No Line On The Horizon was a sales disappointment, but while it’s not a great album I’m not sure its relative failure had much to do with its quality. It’s more likely that in 2009 any album was going to have disappointing sales, even one by U2. This is supported by the tour that followed, U2360, which went on to become the highest-grossing tour of all time. It obviously spooked U2, because they clearly felt that something drastic was necessary to keep them from fading away completely.
Songs Of Innocence was what we got, arriving suddenly after another five-year gestation period. But for the first time the album itself seemed secondary. U2 made a deal with iTunes to give the album away to half a billion users, who woke up one morning with a new U2 album in their collections. While certainly a bold move, it proved, shall we say, divisive. The album was given to all users whether they wanted it or not, and there were cries of user privacy being violated. (I have been assured this was not because a lot of people really hate U2.) My biggest problem with this unorthodox distribution was that it distracted from what ended up being one of U2’s best albums in many years.
Two major patterns emerge through Songs Of Innocence. The first is an intensely personal focus. Most of these songs draw from memories of the band’s youth in Ireland. The opening track and lead single, “The Miracle (Of Joey Ramone),” talks about the moment when several of the band members heard The Ramones perform for the first time. Elsewhere we see recollections of first love (“Song For Someone”), IRA bombings (“Raised By Wolves”), and abuse within the church (“Sleep Like A Baby”). It’s strange that such an experienced band would consider it a new approach to write so personally, but these are the strongest lyrics Bono has written since Pop.
The second pattern is an unusual level of musical focus. It’s a far more intentional and assured musical statement than Horizon, with eleven solid-to-excellent songs that cover a wide variety of different U2 styles. It should be said that this album doesn’t really break any new ground stylistically, though that isn’t meant as a criticism. U2 has been a band for 35 years now, and they haven’t really broken new sonic ground since the late 1990s. All of their work since about 2000 has been about returning to roots, so to speak. From that angle they have never done so this successfully. It’s a far more consistent album than All That You Can’t Leave Behind, and more nuanced and less pandering than How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb. It also eschews the noodling of No Line On The Horizon.
It helps that there are no songs that feel designed to nab the Top 40 and do little else. While there’s something to be said for the stupid riff song, songs like “Get On Your Boots” wear poorly after several listens because riffage was never what U2 did best when they were at the height of their powers. Not that there isn’t some muscle to these songs. “The Miracle (Of Joey Ramone)” probably comes closest to this type of song, but it doesn’t drive as hard and centers more around a “whoa-oh” vocal line. “Cedarwood Road” does center around a crunchy guitar part, but it continues the trend of focusing on childhood memories and specific locations.
Owing to the long recording period, there’s no single style that dominates Songs Of Innocence. This was a liability on Atomic Bomb and Horizon, but here it almost feels like an inventory of all of the stylistic ground U2 has covered in their long careers. There are the big rock tracks with “The Miracle” and “Cedarville Road”, the chimey ballads like “Song For Someone” and “Every Breaking Wave,” and even a couple of tracks that sound a lot like they could have been written by 1983 U2, especially “Raised By Wolves.” Some songs remind me of bands who drew their inspiration from U2. “Every Breaking Wave” sounds a lot like a very good version of Coldplay, “This Is Where You Can Reach Me Now” has the coiled menace of Radiohead, and “Sleep Like A Baby” and “The Troubles” feel like cuts from a new Arcade Fire album. But rather than sounding like copycat songs, they reinforce that these elements were always part of who U2 is. It’s a reminder of just how influential U2 has been over all these years.
The sequencing of Songs Of Innocence is interesting. Like other U2 albums, the front is loaded with the most likely singles and radio-friendly songs. On my first listen this felt a little disappointing, as if U2 was leaning on old tricks. But the second half of the album takes things in a much darker direction. The songs begin to focus on the less-rosy memories of childhood, the violent and evil things that warp people as they grow older. There’s a layer of menace surrounding tracks like “This Is Where You Can Reach Me Now” and “Sleep Like A Baby,” and it feels like this is the first U2 album in nearly 20 years to seriously meditate not just on broad ideas of peace and violence, but on how those concepts lived and died in the context of the violence in Ireland. It returns the band to the specific emotions that anchor those ideas, rather than painting them in the most general way possible.
It’s hard to view Songs Of Innocence with clear eyes, because at this point everyone has decided how they feel about U2. One late-period album isn’t going to change that, no matter how good it is, and if there’s any knock on Songs Of Innocence, it’s that it doesn’t transcend those boundaries. It’s merely a very good U2 album, perhaps lacking in the vision and unity of their best work. But the other side of that is that it’s kind of a workhorse album, one that focuses on dependability and quality. There’s something to be said for this, because it’s albums like this that end up getting listened to over and over again. For older fans of the band it’s encouraging to see that U2 is able to make such good music when their ability to surprise us has long since dissipated. It’s less concerned with flash and more concerned with what lasts. This is an album that shows U2 has learned how, in their own words, to stop chasing every breaking wave.
Into The Heart
In which Nate explores his personal connection to each U2 album.
There are a lot of things that I’ve enjoyed about Songs Of Innocence, not the least of which is that it reminded me of all of the good things I’ve enjoyed about U2, and showed me that they still understood their own strengths. But perhaps the biggest joy has been sharing this album with my sons. It’s been in constant rotation in our family car, and both of my sons have their own favorite tracks. (The two-year old likes “Every Breaking Wave,” and the four-year-old likes “Raised By Wolves.”) After years of people hassling me about loving U2 and rolling their eyes at my passion for such an uncool band, it’s fun to know that my sons hear some of what struck a chord in me all those years ago.
From The Sky Down
In which Nate ranks each U2 album in order of his favorites.
1. Achtung Baby
2. The Joshua Tree
5. Songs Of Innocence
6. The Unforgettable Fire
7. All That You Can’t Leave Behind
8. How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb
11. No Line On The Horizon
12. Under A Blood Red Sky
13. Rattle And Hum