Songs of Innocence – the U2Radio Review

IMG_3353I form relationships with albums much like I do with people. Some of my most enduring friendships are with folks who I knew  for weeks or even months before we struck up a friendship. Some of my favorite albums were the same way – they took a while to grow on me before I really “got” them. Zooropa was one of those records, as was No Line on the Horizon. On the opposite side of the coin though, occasionally a person will enter my life who I positively adore from the very first interaction I have with them – my wife, who I loved from the first moment I ever set eyes on her, is a good example of this kind of relationship, as is U2’s latest long player, the aptly-named Songs of Innocence, which I positively can’t get enough of.

I saw “aptly named” because the album harkens strongly to the band’s younger days and formative years, particularly with regard to subject matter. “Cedarwood Road”,  “Iris” “The Miracle” and “Raised by Wolves” all deal with events that took place or people that Bono knew before the band had even formed. (The latter of those four even reminds me a bit of one of the band’s very early hits, but more on that in a bit) Other songs seem to be told from the perspective of a middle-aged man looking back at his younger self – “The Troubles”, for instance – while in others I hear the potential for some of the best cross-over hits of the band’s entire career. I imagine that in trying to make a record which would appeal to a younger audience, the four members of U2 spent a lot of time looking back at their own adolescences, trying to recapture what sparked their own imaginations forty-or-so years ago. In this sense (among others), the album is a drastic departure from what has come before, particularly 2009’s No Line on the Horizon, U2’s last LP before Songs of Innocence. No Line…was, in many ways, the band’s least personal record, with song lyrics telling a series of intertwining songs about some fictional characters of Bono’s creation. By comparison, the argument could be made that this is one of U2’s most personal records – almost definitely the most personal since All That You Can’t Leave Behind, maybe even Achtung Baby. By revisiting their own selves and the lives they’ve led for the subject matter of their songs, they’ve already come a long way towards building the relationship with new listeners that they’re craving.

IMG_3352Musically – wow. I don’t even know how to describe this. The best I could come up with is the idea of comparing U2 records to the four basic elemental forces – air, water, fire, and earth. I think that Achtung Baby would probably be passionate, burning fire, and Zooropa would be mutable, adaptable water. No Line…would definitely be space and air, whereas Songs of Innocence, musically, is grounded, heavy earth. It’s chunky (without being clunky) in a way that no U2 record ever has been before. The closest comparison I can come up with, from U2’s catalog, would be parts of “Exit”, from The Joshua Tree, or maybe a denser version of “New Year’s Day”, which “Raised by Wolves” reminds me of in particular. That doesn’t mean that the music on Songs…would fit into the category of “heavy metal” or even “hard rock” – there’s way too much synthesizer for that, for one thing. No, these songs are definitely on the pop-rock end of the spectrum, but never before has pop-rock sounded so solidly constructed. Even the poppiest song on the record, “California (There is No End to Love)” has a sharp severity to it – an edge, if you’ll allow, although the pun is definitely not intended. Of course, a lot of this difference can be attributed to new producer Brian “Dangermouse” Burton, but I think that it has just as much to do with the recent changes in the life of newlywed Adam Clayton. The bottom end on this record is positively killer, and after several listens I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s the rhythm section, especially, the bass, played with more stability, confidence, and gravitas than ever before that gives this record it’s sense of weight.

I’ve described the record in detail here, but you might be wondering “is it any good, though?”.IMG_3351 The answer is a resounding “YES!” U2 have made exactly the album that they needed to make at this stage of their career. I can honestly see this record as a great “jumping on point” for new fans, but with plenty to satisfy long-time listeners as well. The good news is that I’ve got a sneaking suspicion that there’s even more to come. The title of the record is from a collection of poems from William Blake, who later followed up his work with another tome called “Songs of Experience”, which the band have referenced before. I received an email from last night (like many of you, I’m sure) wherein Bono claims that another album, named after the later Blake work is forthcoming. There’s a part of me that scoffs a little bit at that, and says “I’ll believe it when I see it”, but for now I’m very happy with the record we just had gifted to us. 8.5 out of 10.

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Ever since I realized as a kid, while poring over the liner notes of the Bob Marley - Songs of Freedom boxed set, that writing about music was a viable career choice, one of my greatest desires has been to write about U2. The band has been a major part of my life for as long as I can remember, and I'm thrilled to have this opportunity to contribute a little something to the fantastic online community that's been built around the band.

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