U2 Take a Sales Step Forward, But a Sonic Step Back

This is it? This is all we get after 5 years?

Well, it looks like U2 are finally enjoying the perks of being the Biggest Band in the World. For those unaware, being the Biggest Band in the World entitles this Irish quartet, with over 150 million records sold and the highest grossing tour ever, to much leisure: global recognition when a new song or album is released, instant buzz on the album being either a “return to form” or “artistic leap forward,” top notch producers or songwriters, methods of releasing new material in ways nobody else could, and the most popular perk to global music stardom; phoning it in.

Now, it wouldn’t be a big deal if anyone else made a half-assed record that’s just an advertisement for how awesome they are (see The Rolling Stones’ output from 1986 to 2005). But it’s a bit more distressing when U2 is pulling back on the throttle. Hearing that Bono and company, men that dared to mix post punk with politics and then German industrial music with visual overload, decided to unleash their new album upon iTunes and Apple users for free (in return for a reported $100 million from Apple themselves) seems more like an annoying email from your professor about homework than a new statement from the best stadium rock band alive today. Regardless, “Songs of Innocence,” the first U2 album since 2009s criminally underrated “No Line on the Horizon,” is here to remind listeners that U2 are back…kind of.

Despite main production of the album being from Danger Mouse (Beck, Gnarls Barkley, The Black Keys) and songwriting credits from Ryan Tedder (of bore-rock king OneRepublic, who U2 should stay as far away from as possible) and Paul Epworth (Adele), “Songs of Innocence” sounds incomplete with only half the effort of a traditional U2 record put into it. Nearly every song here sounds like something is missing, like the band doesn’t capitalize on the great build up each songs gives off.

Lead single and opening track “The Miracle (Of Joey Ramone)” has the typical fuzzed out riff from The Edge and “ooo aahh oo”s in the background. The lyrics are Bono thanking the late Ramones lead singer for enlightening him through punk rock (“I woke up at the moment when the miracle occurred/Heard a song that made some sense out of the world/Everything I ever lost now has been returned/The most beautiful sound I ever heard”). It’s a nice thought, but the Ramones’ spirit is drowned out by electronic effects and a lack of drive from the band. “Volcano,” driven by a bass line The Black Keys probably want back, could’ve been a real fist-pumper thanks to the bass and Edge’s fuzzy riffs. But again, they never go for the jugular and just stay a little above mid-tempo (despite Bono really trying to pump himself here on the vocals). Tracks like “Raised By Wolves,” 
“This Is Where You Can Reach Me Now,” and “Iris (Hold Me Close)” could’ve used a big production boost to leave a more lasting impression, perhaps from previous U2 collaborators like Brian Eno, Daniel Lanois, or Steve Lillywhite. Instead, tracks like “Sleep Like a Baby Tonight” do just that; put the listener to sleep.

Musically, “Songs of Innocence” sounds like a collection of unfinished demos. The good news is that the lyrics are very autobiographical and intimate. “Iris (Hold Me Close)” is a loving tribute to Bono’s mother (“You took me by the hand/I thought that I was leading you/But it was you made me your man/Machine, I dream where you are/Iris standing in the hall/She tells me I can do it all”). Meanwhile, the dreamy sound of California rock gets a nod on “California (There Is No End To Love),” via back-up vocals mimicking The Beach Boys “Barbara Ann.” They even showcase both sides of a relationship: the beautiful beginnings (“Song for Someone”) and the fear of the end (“Every Breaking Wave”). U2 even make room for Swedish singer Lykke Li for album closer “The Troubles,” where U2 deal with age creeping up on them and shaking it off (“I have a will for survival/So you can hurt me/And then hurt me some more/I can live with denial/But you’re not my troubles anymore”). By the album’s end, it’s clear this is U2 taking a good long look at themselves instead of everything in the world. It’s great to hear U2 looking inward now and understanding their age. They’re not going to be around forever, so they’re proudly reminding who they are, where they came from, and they still want more.

If only they sounded like all of those things. Whether it be from a production team that’s holding them back sonically or if this was a rushed job to make a souvenir for the iPhone 6, “Songs of Innocence” is disappointing. A U2 album about who U2 are is great on paper, but the delivery needs more of a kick. All of the songs on here are sonically half-baked with nothing to make it memorable. Nothing here sounds as huge as stuff like “Beautiful Day” or “Bullet the Blue Sky” and the intimate moments of album are too few or too boring. No wonder Apple already released a device to get this album off people’s devices, because everyone’s needs more room for their photos of cats and food. Actually, that might be the saddest thing about “Songs of Innocence”; that it’s competing for space on iPhones. Yikes.

Final Verdict: 2.5 out of 5 stars
Essential Tracks: “Every Breaking Wave,” “”California (There Is No End to Love),” “Song for Someone,” “The Troubles.”