“You Can’t Return to Where You’ve Never Left”: Thoughts on Songs of Innocence
September 19, 2014 · Print This Article
U2’s new Songs of Innocence showed up free to all iTunes customers, creating immediate buzz as well as frustration. Neither the band nor Apple probably anticipated the way the very medium of the release would dominate many blogs and social media for several days. Lost in much of the sound and fury of tweets and stories is the sound and fury of U2′s 13th studio album.
Early on, rumors circulated of an album titled Songs of Ascent, but we ended up with Songs of Innocence. The group stepped down, ever so slightly, from comparisons with the biblical psalmist to echo instead the collection of poems by often misunderstood English poet, artist, and visionary William Blake. Finally, the band is tempering, while not completely eschewing, the grand gesture that has become part of the U2 mythos. Their music reaches for the unreachable, a bold strategy that opens them to risk and failure but that also opens up transcendent glimpses of the transformative power of “three chords and the truth.” But the enduring power of the band’s music—its hits along with its misses—is the unflagging hope embodied in the Seamus Heaney quote in the liner notes of the new album. They do “[b]elieve that a further shore…is reachable from here.”
In his announcement during the Apple event, Bono refers to the new album as the band’s most personal album to date, and in it, they lyrically and musically explore their roots, the socio-political landscape into which they were born and the cultural and musical influences that served as eye-opening visions for where they could go as a band. The songs touch on musical influence (most explicitly the Ramones and the Clash), the experiences of first love, the specter of death on an individual and communal level, first encounters with America (the land and the “idea”), as well as explorations of rage, terrorism, and other manifestations of darkness.
U2’s music has always been a rich, intricate, and at times, frayed tapestry intertwining their personal narrative, the Irish and the American narrative, with a grand and transcendent narrative that mimics biblical eschatology. That is, while embedded in the current situation, it speaks to—and about—the presence of a future reality to come, making its influence known now (e.g., “How long? How long must we sing this song?…For tonight we can be as one, tonight”). This album is no exception. So in that sense, it is a return to form, but a return with a difference.
It may not be an incidental observation to note that the current bookends of the U2 catolog are Boy and Songs of Innocence. And yet, this is a return that is not romantic nostalgia nor mourning for innocence lost. Instead, they seem like reflective meditations on the reality of how we all are marked by our context but never absolutely determined by it.
Musically, the album pays homage in lyrical and musical gestures to rooted influences. “The Miracle (of Joey Ramone)” and “This is Where You Can Reach Me Now” are explicit nods to The Ramones and The Clash for the ways in which their music opened vistas for the forming teenage band. There are nods to the Beach Boys in “California (There is No End to Love)” in the opening harmonies and the evoking of “Barbara Ann” in the chanting Santa Barbara. There is possibly a tip of the hat to the Eagles’ ambivalent vision of the state when the song opens with the peal of bells. Mission bells, perhaps.
The Edge’s opening guitar licks on “This is Where You Can Reach Me Now” seem to sample Keith Richards on the Stones’ “Gimme Shelter.” There are also self-referential moves as well. The opening of “Every Breaking Wave” reminds one of “With or Without You” and there are slight resonances of “One” in the beginning of “The Troubles.
This is not, however, a derivative album. It is instead a recognition that we never paint on a blank canvas. We are marked by our experiences of light and darkness, joy and sorrow, life and death. This album deftly offers mature reflections on these themes in ways that realize how pain and joy and light and dark are often difficult to neatly quarantine from one another. On their way to “…kicking the darkness til it bleeds daylight,” (“God Part II,” Rattle and Hum) they have discovered that “…there is a dark that we shouldn’t doubt” (“Song for Someone”) and “…the darkness just lets us see who we are” (“Iris”). This honest, raw spirituality is what makes U2 one of the most relevant bands of our time. They still name a journey with honesty, searching, and stubborn hope.
The album finds the band less experimental than the previous album, and yet, they don’t just act as a cover band for their younger selves. There are parts of the quintessential U2 formula here mixed with a mature awareness of the complexity of life. In “California,” the recognition of enduring grief is met with U2’s version of a hymn. As Bono climbs the vocal register driven on by Larry’s drumming and Adam’s bass, the listener is caught up in an ecstatic moment, grasping for hope in the presence of despair.
And yet, there are songs like “The Troubles” whose name might suggest the strident beats of War but instead surprise with the haunting vocals of Swedish indie-pop singer Lykke Li joining Bono on a haunting meditation on pain and the internal monsters we ignore to our own peril. As he closes the song and the album with these lyrics—“God knows it’s not easy, taking on someone else’s pain. God now you can see me. I’m naked and I’m not afraid; my body’s sacred and I’m not ashamed”—we are reminded of what is so compelling about U2. The vulnerability that “…gives [pain] a name” and surrenders itself in these gestures then opens us up to new ways of seeing and being where darkness might be a mirror and foolish pride gets you out the door to a rich journey you might not have taken otherwise.
Songs may or may not be one of U2′s greatest albums—but it is one of their great ones. The production is solid and brings out some interesting nuances in the latter part of the album. Musically and lyrically they are still at the peak of their powers, and they carry on the legacy birthed by youthful passion and bouts of hubris and craft it into a mature appreciation of life and longing in all its complexity. Hopefully, they are far from through with this work, and the next chapter, perhaps called Songs of Experience, is on the way. —Rick Quinn @apophatic1