U2 plays it safe with solidly crafted Songs of Innocence

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Apple might start signing artists to contracts, in order to compete with the likes of Spotify. Photo: iTunes/Apple
Screen grab from iTunes/Apple

As Bono came in chanting and The Edge power-chorded his guitar for the radio-friendly chorus of “The Miracle (Of Joey Ramone)” today, we hoped for a revitalized big-arena rock band performance from the biggest Irish rock band of all time.

What we got was the boys miming a well-rehearsed, highly-produced single that sounds like anything but The Ramones. Bono sings, “I was young/Not dumb/Just wishing to be blinded/By you/Brand new/We were pilgrims on our way” and, frankly, we wish they were young again. We wanted to be blinded by rockstars, but we really only got an ad for Apple.

At first listen, Songs of Innocence is a musically safe choice, a collection of songs that will sound just fine in the background as you wait in line for your first latte of the day at Starbucks. This isn’t the same band that had us thrilling to “In the Name of Love,” or “Sunday Bloody Sunday,” let alone snake-dancing to the mysterious syncopations of “Who’s Gonna Ride Your Wild Horses” or the gospel-tinged “One.”

The new album is being pitched by the band as intensely personal, but it comes off as more craftsmanship than artistry. It’s not all bad, and chances are U2 super-fans would have bought it even if it weren’t free, but the music lovers in us were a little disappointed.

Album art via Pitchfork
Album art via Pitchfork

U2 spent two years working on Songs of Innocence with Danger Mouse as their producer, with help from Flood, the guy who helped them with 1987’s seminal The Joshua Tree album, and Paul Epworth and Ryan Tedder, the men behind Adele’s latest album.

Bono tells Rolling Stone that he wanted to create songs that were real, truly great songs, like those of The Beatles or The Rolling Stones. They’re simple, said Bono — “There’s nowhere to hide in them: clear thoughts, clear melodies.”

That’s definitely true of the 11-track album that appeared in everyone’s iTunes app today; these songs are pretty basic, which belies the pure craftsmanship that must have gone into each one. Even U2 doesn’t work on an album for two years without putting some serious effort into it.

Everything on this album sounds up-to-date, from the vamped, looping electronica of “Raised by Wolves” to the synth-pop intro of “Sleep Like a Baby Tonight” and even the heavily-gated power guitar of “Miracle.” There’s a surprisingly small amount of stuff on this album, unfortunately, that truly harkens back to classic U2, besides maybe “Iris (Hold Me Close),” a song about Bono’s mother who died when he was 14, which sounds like it could have been on Achtung Baby.

The only misstep is “California (There Is No End to Love),” which starts off sounding like an off-brand Red Hot Chili Peppers tribute to the left-coast state at first, then segues into one of the most basic tracks on the whole album.

The rest of the tracks, from “Volcano,” which wants to be full of fiery passion but just ends up sounding bland, to Cedarwood Road, a Led Zeppelin-esque stomp that never quite lives up to that catchy guitar hook at the start, may be well-crafted, emotionally honest pop-rock songs, but none of them are gonna really move listeners much past a toe tap or head-bob as they go about their daily tasks, white earbuds in place.

After a couple of listens, the quality of Songs of Innocence’s production fades and we’re left with something just a little less spectacular than what we remember from U2’s salad days. There’s no “In The Name Of Love” here, no “Bullet The Blue Sky.” We miss the U2 we learned to love in our younger days; we want to hear them here, too.

Sure, U2 is older, more successful, connected to the technorati of the modern age, and releasing their album for free in collaboration with the largest corporation on the planet. But is it too much to ask that the band retain some of its (no pun intended) edge?

Songs of Innocence is a well-crafted, highly produced modern rock album by one of the best bands still around, but the safe musical choices and heavy coat of polish do us or the band any favors. If this album weren’t free, would we still buy it? Probably not.