This post is a live blog of my (Megan) first listen to U2’s new album, Songs of Innocence. Yes, I’m a little behind the ball here, but once I realized I wanted to write this post, I had to a) Find a chunk of time to sit down and listen/write and b) Not listen to the album until then! The sacrifices I make... Before we get started, I’ve got to admit something. I’m a U2 fan, a big one. Unfortunately for me, over the years, U2 has become somewhat of dangerous topic to bring up in mixed company. It seems like they turned a corner at some point - Was it the Pop album? Was it Bono’s ever-increasing political involvement? Did they get “too big”? - and people changed their minds about them. So, I tucked my love for these four Irish fellows in the closet in order to save myself the trouble of accidentally stumbling into a conversation with haters. But I’m coming out now. I love U2. A whole lot. There, now you know.
Despite the fact that they had been around and relevant for my entire existence, I only started really paying attention around the age of 15. I discovered a copy of The Joshua Tree in my dad’s CD collection and “borrowed” it, feeling like this was one of those albums you were supposed to know. I don’t think I ever gave it back. From there, I ravenously consumed their entire catalog. This wasn’t the classic rock or R&B that my parents listened to. This was something that for ME, that I could sink my teeth into. I’ll set the scene - 15 years old, Catholic high school, filled with teenaged emotions. Add in being gay (and in the closet for SEVERAL more years) and being a highly emotional and anxious person and...well, luckily I found music instead of a cult. U2 didn’t play music the same way as “rock bands” did. Edge has such a distinct style. Larry Mullen Jr. taught me to think about the drum kit outside of kick on 1&3 and snare on 2&4. LMJ and Adam Clayton carry the meat of so many of U2’s songs. All hail the rhythm section! Bono can go from screaming to crooning to falsetto. Their music wasn’t about how many chicks they could bang or booze or drugs (not that I don’t love that stuff). This was music that is filled with unabashed raw emotions, imagery, lyrics to pour over, metaphors to unravel, music to lose yourself in. Anger, war, love, hope, desire, rage, despair, fear - it was all there. It was what I needed. I was born-again-level fan. I melted it over a candle, injected it into my veins and let myself be swept up in their narrative.
Ok, this could easily turn into a creepy manifesto of my feelings for this band, so I’ll sum it up. For me, there is a U2 for every mood and need. It’s my safe place, my happy place, an essential part of my life. Their music resets me to neutral, while at the same time exciting my central nervous system in a way few other bands can. If you asked which album I would bring with me on a deserted island, it would undoubtedly be a U2 record and it would be Sophie’s Choice to pick one.
With all this being said, the release of a new U2 album is always exciting and a bit stressful for me. If there’s one thing that U2 does, it’s change...and change is scary. They try things, and sometimes they fail. But I always respect them for trying, risking, and innovating. U2 teamed with Apple again, announced and released their new album in a matter of minutes. They gave it to you for free...and they gave it to you whether you asked for it or not. I know some people aren’t happy. I love U2 and I love Apple, so they just gave me something I would have bought anyway. I win. If you think it’s bogus, I can understand that, but I have successfully avoided debating the finer points of their album release so far and I shan’t start now!
As a U2 fan, I want to love everything they create and do and say. But since I’m a real person, I don’t. Admittedly, the last two records haven’t taken up residence in my heart as much as others. But, I always start out wanting to like a record. Let’s see what Songs of Innocence brings. Deep breath...
1. The Miracle (of Joey Ramone) This has “single” all over it from the start. Like the sticky clickies. Man, Bono’s voice sounds great. Super slick production here, tight, lush. Although that’s not unusual for a U2 record. This track in particular feels like it’s bursting at the seams, both sonically and arrangement-wise...at least through the verse. Admittedly, it falls a little short for me on the chorus. Some lyrics I particularly like: “We've got language so we can communicate / Religion so I can love and hate / Music so I can exaggerate my pain / And give it a name” I think Bono is much more self-aware than a lot of people think. I’ve already heard Ramones fans complaining about it. I don’t feel strongly about the Ramones, so I don’t totally get this either. I almost feel like the name in the parentheses could be...anyone who is dead and held in Bono’s high musical regard? (Frank Sinatra), (Johnny Cash), etc. 5th listen: It’s a U2 single. I don’t love it. I’ll hear it a lot more times.
2. Every Breaking Wave “With or Without You Part II”? Getting some Police “Every Breath You Take” - esque vibes as well. Big chorus burst, feels quite poppy, which for me is always simultaneous brain candy and apprehension. But I love a Bono big note. Classic post-chorus pause, back down for verse two. Nice dynamics. Some great lyrical nuggets here: “Every sailor knows that the sea is a friend made enemy”. “It’s hard to listen while you preach”. 5th listen: I’ve allowed myself to like the big beginning notes of the chorus. Pretty good.
3. California (There is No End to Love) Church bells. Classic U2 fade in….”ba ba... Santa Barbara”? Oy vey, that’s.... Also, a song about California? Don’t we have enough? Write about Wisconsin, I might hear something new. Anyway, I like the verse, good push from the drums and bass, nice string movement under the vocals. Chorus: ”Whoa”s (meh!), fuzzy synth (like!), his voice sounds great. Nice tone of Edge’s guitar. Dry and up close, NOT classic U2 there. 5th listen: Yeah, alright, I’m with you guys on this one.
4. Song for Someone A little droning keys, acoustic guitar and vocals. So dry and minimalist, not standard U2. Wait wait, synth creeping in, drums, guitar, reverb, ah AH! Bang, chorus. I like this. The interweaving of Bono and Edge’s notes in the chorus is nice. My boy Larry Mullen, Jr. is pushing chorus into the second verse with some 16th notes on the snare with brushes. I’m a real sucker for brushes + snare + 16ths + Larry Mullen, Jr. Edge’s guitar solo REALLY reminds me of his riff towards the end “I'll Go Crazy If I Don't Go Crazy Tonight” from No Line On the Horizon. Rhythm section drops out for the bridge - oh yeah, like it, beautiful. Vocals, bits of keys & guitar, biblical reference. Oop, it wasn’t a bridge, songs’s over. “There is a light, don’t let it go out”. End. I feel like this is the first song that I’ve heard so far that I’ll remember when it’s over and return to. Ended when it should have and left me wanting more. 5th listen: Love it.
5. Iris (Hold Me Close) Immediate thoughts go to “Ultravoilet” from Achtung Baby. Oh now some Pop elements, whoa now to Unforgettable Fire. Within the first 45 seconds. Man, I was really into that intro. Then I felt like I had no idea what was happening in the pre-chorus/chorus section. I was reminded of “Salomé”, an Achtung Baby B-side. Second verse, back to Unforgettable Fire era tense, chugging guitar/bass/drums behind the vocals. Dammit, I wish this was the whole song. Bridge...I don’t even...sounds like How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb. This song is like 4 songs mashed together. As a hardcore U2 fan, the fact that each section of this song is a throwback to a previous era of their sound is really fucking my brain. I can’t listen to THIS song, because I can only hear other songs. 5th listen: Ok, I’ve got a better grasp on this now. I might even like it.
6. Volcano Bass intro. That might be a first. It’s foot tapping and kinda groovy. More “OH”s in the chorus. Bridge was kind of bridge-y. Meh. 5th listen: Eh
7. Raised by Wolves Lindsey Buckingham-esque breath sounds in the intro. “I’m in a white van as a red sea covers the ground” / “33 good people cut down” Yikes. “I don’t believe anymore”. Wow, it’s always jarring to hear Bono despondent. Oh, I like the chorus fake-out there. Tight. This is building like a War/Unforgettable Fire emotional piece. It better go somewhere! Chorus…did not go where I wanted it to. V2: “Blood in house / Blood in the street”. Man, the verses and pre-choruses really paint a vivid picture. Second time through the chorus, I’m feeling it more. 5th listen: Pretty good. Getting more of War-era flavor from the guitar and piano. It’s a good flavor.
8. Cedarwood Road Jack White? Maybe Edge wrote this riff during “It Might Get Loud”. Dig it though, my head’s a-bobbin’. Oh, Bono saw some shit on this street as a kid: “It was a warzone in my teens / I’m still standing on that street / Still need an enemy / The worst ones I can’t see” Dat riff, yo. Dat riff. This is obviously a deeply personal and emotional song and I like that they chose to portray that through a rock n’ roll, riff-driven, foot stompin’ song rather than try to keep it too precious. Come for the riff, stay for the story. Classic heavy Bono lyrics. Love it. 5th listen: It’s rock n’ roll with a U2 twist. I can’t argue with that.
9. Sleep Like a Baby Tonight Synthy start. I’m glad they are bring some of that back into the fold. I was wondering if in a post-Pop U2, we would ever hear it again. Nice snare-off with rods(I think?) from LMJ. Used a lot on Zooropa and Pop. One of my favorite drums sounds from him. I like this track. It’s an album track through and through, but it’s got that creeper quality like “Gone” or “Please”. 5th listen: I’d believe you if you told me was left over from the Pop recording sessions. I don’t mean that in a bad way. The band has taken to ignoring Zooropa and Pop in the years since their release. I honestly like both of those albums and Zooropa I feel is super underrated. Nice to hear bits of 1993-1997 U2 in here.
10. There is Where You Can Reach Me Seagulls. All That You Can’t Leave Behind guitar tone. Oooh, “Soldier, Soldier” with big united voices, that always gets me charged up. My foot’s tapping. The rhythm section is carrying this song (duh, it’s U2, I know). It moves. I like the bridge. It’s alright, if maybe a little lacking in substance. Maybe I just expected something heavier when it started with “Soldier! Soldier!” being yelled. 5th listen: It’s ok, don’t hate or love. The Halloween organ under the verse wigs me out a little.
11. The Troubles I’m assuming this song is going to be about “The Troubles” in Northern Ireland. I HATE to type this sentence: This kind of sounds like a Coldplay song. Maybe it’s just the kids singing. Besides, Coldplay songs sound like U2 songs, so this sounds like a U2 song? That’s confusing. “And you think it’s easier / To know your own tricks / Well it’s the hardest thing you’ll ever do” I don’t think this is about Ireland. Those cheeky bastards. This song’s aiight. 5th listen: Those aren’t kids, it’s a girl...I Googled it, it’s Lykke Li. Anyway, it’s a closer, a nice end to the record. They usually end with something toned-down and often a little depressing.
Welp, I’ll say it’s better than I expected. I generally don’t read or write album reviews because more often than not, my initial impressions of music do not match my long-term feelings. “I LOVE THIS”...I listen to it obsessively for a month and then completely forget about it. “This is alright”...I pick it up again five years later and berate myself for not realizing how great it was the first time. So, I’m holding any sweeping declarations about this album until later...or never. Now that I’ve had a chance to sample the buffet, I’m interested to hear other’s thoughts. Let me know on the Facebook/Twitter. According to their announcement, we may be back here sooner than we think for Songs of Experience. Happy listening!
“If you dream, dream out loud” -Megan