Three Monkeys Online

A Curious, Alternative Magazine

U2’s Songs of Innocence – the real problem

“Here, perhaps the frightful expression ‘consumption of music’ really does apply after all. For perhaps this continuous tinkle, regardless of whether anyone wants to hear it or not…will lead to a state where all music has been consumed, worn out. In [Wilhelm] Busch’s time, music was still often (at least, not always!) ‘found disturbing’, but some day it may no longer disturb; people will be as hardened to this noise as any other.”

Not a review of U2‘s Songs of Innocence, but Arnold Schoenberg, the famous Austrian composer and music theorist, railing against the power of radio, back in 1930. Schoenberg and radio, though, are good places to start when approaching U2’s latest offering.

By their own admission, the world’s biggest selling band were worried about their ability to get attention for their new album in a noisey fragmented world.

“Might have gotten carried away with ourselves. Artists are prone to that thing. A drop of megalomania, a touch of generosity, a dash of self-promotion, and deep fear that these songs that we poured our life into over the last few years might not be heard. There’s a lot of noise out there. I guess we got a little noisy ourselves to get through it.”

And that is the real problem. U2 had an almost unique opportunity – a record without commercial pressures, that would be guaranteed success by virtue of people simply listening to it (they’re already putting it on a par with The Joshua Tree, simply because 30million i-tunes subscribers listened to it), and unfettered by the need for radio-friendly safe rock, what great art have they produced?

When you listen to Songs of Innocence there’s plenty of autobiography, plenty of intimacy, but there’s no real sense of artistic transcendence, or, ironically, innocence. From their privileged mountain top, where all they had to worry about was the art, the album they’ve produced sounds hedged, largely safe, over-thought, and over-produced (by Danger Mouse, with touches from Paul Epworth, Ryan Tedder, Declan Gaffney and Flood).

It sounds exactly as you’d expect an album from an ageing band, worried about their status and relevance, would sound. Understandable, if like a latter-day Led Zeppelin they had to worry about sales stats to prove their worth; the Apple deal effectively did away with that excuse.

The controversy over the delivery of the album gives the band a handy excuse, allowing them to suggest that there’s a host of U2 haters out there, who were always going to give the album a thumbs down. That’s too easy though. There will be plenty of U2 fans out there thinking the same thing: ‘it’s not bad…’. And let’s be clear here – U2 have in the past produced great art. They’ve twisted and turned, confounding expectations, and have made songs that nobody thought them capable of. They’ve produced a lot of shit along the way as well, but that’s neither here nor there. In the past that was excusable, but not now.

There are some good songs on the album. The leading The Miracle (of Joey Ramone) grabs the attention, with its bubblegum pop approach; it’s sensible enough to avoid any attempt at sounding like the Ramones, which would have turned it into pastiche, but nonetheless it sounds like it was baked just long enough for an ad slot (and indeed, it works very well for the Apple ad).

Every Breaking Wave, has been described by the Edge as one of their best songs ever, and has featured prominently on their recent TV promo tour in places like Ireland and Italy. It’s a good song, no doubt about that – but it’s also a song that, with all the flaws of his ageing voice, is much better live than on the record. Smoothing over the cracks when you’re at the start of your career is perfectionism, but at this stage of the day it’s more akin to cosmetic surgery gone awry.

The closest the album gets to daring is Raised by Wolves, where the production finally matches the song. It’s not going to go down in the canon as one of their best songs, but it has an ambition, pushing its way to the forefront where too many of the other songs are solid and unremarkable.

The closing track The Troubles, with its sense of failures, uncertainty and denial approaches subtlety, and brings the band somewhere they haven’t really been – largely thanks to the tone of Lykke Li’s guest vocal and the way it balances beautifully between the Edge’s guitar and Bono’s voice.

Listening though to songs like This is Where You Can Reach Me now, Volcano and even the heavily flagged biographical Cedarwood Road, it’s hard to suggest that they’re amongst the band’s greatest moments – and that’s the point isn’t it? If you’re going to put out an album that means anything to anyone, apart from the hardcore fans, then all the songs have to be either great or challenging. These are neither, and so inevitably they just fade into the noise.