Nothing about U2’s new album Songs of Innocence makes any sense.
Suddenly foisted on everyone this September, the album is the group’s 13th and first since 2009’s largely ignored No Line on the Horizon, which was the first since 2004’s largely terrible How to Dismantle An Atomic Bomb. Despite working with a smorgasbord of producers for this one, including Danger Mouse, the band have somehow created their most conventional and forgettable album lacking any semblance of edge, attitude, or originality. Not all music has to be wildly inventive or groundbreaking, of course, but since the melodies have dried up, playing things straight down the middle is probably the worst thing U2 could do. And something really has to be done about Bono’s vocals.
After a few spins of this album, what struck me the most was just how tired everyone sounds. The tempos are too slow, Larry Mullen Jr.’s drums too neutered. The group’s sound has never been less compelling; desultory, disastrous tracks like ‘California,’ ‘Iris,’ and ‘This Is Where You Can Reach Me Now’ flail around in a sea of beige sluggishness, overrun with uninspired melodies, electronic dilettantism, and ugly vocals.
I’m a huge Bono fan, but when I listen to songs like ‘Volcano’ or, worse, ‘California‘ I can’t avoid thinking about how bad the vocals sound. He has to strain awkwardly for so many notes that he’s routinely off-key, and there’s no support whatsoever behind the high notes. The thinness of the vocals means he’s too often reaching for jarring falsettos or shrieking unpleasantly. This problem isn’t brand new–‘Magnificent’ and ‘Crazy Tonight‘ on the last album had some truly bad vocals–but it’s getting worse and worse.
It’s almost discouraging to go back and listen to something like ‘New Year’s Day‘ or ‘Without or Without You‘ – the difference in the vocals is so stark that it sounds like an entirely different band. Notice how much more support they have, how big of a range Bono can hit, how full even the high notes are. And, sure, it’s normal for vocals to get worse as a singer ages, but Bono doesn’t seem to have grasped the limitations the age, use, and cigarette smoking have done, because he keeps aiming for stuff he can’t hit.
Perhaps even worse, he’s lost all his interesting viewpoints on life. His lyrics weren’t always perfect, but there are some genuine killers in his catalog, and he usually at least made you believe that he’d given some thought about what he was singing. Now, he just relegates himself to spouting off lovey-dovey platitudes like “There is no end to love” and sermonizing aphorisms like “If there’s a light, don’t let it go out” and “A heart that’s broken is a heart that’s open.” He’s getting harder and harder to take seriously.
The best U2 albums shot a certain mood into your brain — the wintry, melancholic landscapes of The Unforgettable Fire or the dark, sexy grooves of Achtung Baby. SOI conveys nothing but blankness, thanks to uninspired production and general timidity. Whenever the group teases an interesting new element—like the funky, Fugazi-esque instrumental prologue to ‘Cedarwood Road’—they just as quickly pull it back, regress to normalcy, return to the safe chorus. The deliciously grimy guitar snarl in ‘The Miracle’ clashes horribly with the rest of the U2-ified song it has nothing to do with, and the result is a total disaster – a shrill, unpleasant, and badly produced misfire.
These are some examples of the disjointed, nonsensical nature of the album, which seems to have confused other people, too. As Steven Hyden of Grantland noted, “Conflicting agendas hamstring the record at every turn – it’s a slick pop album with heavy, adult-oriented lyrics; a tribute to late-’70s punk where the guitars are turned down too low; and a heartfelt childhood remembrance…presented a generic, one-size-fits-all accoutrement to the latest iPhone iteration.” Likewise, Allmusic wrote about how the band “desire to have things both ways. They camouflage their nostalgia in the sound of modernity; they play gigantic music about intimacy; they want to expand their horizons without leaving home.”
[pullquote]All of these stultifying contradictions are true, but the more crucial problem is that the hooks just aren’t there. No U2 album, even Atomic Bomb, has more songs that are unappealing from a purely aesthetic standpoint; it’s difficult to locate a single melodic moment in ‘California,’ ‘Iris,’ and ‘This is Where You Can Reach Me Now.’ The band’s overall regression reflects a broader monotony, as everyone sounds plum out of ideas, desperate to be pushed somewhere new but unable, after all these years, to do it themselves.[/pullquote]
All of these stultifying contradictions are true, but the more crucial problem is that the hooks just aren’t there. No U2 album, even Atomic Bomb, has more songs that are unappealing from a purely aesthetic standpoint; it’s difficult to locate a single melodic moment in ‘California, ‘Sleep Like a Baby Tonight,’ and ‘This is Where You Can Reach Me Now.’ The band’s overall regression reflects a broader monotony, as everyone sounds plum out of ideas, desperate to be pushed somewhere new but unable, after all these years, to do it themselves. Note how many choruses of newer U2 songs do a lot of just repeating the title over and over again, how many times on the last two albums they open with vaguely atmospheric touches that neither drive us forward nor convey a certain mood, how repetitive Edge’s solos are. If the band can’t avoid sounding predictable after taking years off and trying out so many producers, will they ever again?
The most appealing U2 songs now are almost always pleasant, inoffensive ballads — like ‘Every Breaking Wave,’ where Bono conveys most of the same immediate intimacy he used to regularly bring. Even better is ‘Song for Someone,’ a lovely, lie-back-and-dream love song where everyone gets out of their own way and allows the tune’s prettiness to carry it. When Bono sings “You’re breaking into my imagination / Whatever’s in there, it’s yours to take,” it feels like he’s singing directly to you, and they are, ever so briefly, the band of old that routinely crafted emotional stunners.
But the moment passes, and as rest of the album slides past you, other thoughts creep in. By having the album automatically downloaded to the iTunes libraries of every single one of Apple’s 500 million subscribers, U2 opened themselves up to an avalanche of justified scorn. Their justifications don’t help; witness The Edge telling the New York Times, “The prospect of putting it out there and having it just disappearing down a rabbit hole, which seems to happen to so many albums now – that would be soul-destroying.” This is a more frightening and narcissistic statement than anything Bono’s ever said. (Hey, Edge, every artist faces that problem – the proper response is just to make the material good, not to force it on people. Imagine if everyone did what you did and people had to delete a dozen albums off their computers every day.)
This has always been the worry with U2: that the self-importance and sanctimoniousness of the group and its fans will mar the recordings, perhaps fatally. I’m becoming more and more convinced that the ideas and culture that a band represents — their personalities, the marketing, the behavior of fans, the way they convey themselves etc — has a significant impact impact on our perceptions of the music. And, while I love U2, I know they fail in this category. I recently perused the forums of perhaps the most prominent fan site for the group, and one of the leading threads was titled ‘Why would anyone ever get drunk or high for a U2 concert?’ As I read through the supportive comments judging and decrying such scandalous behavior, I just thought to myself, ‘Man, these are really not the sort of people I would want to hang out with.’ That stuff affects how we think and feel about music.
(Pop-culture critic Chuck Klosterman takes this concept further, writing in his book Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs that “by and large, the musical component of rock isn’t nearly as important as the iconography and the posturing and the idea of what we’re supposed to be celebrating.” If that’s true, then late U2 is borderline-unlistenable.)
Yet there’s something else that tempered my interest in the band as much as anything I’ve mentioned: growing up. It’s now self-evident to me that, as you age, you can’t possibly care about things as deeply as you used to. As a young kid, you’re a blank slate, and your favorite team or band or song can represent your entire existence. Because there isn’t much to you (and because of how our brains operate in adolescence), you feel like what you’re reading or watching is the greatest and most important thing in the world. Because your identity is so incomplete, the albums and the movies get wrapped up in it, and you love them like–or more than–yourself. And you don’t have the maturity to recognize your tunnel vision.
But then you grow older, endure more of life, soak up different perspectives, become a fully-fledged person. Maybe you face the time crunch of marriage, have kids, struggle with mortgages and escalating job responsibilities and family dramas. Because your fandom isn’t tied up so snugly with your essence as an individual, the passion has to wane. And imperfections in A Thing You Like–which feel like stakes in the heart in our teenage years–simply don’t resonate as strongly. I’m 26, not yet married or a parent or a homeowner, and I can already feel it.
SOI is the first U2 album to do nothing for me from the beginning. (Others that I came to dislike at least resonated initially.) But that fact doesn’t even bother me all that much, and that’s proof that the passage of time (at least for me) is the most powerful obstacle to fandom. There are certainly days when I miss the intensity of my old feelings. I worry that sports losses sting a little bit less each year, that great writing doesn’t make me jump up and down the way it would have 5 or 8 or 10 years ago, that it’s harder to lose myself in a movie. Even for us overly emotional people, this happens. It’s why Rob in High Fidelity knew Laura couldn’t hurt him as deeply as his previous girlfriends did. On the whole, this shift is probably a good thing. It suggests a measure of practicality and self-awareness. But that’s not much comfort when you realize that once you’re out of college, you’ve probably already heard the song that will affect you more than any other in the world.
And that’s why, even though so much of our youthful behavior fills us with sheepish regret, we still feel the pull of nostalgia. Sometimes, when you’re beaten down by a job you never wanted, or having another fight with someone that you barely have the energy to re-hash, the time when all the silly stuff mattered too much – because it could – starts to not seem to bad. So if you’re less than, say, 25, I say embrace it. Get consumed by a band so much that your friends get sick of you talking about them. Read a book over and over until it swims around your head while you doze off and again when you wake up. Let a movie become the definitive marker of a pivotal moment in your life. I don’t really want to be 18 again, but I do remember how it felt when the perfect lyric or line or scene hit you at that age. It was as if nothing in the world could ever be disappointing again, because no matter what, you’d have that, and that would be enough. Those lightning bolts of transcendence aren’t guaranteed to continue.