bands out there. Maybe it has something to do with Bono’s constant presence, their clear desire to be viewed as important, or the fact that much of the most successful rock of the past decade can be traced back to them. The response to Songs Of Innocence has centered almost totally around its delivery method, when it suddenly appeared in the cloud drive of every iTunes user. For those who hate U2, it was just one more reason to do so. I’m a devoted fan, and I was even a little skeptical. My skepticism is because I never warmed up to No Line On The Horizon, the only other album they’ve released since How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb in 2004. I gave it a lot of chances, but ultimately I found it kind of fuzzy and overwrought, long on sonic ideas but short on actual content.
That’s a lot of background info, but it’s necessary to understand my response to Songs Of Innocence. I wasn’t given the weeks of buildup to this album. It just plopped in my lap suddenly, at a time when my enthusiasm for U2 was dominated by an album I found disappointing. Around 2005 I would have eagerly gobbled up anything U2 put out, but in 2014 I am pretty jaded about them. The early going of Songs Of Innocence began to confirm my fears. There were some pretty melodies, but they all sounded very standard-issue to me. Certainly “Every Breaking Wave” and “Iris (Hold Me Close)” were surging anthems from a band who writes surging anthems in their sleep. I didn’t really dislike anything I heard, but it felt disappointingly expected after a five year hiatus.
But then came the second half of the album, beginning with “Volcano.” It opens with that slap bass that Adam Clayton favored in the early 1980s. “Raised By Wolves” also feels like something from the Steve Lillywhite era, intense and driving, yet clean and refined. “Cedarwood Road” is as heavy as the album gets, but without any of the meathead riffs that plagued older rockers like “Vertigo” and “Get On Your Boots.” The final trio of songs, “Sleep Like A Baby,” “This Is Where You Can Reach Me,” and “The Troubles,” end the album on a disquieting, perfect note. They pulse with menace, bolstered by Bono’s vocals and lyrics that draw from dark themes of separation and carelessness. It’s like the inverse of All That You Can’t Leave Behind, which was front-loaded with its best songs. Here the back half is anything but the standard inspirational U2. It’s intense and focused, and never as blandly inspirational as their weakest 21st Century output has been.
The quality of the second half actually bolsters the first half. “California (There Is No End To Love)” sounds a lot less gooey when it will soon be leavened by the darkness of the rest of the album. “Song For Someone” is an earnest love anthem that curdles slightly when placed on the same album as “The Troubles,” itself a song about dissolution and breaking up. Not only that, but I realized I was mentally replaying many of the songs in the early part of the album. The hook of “Every Breaking Wave” has simmered in my memory for the past week without me realizing it. That never happened with No Line On The Horizon.
It helps that the lyrics feel a lot more intentional this time around. Bono is not an ace lyricist, but he’s capable of great work now and then. This is easily his best stuff since Pop, another darker album that allowed itself to end in an unsettled place. This is what elevates the new album over the likes of Atomic Bomb, which had the hooks in place but was dominated with forced lyrics that needed a few more revisions. The feel liberated from their need to make broad statements, and instead it feels like a band reaching deep down and being honest. There are still a few inspirational cliches, but they are used in environments where they are part of something more specific.
As good albums go, Songs Of Innocence isn’t really a surprising album like Achtung Baby or Zooropa. But bands in their fourth decade are past the need to reinvent themselves. The truth is that U2 hasn’t sounded this engaged in years, and they have the melodies to keep the lyrical and sonic ideas from drifting away. I actually think it’s their best album since Achtung Baby, though I don’t know if that means it’s an actual masterpiece. Mostly it means that it’s the album I hoped for from U2 at this point in their careers, but not the one I thought I’d actually get.