Songs of Innocence
Success is relative when it comes to supergroups such as U2. While their mammoth U2 360° world tour set the record as the highest-grossing of all time (earning a whopping $736 million from more than 7.2 million tickets sold), the album that spawned the live success – 2009's No Line on the Horizon – sold a disappointing five million copies.
Perhaps this necessitated the back-to-basics approach for their latest release, the free iTunes download, Songs of Innocence.
The dense atmospherics and the abstract song structures of No Line on the Horizon have been jettisoned for more traditional songs full of U2's anthemic prowess and sentimentality.
The biggest feature here is Bono’s heavily autobiographical lyrics. The memory of his mother, who died when he was 14 years old, hangs over many of the songs here as Bono attempts to reconcile the loss with future hopes. It results in some piercing declarations, proving Bono’s lyrics have more to offer than mere platitudes.
Songs of Innocence will not win over the cynics and it's no Achtung Baby (did we really expect another one?), but it goes a long way – in addition to the iTunes publicity campaign – towards keeping the band relevant.
Here is my track-by-track breakdown:
The Miracle (Of Joey Ramone)
False advertising: anyone thinking the opening track would be a punk tribute to The Ramones legend would have been disappointed. The first single is meat-and-potatoes U2, with marching drums, singer Bono’s ‘Whoa-hos’ and The Edge’s glam-rock riffs. The problem is the lacklustre chorus which is rendered forgettable by the second verse. It’s the album’s weakest track. Thankfully, it improves from here.
Every Breaking Wave
Much better. A heart-on-the-sleeve romantic ballad just on the right side of mushy. The oceanic theme is complimented by The Edge's inventive guitar work, this time conjuring the sounds of melodic seagulls. Bono delivers a majestic chorus, imploring his lover to "stop chasing every breaking wave".
California (There Is No End to Love)
We are still on the beach, albeit in sunny weather. After a Beach Boys inspired choral opening, the band lock into a tight Interpol-esque groove led by Adam Clayton's strident bass lines. Bono uses California's setting sun as a platform for reflection: "We come and go/ Stolen days you don't give back/ Stolen days are just enough".
Song for Someone
A quieter moment – the acoustic guitars are dusted off and they gently pluck over another paean to a lost lover. While Bono's lyrics are too cliché ridden here (There is a light, don't let it go out), he delivers a passionate chorus in his trademark fashion.
Iris (Hold Me Close)
Since their 1980 debut Boy, Bono has been periodically returning to songs addressing the death of his mother when he was a teenager. The emotionally direct lyrics (The ache in my heart/ Is so much part of who I am) are cushioned by The Edge's shimmering riffs and Bono's cathartic chorus.
If Vertigo was a rampaging rocker, then Volcano is its funky cousin. It's refreshing to see The Edge follow the lead of bassist Clayton this time around. Bono's falsetto chorus caps off another album highlight.
Raised by Wolves
The band go further back, this time to its politically driven past of the 1980s. Like their 1983 classic Sunday Bloody Sunday, Bono retells another tragic incident from The Troubles – this time a 1974 car-bombing in Dublin – told through the eyes of his friend. The evocative lyrics come close to reportage but the song is let down by an energy-sapping chorus.
This one is all about that bluesy groove. Once it kicks in at the 30-second mark you will be hard-pressed to stop your toes from tapping. The lyrics detail Bono’s childhood experiences and friendships while growing up on Dublin’s Cedarwood Road.
Sleep Like A Baby Tonight
Last time the boys sounded this minimal was on there underrated 1993 single Numb. Bono paints a stark character portrait, over a sparse synth beat, of a morose figure who dresses "in the colour of forgiveness" and whose "eyes are as red as Christmas".
This is Where You Can Reach Me Now
Unlike the opener, this track musically does pay tribute to its inspiration – in this case The Clash’s Joe Strummer. The Edge delivers a reggae riff while Clayton and drummer Larry Mullin Jr lock into a four-on-the-floor rhythm. It’s the track most suitable for a possible dance remix.
Ireland is not on Bono's mind, but the troubles within. Over understated strings and guest vocals by the ethereal Lykke Li, Bono comes to terms with past pain: "I'm naked and not afraid/ My body's scarred and I'm not ashamed". An elegant ballad to close what is a satisfying return by the rock juggernauts.