There’s a term for what has just unfolded at the Flint Center in Cupertino: a “media event.” This wasn’t just news or a launch, although it was both of those things, but landed, like its four human stars, through an electrical storm of Internet rumor. Was it true that U2, one of the biggest bands in the world, had again teamed up with Apple, one of the biggest brands in the world? Both come garlanded with past glories and saddled with huge expectations. Could band and brand repeat the trick that underpins the success of each: innovating, shaking things up, while never losing their distinctive and defining essence? The last two hours have answered at least some of these questions, loudly.
On the bare stage in a small auditorium, without any of the clever effects that garnish their stadium shows, U2 performed a song called “The Miracle” from a new album, Songs of Innocence. Before this, the existence of the album had been rumored, so too a raft of false speculation about the nature of the Apple tie-up. Now we know the facts. This will be the largest album release ever, landing without charge in the iTunes libraries of the approximately half a billion account holders in 119 countries around the world and streamed to millions more through the new iTunes Radio and Beats Music services, with a physical album release, including more tracks and special formats, to follow in October.
The numbers sound impressive, but does the music?
It wasn’t easy to judge when first I listened to some of these tracks in May, in a studio in North London. These were still works in progress, with producer Paul Epworth at that stage behind the mixing desk in a lengthy process that has been overseen by Danger Mouse and has also tapped the production talents of Declan Gaffney, Ryan Tedder and Flood. Bono sat next to me on a small studio couch, singing along pitch-perfect and at a volume that submerged the recorded accompaniment of his three bandmates. His voice has never been stronger or better.
Yet U2 has always been about more than its charismatic singer and Songs of Innocence—which I finally heard in its entirety yesterday without Bono’s distracting presence—is about U2. The 11 tracks look back to the band’s musical roots in the punk and post-punk era, paying explicit homage to the Ramones and the Clash, and carrying resonances of later genres and bands, not least the many groups such as Arcade Fire and Coldplay that flourished by tapping into their influence. But Bono, guitarist Edge, bass player Adam Clayton and drummer Larry Mullen Jr. share more than a narrative of musical development: they met while still at school in Dublin, forming the band as teenagers in 1976. Their personal lives are interwoven; their tribulations shared as freely as their triumphs. All apart from Clayton sought sustenance in religion, acquiring an iconography and vocabulary that marks this album like its predecessors. The title of the record is deceptive, even ironic. These are songs of experience and much of it searing. There may be faith but that faith appears challenged.
So the album packs an emotional punch, not so much the flame-waving uplift of U2’s stadium crowd-pleasers, but something more complex and sometimes uncomfortable but always compelling. Every track is recognizably U2, driven by a great if idiosyncratic rhythm section (Mullen Jr. is fearsomely precise while Clayton flirts with the danger of a relaxed beat) and Edge’s great jangling guitar riffs. Yet the end effect is startling, different—and very, very good.
Here are quick descriptions of each track:
- “The Miracle (of Joey Ramone)” — A homage to the Ramones, summoning up the days when U2 covered their songs and played in tiny venues. Up-tempo and danceable. You can almost smell the stale beer and feel your feet sticking to the floor.
- “Every Breaking Wave” — Melodic and melancholy. “Every shipwrecked soul knows what it is / to live without intimacy,” Bono sings.
- “California” — The track opens with the tolling of an Angelus bell and allows itself a musical joke, ba-ba-bahing Beach Boys-style over the phrase “Santa Barbara” before stumbling into tougher recollections. Both Bono and Mullen Jr. lost their mothers in their teens. A key line: “There’s no end to grief / That’s how I know / And why I need to know that there is no end to love”
- “Song for Someone” — The tempo slows; you can sink into this as a love song or a song about faith or the loss of love or faith. The lyrics are open to interpretation but the guitar soars.
- “Iris (Hold Me Close)” — If you ever wondered what drives Bono to keep endlessly busy, creating, doing, trying to mend things, you need only to listen to this track about his mother. As his family gathered at the funeral of his grandfather, his mother suddenly collapsed and never regained consciousness. This is an attempt to confront that history.
- “Volcano” — With a big bass line and up-tempo funkiness, this pays a visit to 1980s clubland.
- “Raised by Wolves” — A percussive intake of breath recalls Depeche Mode’s “Personal Jesus” while the lyrics describe vignettes of urban misery and the crisis of faith this provokes.
- “Cedarwood Road” — This is framed in danceable drum and bass lines but there’s a softer, sadder core as Bono again revisits his teenaged years in Dublin.
- “Sleep Like a Baby Tonight” — The standout track. At many points on the album the music stands in deliberately jaunty counterpoint to darker lyrics. Here the mood of both is ambiguous; in what you could hear as a song about a relationship with a woman or an opiate.
- “This Is Where You Can Reach Me Now” — Dedicated to Joe Strummer and reflecting the impact of the Clash on the young U2 members.
- “The Troubles” — Despite the title, this isn’t another “Sunday, Bloody Sunday.” That track, on U2’s 1983 album War, protested one of the most infamous incidents in Ireland’s long conflict. In the new song, Northern Ireland’s Troubles have been internalized. This is an album about scars performed by scarred survivors.