U2 have announced the release of their 13th studio album, Songs Of Innocence, available now and free to all iTunes customers. And, after several years' gestation, five producers, ever-shifting release dates and Bono publicly fretting that the biggest band in the world was on the verge of irrelevance, fans will be relieved to hear that it sounds a lot like U2.
It is an album of big, colourful, attacking rock with fluid melodies, bright anthemic choruses and bold lyrical ideas. Perhaps the most surprising thing is that, despite apparently being created in a spirit of self-doubt, it sounds fresh and cohesive, bouncing out of the speakers with a youthful spring in its step.
On first impressions, Songs of Innocence is not an attempt to create a grand masterpiece that redefines the band, but rather, as the title suggests, to reconnect them with an elusive pop elixir of youthful energy and passion. Lyrically, it reflects on the past, on their origins as a band and as individuals, which is unusual territory for the usually forward-looking Bono and the Edge (who share lyrical duties). Lead single and opening track, The Miracle (of Joey Ramone) sets the confident tone, with its “oh-way-oh” choral chant, glam rock stomping rhythm and surges of grungy guitar.
Lyrically, it is a celebration of the transformative power of music, and in particular the effect on the young U2 of hearing The Ramones, and in that spirit it keeps things simple and direct. There are songs about growing up on the north side of Dublin (the fierce and strange Raised By Wolves and the dense, somewhat ungainly Cedarwood Road), memories of Bono’s late mother (the chiming disco driving Iris (Hold Me Close)) and appreciations of musical inspirations (the loose, groovy This Is Where You Can Reach Me Now is dedicated to Joe Strummer, and celebrates the Clash spirit of passion and purposefulness).
Each track seems very defined in itself, opening with a trio of songs aimed directly at American radio (The Miracle, Every Breaking Wave and California (There Is No End To Love)), packed with chiming guitars, synth hooks and epic choruses. It sounds like U2 taking on such young stadium rock pretenders as Snow Patrol and The Killers, intent on beating them at the game U2 themselves invented.
An immediate standout track is Volcano, a thrilling, thumping yet delightfully quirky celebration of the power of rock and roll that sounds a bit like Franz Ferdinand on steroids. The Ryan Tedder-produced ballad Song For Someone is probably the track that will have fans holding their phones aloft in stadiums, a mid-tempo ballad that builds from plucked acoustic intimacy to heart-bursting emotion. It is one of the songs that hints at ideas and feelings in the deeper currents of an album made up of dazzling surfaces.
It clearly hasn’t been an easy album to make. It is six years since No Line On The Horizon (itself widely deemed a flawed album) and three years since they completed their record breaking 360 Degree tour. There were long sessions with cool American producer Brian Burton, aka Danger Mouse, who started working with the band in 2010. The album was first mooted for release at the beginning of 2014 (hence the release of a one off single, Invisible, in February), but since then there have been sessions with Paul Epworth (British producer for Adele, Coldplay and Florence And The Machine) and Ryan Tedder (top songwriting collaborator with the likes of Adele, Taylor Swift and Beyonce), both highly commercial producers who bring some contemporary sheen. Long-time collaborator Mark Ellis, aka Flood, is also involved, although, in the end, it appears to have been U2’s engineer Declan Gaffney who has put in the long hours to tie it all together (leading to promotion to a full production credit).
With the album’s October release only confirmed at the very last moment (with the pressure of the Apple iPhone launch looming), I have the sense that it was plucked from the band’s grasp in the mastering suite, probably with the Edge protesting that he’s not finished yet and there’s one more echoing guitar note to be added.
For me, on first contact, it is the Danger Mouse tracks that hold the most interest, and perhaps hint at directions U2 might have rewardingly explored if they had stayed their original course and weren’t quite so intent on maintaining massive stadium-level success. Touching synth ballad Sleep Like A Baby Tonight and dreamy, sinister album closer The Troubles (with a perfectly pitched vocal chant from Swedish singer Lykke Li) are the kind of strange pop songs that can really get under your skin.
Lyrically, here and elsewhere, hints emerge that these reminiscences of the past are not quite as innocent as they first appear, and that this is an album laced with guilt, working towards self-forgiveness and redemption. “I’m a long way from where I was and where I need to be,” Bono croons on Song For Someone, suggesting that there is perhaps more experience at work in this album than there is innocence.
It is, at heart, a highly personal set of songs. There are no flag waving anthems, no big social causes. If there is a moral, it appears in the coda of Cedarwood Road: “a heart that is broken is a heart that is open.”
As a long time U2 fan and supporter (in the interests of full disclosure, I should point out that I am thanked in the album credits, albeit with my name misspelled), I wouldn’t put it on a par with their greatest work - Boy, Joshua Tree, Achtung Baby or even the seamless songs of All That You Can’t Leave Behind. At times it does sound like it is trying a bit too hard to please. But it's more pop than Pop ever was, and it certainly does the job it apparently sets out to do, delivering addictive pop rock with hooks, energy, substance and ideas that linger in the mind after you’ve heard them.