Wednesday, September 24, 2014

U2 'Songs of Innocence' - Album Review

Well known Dublin band are back with a crash, bang and wallop...
Rating: 4 / 5
Niall Stokes  

Was there ever an album that divided people so utterly? I’m sure there was. But because of the way in which it was launched – free to anyone who is registered with iTunes, a fact that was announced at an Apple product launch in Cupertino last week – there has been a fierce intensity to the noise around the new U2 album. A lot of people clearly don’t like U2. But the scale of this hostility is as firm a measure as you can get of the importance of the band. Because the truth is that if they were only the 50th biggest rock’n’roll band in the world, no one would give a shit.
To some extent, the music has been forgotten in the crossfire. So, for a few minutes, let’s forget the debate about whether or not it is a good idea to join forces with Apple to create the ultimate 2014 hype – which is effectively what U2 achieved last week. As a result, they were splashed across the news pages of almost every medium known to humankind (alright I exaggerate) as well colonising the entertainment sections. But you get the picture. After the blanket coverage, and the adoration and the accusations of sell-out alike, it all comes down to approximately 48 minutes of music and the perennial question: but is it any good?

And the answer is is a resounding yes: Songs of Innocence is a great U2 album. I had known that U2 were planning to look back to their early days, growing up in Dublin, for inspiration, and that this would likely shape the new record, on which they have been working for the past three years and more. What I hadn’t expected was the intensely personal nature of at least some of the songs. Bono is a past master at shifting the focus away from himself in his lyrics. Long ago, he understood the art of putting his thoughts and ideas – and emotions – into the heads of a series of characters. It is a device that offers a license to push things further, to admit to madness or megalomania or living life on the edge in any number of ways – and none of it need adhere to the man at the centre of the action. Songs of Innocence, however, sees him dropping the masks, for the most part, and singing from the heart. At its best, the effect is riveting.

While they worked with various producers during the album’s gestation, including Danger Mouse, Paul Epworth, Ryan Tedder, Flood and Declan Gaffney, Songs of Innocence is defiantly and totally a U2 record. With occasional exceptions, Bono’s vocals are well to the fore throughout; Edge piles on the big chords and twangs brilliantly where appropriate; and in the engine room, Larry and Adam anchor things powerfully, giving U2 their unique centre of gravity.

Songs of Innocence is also unashamedly a pop album. It begins with a huge “Oh-wey-oh” chorus set over a big, thumping beat that harks back to the glam rock that was dominating the charts in the mid-70s when U2 started to coalesce into a unit. But the song ’The Miracle (of Joey Ramone)’ is a testament to the influence of the gangling frontman of the self-styled dumbest band of them all, The Ramones, on a bunch of kids growing up on the North Side of Dublin when they – along with a motley crew from Hot Press, including yours truly – saw Joey and the bros in the State Theatre in Phibsboro in what was definitively another time, another place: “I was young/ Not dumb/ Just wishing to be blinded/ By you/ Brand new/ And we were pilgrims on our way.”

Musically, there is a flavour here of ‘Staring At The Sun’. Lyrically, it is home to one of Bono’s characteristic finely-tuned, nutshell moments: “We got language so we can’t communicate/ Religion so I can love and hate/ Music so I can exaggerate my pain, and give it a name.” It is powerful stuff.

Songs of Innocence isn’t a concept album, but it is a rock ’n’ roll pilgrim’s journey across the landscape of the past, tipping its hat to influences and acknowledging the importance of friends and foes alike. It is consciously at the less experimental end of the U2 canon: they wanted to make an unashamedly accessible record. More often than not, the vocals soar, driving expansive, full-on choruses that you know people will end up singing along to with gusto, come the live tour.

It’s true of ‘Every Breaking Wave’ (a song that might be an appeal to a young lover, but also works as an admonishment to the band themselves, and their pursuit of the notion of relevance). And it’s true too of the gorgeous ‘California (There Is No End To Love)’. A delicious, cinematic opening, with a quasi religious choral sound, flowers into the most West Coast-sounding track U2 have ever made. The harmonies reference The Beach Boys and the Mamas and the Papas, but the band have also plugged into that classically Californian state of rapture that musicians achieve, by giving everything to simply going with the flow. It is a certain single.

If you don’t like big choruses, you should look elsewhere for your thrills. ‘Song For Someone’ has another: the assumption is that the song is about Bono’s sweetheart Ali, but the trick is to leave it open so that anyone can read themselves into the emotion. “You break and enter my imagination,” Bono sings, “Whatever’s in there is yours to take.”

The album’s stand-out track, ‘Iris (Hold Me Close)’, is Bono’s most personal song yet. A tribute to his mother, who died of an aneurysm when he was just 14 years of age, it is an emotional tour-de-force with a gorgeous chorus, plundering childhood memories that are uniquely personal, to create a heart-stopping hairs-on-the-back-of-the-neck-standing-up sense of loss. There is ambiguity in the point of view in the middle eight as mother and wife, father and son become momentarily confused. But it is the memory of the mother he lost which is the song’s raison d’être. “Iris playing on the strand,” he remembers, “She buries the boy beneath the sand/ Iris says I will be the death of her/ It was not me…”

‘Volcano’ is a monster: the album’s ’Elevation’, it’s a ball-buster of a riff-based anthem that opens with a metallic Stranglers-style bass from Adam. Packed with interludes of raw, meaty guitar and psychedelic, swelling backing vocals (arranged by Danger Mouse), it is another near-certain centrepiece of their live set.

‘Raised By Wolves’ opens on an urgent electro rhythmic web. The narrative surge has a Dylan-esque flow: “Face down on a broken street/ There’s a man in the corner in a pool of misery…” Telling the story of the Dublin bombing of 1974 from the perspective of Andy Rowen – brother of Bono’s friend Guggi – it carries the haunting refrain: “I don’t believe anymore.” But the devil is in the detail, with the registration of the stolen blue Ford Escort in which the Talbot Street bomb was placed giving the song a powerful CSI immediacy. The scenes of devastation are underscored by broken glass guitar that sounds like an alarm going off.

On ‘Cedarwood Road’, dedicated to Bono’s friend and fellow artist Guggi, U2 look back to the Dublin that shaped them. There is a Thin Lizzy-esque intro, with Larry pounding the drums, and Edge knocking out hard guitar sounds. If it isn’t in the key of E it should be, as Edge hits a big open bass string, revving things up for what is a huge rock track, with some brilliant unison vocals to lift the mood. Its proto-metal shapes notwithstanding, there’s a touch of the West Coast here too, that suggests Neil Young. And it ends on a line that is at the heart of U2’s message on Songs of Innocence. “A heart that is broken,” Bono observes, “is a heart that is open.”

- ’Sleep Like A Baby Tonight’ might be one of U2’s ‘40’/’MLK’-style lullabies, but in fact turns into the polar opposite. An uneasy staccato keyboard intro ushers in lyrics that describe the morning rituals of a member of the Roman Catholic clergy. The chords are reminiscent of something by The Band, before a fuzz-infused guitar oozes like pus from the speakers. “In your dreams everything is alright,” Bono sings, “Tomorrow dawns like someone else’s suicide / You’re gonna sleep like a baby tonight.” Bono launches into a desperate, high, lonesome falsetto and Edge ladles on a kind of bad-dream guitar that bawls like a troubled child.

There’s a touch of Arcade Fire about ‘This Is Where You Can Reach Me Now’, but with the added attraction of some gorgeous bluesy guitar from Edge a la The Rolling Stones. The bass is downright funky and the keyboards whisper almost like a musical saw, achieving a haunting, cinematic quality. Dedicated to Joe Strummer, it describes the night the U2 boys went to see The Clash in Trinity College and – the dire warnings of Bono’s father Bob ringing in their ears – signed up to Joe’s rock ’n’ roll army: “Soldier, soldier/ We signed our lives away/ Complete surrender/ The only weapon we know.”

The final track on the album so far, ‘The Troubles’, isn’t about the North. Instead, it’s a brooding piece of tortured introspection, which might have fitted into the Passengers album. The lyrics reference ‘One’ and guest vocalist Lykke Li takes over for the chorus: “Somebody stepped inside your soul,” she sings, “Little by little they robbed and stole/ Till somebody else was in control.”

But who? At this stage, Songs of Innocence is not a tidily finished story that can be packed away and filed under Understood. There are, after all, four tracks to come that will flesh out the record with its physical release. But for the moment we can say for sure that it is, definitively, a big U2 record, in a line that runs from Boy, through War to The Joshua Tree and on to Achtung Baby. I loved the cerebral, Zen quality of No Line On The Horizon, but this has a more visceral and personal immediacy. It has bigger choruses and more for radio to savour. And in ‘Iris’ it contains one of U2’s greatest songs to date.

Right now, it might not feel like the triumphant return the band had been hoping for. But the naysayers have had their day. On a musical level, Songs of Innocence will prove to be a grower. Keep the faith...

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