At an Apple press conference on Tuesday afternoon, the Irish rock group U2 announced the release of their thirteenth album, “Songs of Innocence.”
Aside from it being tied into an event that also premiered the latest iPhone, what made this announcement unique was that the record would be available on iTunes immediately. For free.
An unannounced, sudden album release hasn’t been unusual in the past few years. Radiohead did it in 2007, and again in 2010. Last year, My Bloody Valentine and Beyonce both released surprise albums in the middle of the night. Nine Inch Nails even did the same thing U2 did with the 2008 release of “The Slip.” The only difference being that NIN released that album on their website as opposed it being a marketing tie-in with Apple.
The record’s release was met with skepticism, not least from myself. I joked on Twitter that my review would probably be a Vine video of myself shrugging my shoulders and sighing heavily. My belief was that U2 hadn’t made enough interesting work in the past decade. Why should I start caring now, even about a free album ceremoniously dropped into the laps of 500 million people?
In recent years, U2’s new music seemed to be an afterthought. Their last record, 2009’s “No Line on the Horizon”, was a sales disappointment, received critical indifference and did not produce a blockbuster single like previous albums.
In general, it’s seemed as if U2 has had nothing new to say since the 1992 release of “Zooropa.” Subsequent albums saw them sliding into a comfortable middle-of-the-road, adult contemporary slot that did not seem to fit a group that once wrote a song as polemic as “Sunday Bloody Sunday.”
“Songs of Innocence” contains nothing nearly as good as “Sunday Bloody Sunday,” but there are a couple moments that rank among the best of their post-2000 career. Second track, “Every Breaking Wave” is an immediate highlight. It’s the kind of song that late-period U2 does best: a sweeping mid-tempo ballad, built up by the Edge’s guitar and Bono’s vocal delivery.
Less successful is lead track, “The Miracle (of Joey Ramone),” a song which never once conjures up a thought of the deceased Ramones frontman. Instead, the song winds up sounding like Coldplay, with its anthemic “whoa”s and giant chorus.
Production on “Songs of Innocence” is provided by Danger Mouse, Ryan Tedder, Paul Epworth and Flood. Each of those four producers has a distinct style, but Tedder effectively drowns out the other three with his bombastic drums and crashing pianos. These are fine when he’s producing Adele or his own group, OneRepublic, but they feel starkly out of place on a U2 record.
Tedder’s production is likely the reason why many of the album’s tracks seem to blend into each other. The three track run of “California,” “Song for Someone” and “Iris” run together like an indistinguishable blur of Tedder’s, and to a lesser extent, Epworth’s, widescreen techniques.
The other producers get their moments. The most successful are the three tracks that Danger Mouse produced by himself. All three of them recall the work of his band, Broken Bells, particularly the moody electronics of “Sleeping Like a Baby.” U2 has had a hit-or-miss history with electronic music, with their 1997 dance-rock album “Pop” being the closest they ever came to killing their career.
However, with Danger Mouse at the helm, the electronic tracks are subtler than “Pop”’s outlandish maximalism, and are far more successful. Another Danger Mouse production, “Cedarwood Road,” sees the group try a heavier rock they’ve never been particularly comfortable with. It’s probably the best loud track the U2 has done in years, but it’s nowhere near as effective as the record’s quieter moments.
“Songs of Innocence” is a decent album, and that’s much better than most assumed it would be. The album contains a couple very good songs that should satisfy die-hard U2 fans, particularly keepers like “Every Breaking Wave” and “Volcano.”
Those songs are good enough to almost get the album off the ground. However, they’re surrounded by the kind of filler tracks that have weighed down U2’s past few albums.
This album isn’t something that deserves to be deleted on sight from your iTunes library. Highlights aside however, it doesn’t seem to be different from what the band’s cynics would expect from a new album at this stage in their career.