“You Can’t Return to Where You’ve Never Left”: Thoughts on Songs of Innocence

September 19, 2014

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.”

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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

 

Plot Twist: U2 Releases New Album “Songs of Innocence” on iTunes, For Free, to Millions

September 9, 2014

Well, hey. Look at this!

Over the past several weeks, rumors have circulated across the internet about a possible connection between U2 and the Apple even in Cupertino, CA. Nothing was confirmed; in fact, publicists from both Apple and U2 themselves denied any connection whatsoever. Then, yesterday, The New York Times spilled the beans, making a bold claim that they would indeed “play a role” at the event.

They did. This afternoon, everyone with an iTunes account received a free copy of the new album Songs of Innocence.  In a pre-release interview, Bono referred to the album as “the biggest album release of all time,” which is exactly what they were looking for. This is indeed a very big move.

Unfortunately, it still needs to be downloaded and there have been a number of complaints on Twitter regarding server issues. But that’s just fine with me; if I’ve waited five years, I can wait a few more minutes.

 

Head of Interscope Confirms 2014 U2 Album Release; Music Video in the Works

August 21, 2014

It has been an arduous year (decade?) for U2 fans desperate for new music. Earlier this year, U2 Interference published an article citing a Rolling Stone piece that claimed a 2014 release was unlikely and very little that followed in the first two quarters of the year called that into question. Indecision, producer changes and the occasional promising tweet – always immediately deleted – were all fans had to go on.

In the wake of recent vague reports from the Irish Independent about an imminent release, as well as short-lived tweets from Universal Music Venezuela and Universal Music Columbia, U2’s loyal fanbase has finally been blessed with something bordering on concrete news.

On the 19th, Rolling Stone retracted their previous claims that the album would be delayed until 2015, stating that “a spokesperson for the band has told Rolling Stone that that timing is inaccurate: ‘We’ve always said an album is expected this year.’” Later that day, John Janick, head of Interscope Records was cited by Ultimate Music as saying that an album would be released by the band in 2014.

In addition to the above, French newspaper Nice-Matin has recently stated that U2 wrapped up the shooting of a music video in Nice for a single that we can safely presume will be for the lead single that the Irish Times claimed would be out in September.

Are the pieces finally beginning to fit together? Is there a light at the end of the tunnel? Surely there must be. The band’s release methods have drawn ire from their fanbase for years, with no choice being as cooly greeted as their decision to release “Invisible” in February 2014 without an album attached to it.

The fate of “Invisible” and “Ordinary Love” remains to be seen, especially after the as-yet-untitled album’s revolving door of producers (Paul Epworth, Danger Mouse, will.i.am, Ryan Tedder, etc.) is finished having their say, but a timely release announcement would do a great deal to provide an exciting finish to what has been an otherwise uneventful year for U2 fans.

Per Billboard, Rolling Stone, Your Worst Nightmares: Album Postponed to 2015

March 7, 2014

Yeah, this isn’t a joke. It may seem that way, but per “multiple industry” sources as cited from Billboard and Rolling Stone, U2 have indeed postponed the album for at least 9 months.

The reasons behind the postponement have obviously not been disclosed by the band itself because, well, that’s not the kind of information that “industry sources” provide. What we do know is that the ”magic that the band always seems to capture … they have yet to capture it,” per industry sources. OK.  Perhaps most distressing of all is that the role of Danger Mouse in the project is now in question. Previously, it was somewhat clear that he would be producing the record more or less in its entirety. However, it has now been disclosed that OneRepublic singer/producer Ryan Tedder and the Grammy-winning, Ordinary Love-remixing Paul Epworth may be brought into the studio in the coming weeks/months/millennia, though Danger Mouse will apparently be kept on as the primary producer.

Then again, according to a recent interview with canoe.ca, Danger Mouse himself has no idea about the status of the record: “I don’t know [about the U2 album]. I’m working on Bells right now I have no idea what they’re doing. I’ve been working on it for YEARS but I’m sure they’re still working on the record.” This is bad news for many U2 fans because the old “too many cooks in the kitchen” adage that has been applied to Pop, How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb, etc. will now forever loom heavily over this new record, whenever it comes out.

And make no mistake, “2015″ is also an extremely vague date. It could mean March; it could mean December. In theory, this could take U2 out of the spotlight for as much as 21 months, though they had been building media momentum for the past three. In any case, it’s clear that the album will not be released until U2 has confidence in the material, which they have not yet established.

Earlier last week, it was a very exciting time to be a U2 fan. The band had a shot at an Oscar and everything seemed to be leading up to an album announcement. My, how quickly things change.

But at least something happened quickly in the world of U2.

“Invisible”: A Weekend in Sum

February 4, 2014

For U2 fans everywhere, this past weekend was one of the most highly anticipated occasions in years, allowing us to hear “Invisible,” a preview of what we can expect from the untitled upcoming album, as well as an opportunity to raise money for (RED) with free downloads via contributions from Bank of America. By all accounts, the song was a rousing success. Let’s first recap the numbers.

InvisibleWeekendInitially, Bank of America promised to pony up $2 million if “Invisible” could reach that many downloads. U2 and (RED) can sleep easy knowing that they more than exceeded that goal, reaching an impressive 3 million downloads over the course of 36 hours. In fact, the goal was reached so quickly, Bank of America chose to continue matching each download until the end of the day Monday. Along with the $10 million Bank of America contributed prior to the release of the song, this partnership raised a staggering $13,144,477 for (RED).

So that’s great. But there are other implications that this song holds for the band itself. While it reflects well on them to support a worthy cause, the track itself has received praise from media outlets such as LA Times and The Guardian. Neil McCormick commented on the song’s immediately surprising electronic elements: “the first fruits of their labours suggest that U2 are scaling down their rocky sound for a contemporary pop world of small speakers and social network song sharing where digital genre bending electronica reigns supreme.”

The future for “Invisible” is murky. As far as we’re aware, the track will be part of the album and, currently, it is available for $1.29 on iTunes and Amazon, with proceeds going to the Global Fund. Whether or not it will be performed on the Jimmy Fallon’s Tonight Show premiere is unclear, though it is a safe and logical bet. It is also unclear what role the success of “Invisible” will have on expediting  the release of the new album. Based on fan and critic reactions to “Invisible,” it seems that album release news will be greeted very warmly.

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