U2 released its thirteenth studio album, Songs of Innocence, earlier this week for free via iTunes.
The if-you-can’t-beat-’em-join-’em approach appears as a belated acknowledgment that fans will take that not given. In late August, weekly album sales dropped below 4 million — a first and a worst since SoundScan began tracking numbers in 1991.
Just as radio once served as a for-free mechanism to promote the money-making LP, actual albums now represent a promotional vehicle for monetized ventures such as concert tours, advertisements, and back-catalogue sales. Seventy-five-years ago, records displayed “Not Licensed for Radio Broadcast” labels, the FCC granted airwave rights on the condition that stations initially avoid playing recorded music, and ASCAP boycotted radio once the feds relaxed restrictions. Music has been here before.
The U2 album may come to fans like none before it. It sounds like the group’s twelfth, eleventh, and tenth LPs, which sounded like a mish-mash of their past. This is your parents’ U2, which is another way of saying, given the band’s penchant for reinvention, that this isn’t your parents’ U2 but a cover of them.
The formulaic music, and the association with Apple, raises the question of whether the sounds on Songs come from Larry, Adam, Bono, and the Edge or Skynet-style cyborgs forged in the bowels of Steve Jobs’s Cupertino computer campus.
The chiming, echoing guitar on “Iris (Hold Me Close)” recalls The Edge’s signature sound but not his healthy habit of breaking habits. Johnny Bravo effects provide a depth to Doppelganger Bono’s voice absent from recent offerings. Adam Clayton’s booming bass on “Volcano” evokes “New Year’s Day” but not this year. The impersonator behind the kit screams identikit, sounding like a drum machine mimicking Larry Mullen, Jr.—too much plodding machine, not enough spontaneous human.
Songs of Innocence follows the creative holding pattern that began after Pop ventured too far from the mainstream for the stalwarts there from the raw-rock beginnings of Boy. It reminds listeners of the back catalogue, which may be the point.
Conclusion? This isn’t U2 but a robot tribute act playing Coldplay playing U2. Surely the busker bazillionaires, particularly the world saver on vocals, can no longer spare the time for mere music.
Still, if it’s worse than U2 past, it’s better than radio present. “Song for Everyone,” an acoustic ballad that builds into a soaring anthem, deserves to knock Ariana Grande, Nicki Minaj, and Justin Bieber off the airwaves, even if for four minutes. And if it fails in that noble mission, it will at least serve as the soundtrack for when the twelve-pack becomes a one-pack. “If there is a dark/within and without/There is a light/don’t let it go out.”
Guys in their fifties generally fail to match the artistic output of their twenties in as thumotic a genre as rock ’n’ roll. Songs of Innocence isn’t Unforgettable Fire, Joshua Tree, or Achtung! Baby. But it isn’t exactly post-Tattoo You, phone-it-in Rolling Stones, either. U2 on an off day hits the ears better than no U2 at all. And with fans thirsty for a drink after five dry years, going back to the well works well enough to satiate. Listeners get more than their money’s worth at the price.
U2 keeps making the same album. Rock royalty’s courtiers keep rewriting the same flattering reviews.
Rolling Stone’s David Fricke, who awarded five stars to Songs of Innocence in 2014, writes that “even by the standards of transformation on 1987’s The Joshua Tree and 1991’s Achtung! Baby, Songs of Innocence — U2’s first studio album in five years — is a triumph of dynamic, focused renaissance.” Rolling Stone’s David Fricke, who awarded No Line on the Horizon five stars in 2009, called it “their best, in its textural exploration and tenacious melodic grip, since 1991’s Achtung Baby.”
The latest formulaic effort invariably draws formulaic comparisons to the band’s peak, until forgotten upon the next release, which invariably wins comparison to the peak, and so on. In the world of rock journalism, where decibels destroy eardrums, “speak truth to power” hits the ears as “suck up to power.” The truth is that Songs of Innocence fails to measure up to No Line on the Horizon, which paled next to How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb, which fell short of All That You Can’t Leave Behind.
There’s a payday in safely playing like the heyday. The emperors, and the court scribes, have no clothes.