Last Tuesday, Apple announced to the world a new line of iPhones and the long-awaited Apple Watch. But the most important release had nothing to do with touchscreens and wearables, but with everyone’s favorite (or least favorite) band, U2. The Dublin band released its latest album, Songs of Innocence, for free, right into everyone’s iTunes library; after a few dozen listens, the Arts Editors talked out their feelings.
Gabe Rosenberg: I’ll open this crosstalk with a question, Dan. Songs of Innocence: great U2 album, or greatest U2 album?
Dan Fuchs: Now, that’s a tough question, Gabe. When I found out that U2 had pulled a Beyoncé (but a free Beyoncé!), I had a lot of feelings: excitement because I’m a big U2 fan and I loved their last album, No Line on the Horizon, and trepidation because there have been a couple of big duds in the U2 catalog. Plus, without Brian Eno, who really understood how to produce these guys, I was kind of worried that it’d seem like a mess.
But Danger Mouse (who, it should be noted, is a pretty damn great producer) did a great job of honing in on the sound that made U2 great, especially the pre-Eno stuff, like War or October, which isn’t to say that it’s nearly as good as War or October—those are unimpeachable classics—but it hearkens back to a day when U2 felt truly energetic. I don’t think All That You Can’t Leave Behind or How To Dismantle an Atomic Bomb did that at all. I think No Line on the Horizon was a great Eno-U2 album, full of really lush production, but this feels like an electric, powerful U2.
GR: U2 didn’t just pull a Beyoncé this time, though; someone remarked that they pulled a Beyoncé-meets-Jay-Z (call it a “Blue Ivy,” if you will), in terms of sudden album drop paired with mass distribution through a tech giant. That’s actually been the main point of contention from critics and listeners with this album (like Pitchfork, who gave it a 4.6/10), not its music, which I personally think can stand on its own among U2’s catalog. People feel that iTunes simply planting Songs of Innocence in their library without their permission (although you do have to make a special point to download it, which now 2 million out of the 500 million iTunes users have thus far done) is skeevy.
All I have to say is, “Can we not just enjoy a good thing?” I agree with you that All That and Atomic Bomb are not exactly masterworks; much of Songs of Innocence actually feels more energetic than anything from that period. And granted, the corporate nature of this move does throw a little shade on the album. But I think there’s a lot to love in songs like “Volcano,” which does feel like a sister to “Vertigo” in terms of guitar work and energy.
Dan, you mentioned the production on this album, which was (mostly) split between Paul Epworth (one of pop and alt music’s most talented producers) on the first half and Danger Mouse on the second half. How do you think those outside sounds affected, positively or negatively, the work that U2 did here?
DF: See, I think the choice to have two executive producers—and I want to stress that these are both producers whom I admire—gave the album a bit of inconsistency. There are strong moments on the first half; I’m a huge fan of “California (There Is No End To Love)” and “The Miracle (Of Joey Ramone),” because here, Epworth utilizes U2’s arena rock godhood and experiments with it a little bit. But the second half takes the album in a totally different direction, one I absolutely love. There’s almost a psych-rock edge to some of these tracks; the theremin (is that a theremin?) on “This Is Where You Can Reach Me Now” comes to mind. I think, to a certain extent, it’s because Danger Mouse’s production is more apparent than Epworth’s. Maybe I’m just more familiar with the Danger Mouse style of production, or maybe I’ve just heard more Danger Mouse-produced albums, but the Danger Mouse half feels like something new and totally out of the normal U2 wheelhouse.
What about you, Gabe? Do you think the choice for two producers was a smart one? I almost think this album would have been interesting as two EPs rather than a full album, which is interesting, considering that this album is part of a planned two-album set.
GR: When I heard a few years back that Danger Mouse (aka Brian Burton) was working with U2, I thought this could be the revitalization that U2 needed in its music. Danger Mouse tends to bring elements of soul, some R&B synths, and generally some pretty interesting use of sounds to his production work (like with The Black Keys). What we got is a hint at how great a full U2-Danger Mouse collaboration would have been.
Don’t get me wrong, I love Paul Epworth. He’s been behind some of the best about-faces in pop and rock music: Adele, Coldplay, even Paul McCartney. But on Songs of Innocence, Epworth tried too hard to bring out the most U2-y bits of U2. We also can’t forget to mention Ryan Tedder, OneRepublic frontman and this album’s third-wheel producer, here: Tedder brought all the faux-U2 grandiosity of his white-bread band back to his idols, and it’s pretty apparent.
The lyrics on this album, which Bono called “the most personal album we’ve written,” seem to conflate “personal” with “vague and clichéd.” So we have almost-beautiful songs like “Iris (Hold Me Close),” Bono’s tribute to his mother that, unfortunately, lacks any of the passion that Bono scrapes up for his more overtly political tunes. Much of the first half of the album falls along those traps, meaning Songs of Innocence is, for once, back-heavy.
I’m so glad you brought up “This Is Where You Can Reach Me Now,” because this song may actually make it to the top of my “Favorite Ever U2 Songs” list. The way it builds up, from a few overlaying rhythms, to The Edge’s light but delicious guitar riff, to Adam Clayton’s disco-march bass line, to Lary Mullen, Jr.’s rare-but-virtuoso drum fills, is almost worthy of Arcade Fire. In fact, that may be why I like it so much: “This Is Where” could have come straight from Reflektor, where it would have been one of the best damn songs. Bono’s singing has real range, and his lyrics manage that perfect protest-song balance of specificity and universality.
We talked a lot about production so far, but how much is the actual songwriting playing into things? How are the lyrics, the melodies, the hum-ability of these songs for you, Dan? And how much does that matter with U2?
DF: For the most part, the songwriting is what makes this album one of U2’s better ones. Most of their 2000s work has felt a bit impersonal; for proof, listen to their work from Boy through Achtung Baby. Listen to “Sunday Bloody Sunday” or “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” or “Love Is Blindness.” There’s something deeply poignant about those works. I think that No Line on the Horizon had some great takes (“Moment of Surrender”), but there’s a certain je ne sais quoi about these lyrics that just feel more connected and more involved than their other post-Achtung work. Tributes to Joey Ramone and The Clash, both clearly part of their musical DNA, land surprisingly well. The album’s political songs, which in the past have ranged from moving to completely insufferable, are some of their finest (for proof, listen to “The Troubles” or “Raised By Wolves”), in part because it feels like Bono is actually passionate about what he’s singing. Even the songs that don’t feel inspired by the biographical or political have a bit more edge to them than usual; “California” and “This Where You Can Reach Me Now,” which, written by any other band, could have been cheesy, are some of the album’s highlights. “A risk can scare a thought away” is a bit cheesy, but that’s what U2 does best: sort through the cheesy and turn it into grandiosity.
Melodically, this is The Edge’s show, through and through. As gorgeous as No Line is, it didn’t really give The Edge a chance to shine. Here, he blows the goddamn roof off the place. Listen to “Raised By Wolves,” where the guitar melody is basically the song’s backbone, building layers of distortion to back Bono’s vocals. Or the solo at the end of “This Is Where You Can Reach Me Now.” If nothing else, Songs of Innocence is a testament to Edge’s essentiality.
I don’t necessarily think there’s anything super catchy in the way Joshua Tree songs are. This album is closer to Achtung Baby in this way: emotionally heavy but lacking any major singles. “Raised By Wolves” and “California” are the closest things here. That doesn’t make this album any less solid; in fact, I think that was a smart choice. Post-Achtung U2 hasn’t had a great track record with catchy. Sure, you’ve got “Vertigo,” but you’ve also got “Get On Your Boots,” one of the silliest songs ever made.
Any standout tracks for you, Gabe? And where do you think this stands in the larger U2 discography?
GR: You can’t mention Achtung Baby without mentioning “One,” probably one of the defining songs of the ’90s and, arguably, U2’s best piece of work. If you’re talking about turning cheesy into grandiosity, “One” is your first destination. Even avoiding some of the lyrics—except for on Joshua Tree and War, my two favorites—I tend to focus less on Bono’s words than the aural effect of his singing. Otherwise, I’ll be too annoyed. Songs of Innocence, on the other hand, has some of the best music in U2’s recent catalog. I already mentioned my love for “This Is Where,” but I also think “The Troubles” stands out for its perfect use of Lykke Li in a heart-wrenching duet, one that stays simmering but never moves into crescendo’d bombast (a regular trap this band falls into). The Edge also gets the final statement on the album, his not-too-flashy but perfectly melodic guitar work carrying that song to the end of the record.
U2’s been at this game for 34 years now. That’s an incredible number, and you’re not going to get there without making a few tweaks to the formula. U2 is all about transformations: 1987’s Joshua Tree, 1992’s Achtung Baby, and even 2002’s All That (for better or worse) all made alterations to their sounds, and you can hear echoes of all those albums in 2014. Songs of Innocence is not one of their best albums, but you know what? It blows Pop, Zooropa, and All That out of the water. Here is a solid addition to U2’s catalog and proof that U2 can roll with the punches, age with grace, and keep baring its arena-sized heart.