“Songs of Innocence is already in your iTunes library, waiting for you to download.”
That’s a fairly ominous sentence to read this day and age, given that private nude photos of celebrities were stolen from the very same iCloud that houses the album that U2 surprised a half-billion people with on Tuesday afternoon. Between the introduction of a smartwatch and the death of the iPod classic, Apple introduced another unexpected luxury item that likely cost an absurd amount of money to produce: U2′s 13th album. It’s been presented, ostensibly, as a gift: For 500 million iTunes users, the album is available as a free download until its physical release in October. By doing so, however, they have now broken the record for the largest album release of all time. You have to give them credit for a marketing move so brazen — when your album is playing through everybody’s earbuds, you pretty much dominate the conversation by default.
Issuing an album without pre-release publicity (like Beyoncé’s self-titled album), for free (like Radiohead’s In Rainbows), or through some gawdy product tie-ins (like Jay Z’s Magna Carta Holy Grail), isn’t anything new. And clearly, U2 has been paying attention to the changing market. They have to; if you intend to stay the biggest band in the world, you just might go to great lengths to ensure some Jack White come lately doesn’t usurp your throne by having it pressed on quintuple-sided vinyl by his roving food-truck Oompa Loompas. So U2 didn’t just make the album available to an audience larger than the entire U.S. population; they hand-delivered it, like the phone book you no longer have a use for since you canceled your landline. “Part of the DNA of this band has always been the desire to get our music to as many people as possible,” Bono says in a note on the band’s website. “And for the people out there who have no interest in checking us out, look at it this way… the blood, sweat and tears of some Irish guys are in your junk mail.”
Credit to U2 for being able to laugh at themselves — they’ve always been a charming bunch — but there’s something strange about a band actually using the word “junk mail” in discussing their album. It doesn’t make for great associations, and if you offer the suggestion to people that your art might actually be something worth deleting, they’re probably going to do that. It isn’t, however, the first time that the band flirted with disposability; their 1997 PopMart tour — the gawdy, visual extension of their oft-maligned album POP — was a celebration of all things consumerist and tacky. But then it was presented ironic; here it’s just a matter of convenience.
If Songs of Innocence actually is junk mail though, it’s the kind you marvel at for its professionalism and production quality. While the effort that went into 2009′s No Line on the Horizon might have seemed minimal at best, it’s not in U2 to release a product that isn’t shiny and sparkling and impressive on a purely sonic level. And so it is with Songs of Innocence — named for a work by William Blake and coincidentally also an album by David Axelrod that has been heard by far fewer than 500 million people, unfortunately. Songs of Innocence has more than a little of that sparkle, provided courtesy of producers Danger Mouse, Paul Epworth and Ryan Tedder; on a purely surface level, it’s actually rather impressive.
As stabs at relevance go, on a purely musical level Songs of Innocence comes closer than U2 has in a while. It doesn’t hurt that leadoff track “The Miracle (Of Joey Ramone)” sounds a lot like Arcade Fire, or — since Danger Mouse is such a major part of the album — Broken Bells. There are big “whoa-oh” vocals, clacking percussion, Bolan-esque guitar riffs and a tribute to The Ramones that’s at least a little endearing (“The most beautiful sound I’ve ever heard,” croons Bono, earnest as always). “Song For Someone,” by contrast, succeeds on sappy sincerity; open-hearted emotional statements are pretty much U2′s thing, and this song, written for Bono’s wife, evades coolness in favor of just such a statement. “Iris (Hold Me Close)” is a happy medium between these two poles, driven by The Edge’s trademark guitar delay and a melody that’s closer to mid-’80s U2 than anything else here. “Sleep Like a Baby Tonight,” by contrast, is the one song that actually aims for something more progressive and atmospheric, its synth-driven sound the most exciting of the bunch.
It’s in between these songs where U2 gets into trouble. Layered opening “Santa Barbara” chant aside, “California (There Is No End to Love)” is simply more of the band’s by-the-numbers populism that adds little to a catalog that already has too many highs impossible to top at this late stage. And halfway through the album, Bono can’t help but retreat into stylized nonsense that conveys basically nothing. It happens on “Volcano” (“Been out in the wild/ out in the night/ out of your mind/ Do you live here or is this a vacation?”); it happens on “Raised by Wolves” (“Face down on a pillow of shame/ As some girls with a needle try to spell out my name“); it even happens on the otherwise decent “This Is Where You Can Reach Me Tonight” (“We’ve come to colonize your night/ And steal your poetry“). And when so many of the melodies here hover around tepid late-period U2 territory, there’s not a lot to distract from Bono’s zingers.
Though there are a handful of genuinely good songs on Songs of Innocence is something of a relief after the drab No Line on the Horizon, U2 still has a long climb upward before they’re able to release something that won’t sound disappointing. This is the band responsible for Achtung Baby, The Joshua Tree and The Unforgettable Fire, so it’s not unreasonable to believe that they’re capable of something that’s merely better than their worst album. With another album, Songs of Experience, on the way soon, they’ve at least suggested that there’s more material to work with, and reason enough to believe there are some actual surprises in store. I hope that’s true; 11 bonus tracks tacked to the unveiling of an iPhone for your wrist just isn’t going to cut it.