If it’s not as good as “Achtung Baby” or “The Joshua Tree,” U2 have failed. That’s one prevalent barometer to judging a new U2 album. That’s a flawed way to judge, because those two albums are flawless. It doesn’t mean U2 can’t create another masterpiece, though. Is “Songs of Innocence” another U2 masterpiece? That’s not the point of this review. It may end up that way over time. Rolling Stone gave “Achtung Baby” 4.5 stars and “Songs of Innocence” five. I bet they’d love a do-over on the former. So let’s not rush to judgement.
What I do want to discuss is the effortlessness, the breezy feel of this album. U2 spent more than five years coming up with it, but the end product makes it look like Bono, The Edge, Larry Mullen, Jr., and Adam Clayton had no problems. In other words, it doesn’t feel forced like their previous two outings, 2009’s “No Line on the Horizon” and 2005’s “How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb.” “Bomb” concentrated too much on creating a hit. It did well commercially, but through the lens of time, did nothing to energize the band’s fan base. “No Line” had a few terrific songs that belong in the cannon, such as “Unknown Caller” and “Magnificent,” and a few other good ones; it felt like they were trying to hard for another reinvention.
With “Songs of Innocence,” U2 stopped caring about singles (it was given away for free, and you should stop complaining that someone gave you a gift. Don’t like it? Regift it.) and awards (because the physical version doesn’t go on sale until October, it’s not eligible for Grammys until next year). While it took three producers to get the thing done, it feels like a natural progression. It’s the album that “Bomb” should have been, with an acceptance of the musical world around U2, which includes indie bands trying new things. With this album, U2 appears to accept that the contributions of the indie music community are important.
I’m not entirely sure that, as Bono has said, “Songs of Innocence” is U2’s most honest look into their lives. The songs of U2 have, over the years, ranged from songs about God and war, to songs about girls, to songs about a higher calling. Throughout that time, they would take a detour to songs about family. This album narrowly focuses on “songs about U2 as they were getting started in the ’70s.” It’s just as much about the world around them at the time as it is about themselves. But on the first (and 14th) listen, the songs have a kind of life to them that has been lacking in U2 over time. This album may not have the big radio hit; though I’d argue that “Iris (Hold Me Close),” about Bono’s mother, and “California (There Is No End To Love),” with an intro of the Beach Boys-meet-the-theme-from-“Nightmare Before Christmas” and a great hook, should do well. But overall, this is U2’s strongest album since 2001’s “All That You Can’t Leave Behind.”
(Early) Grade, based on the criteria above: A
Listen: “California (There Is No End To Love),” “Iris (Hold Me Close),” “Raised By Wolves,” “Cedarwood Road,” “Sleep Like a Baby Tonight,” “The Troubles.”
And, for fun and so you know the place I’m writing from, here are U2’s albums in order of my preference. It’s too early for me to place “Songs of Innocence” in this list.
- Achtung Baby
- The Joshua Tree
- All That You Can’t Leave Behind
- The Unforgettable Fire
- No Line on the Horizon
- Rattle and Hum
- How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb
- Passengers: Original Soundtracks 1