U2 ‘Songs of Innocence’ Review: Anthemic Irish foursome fail to roar back to life on latest release.
Depending on who you ask, U2 have peaked at various points in their career and have been on a downward slide ever since. For some folks it’s ‘The Joshua Tree’, for others ‘Achtung Baby’. And while some folks (like myself) loved the experimental tangents of ‘Zooropa’ and ‘Pop‘, many didn’t.
For me personally, the last album that I considered favorable was ‘All That You Can’t Leave Behind’, which had some solid songs, even if they weren’t downright classics.
After that, it seemed like U2 couldn’t quite figure out how to remain compelling. ‘How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb’ and ‘No Line On The Horizon’ had their moments, but overall it felt lacking, stuck in inertia, as if the band couldn’t align their ambition with their artistic mojo.
The band suprised everyone this week by releasing their new album ‘Songs of Innocence’ for free on iTunes (You got it whether you wanted it or not).
But this seemed oddly problematic. Tying into Apple’s new iPhone and iWatch launch, felt creepily corporate. And by giving it away for free (although Apple surely gave them a big check), was that showing lack of confidence? Or were they finally back in the game?
I wish I could say the latter, but if anything marks ‘Songs Of Innocence’, there is a lack of energy and experimentation that severely hampers it overall.
Opening track ‘The Miracle of (Joey Ramone)’ is Exhibit A of what plagues this album. A track celebrating the life of one of the most exuberant punk frontmen ever, would do wise to share some of the Ramones raucous energy. But it feels stiff and overly clean, not befitting punk rock’s greatest band.
Follow up track ‘Every Breaking Wave’ continues the downward trend, and regrettably sounds like it could be off a Coldplay album. The fact that Coldplay often steal from U2 but lack their symphonic uplift, just shows you why ‘Songs’ is a bummer. It simply feels lifeless.
Danger Mouse is one of the most prominent producers on the album, but he brings little sonic wizardry with him. The whole album has a similar sheen that’s too brightly scrubbed to be truly effective.
There are a few moments that come close, ‘Iris (Hold Me Close)’, has that strident Edge guitar reminiscent of ‘Joshua Tree’ tracks like ‘Exit’ and ‘Streets of No Name.’ The song is a tribute to Bono’s late mother. But while it starts off promisingly, it shortly withers into second gear.
‘Volcano’ and ‘Raised By Wolves’ have some irritating vocal production that gives Bono a flat bleat that does disservice to his trusty pipes. And the reliable rhythm section of Adam Clayton and Larry Mullen Jr are sonically paper-thin throughout.
The album ends with ‘The Troubles’, a pretty, if slight track that benefits from the cooing background vocals of Lykke Li.
But perhaps the new album should be called ‘The Troubles’, because it’s a frustrating listen. U2 at their best, were concerned with sonic experimentation and emotional urgency. The lack of both makes ‘Songs Of Innocence’ a listless experience, and a strong suspicion that U2’s best days are truly behind them.