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U2: Songs of Innocence

Album Reviews:

Rolling Stone - 5 stars out of 5 -- "[A] triumph of dynamic, focused renaissance: 11 tracks of straightforward rapture about the life-saving joys of music, drawing on U2's long palette of influences and investigations of post-punk rock, industrial electronics and contemporary dance music."

Spin - "These songs tend to be more compact and direct, and eschew the global-overmind scale for intimate and personal perspectives, addressing their youths in Dublin, their early years as a band, family, and relationships. Some of the focus and energy is drawn from long-ago punk inspirations..."

Paste (magazine) - "Rather than try to switch gears towards a vintage sound or mindset, SONGS OF INNOCENCE is a wistful look back viewed confidently through the lens of the present."

Album Notes

Many U2 albums experience a difficult birth, but their 13th studio record underwent a particularly extended labor. Gestating for years, possibly started immediately after 2009's No Line on the Horizon and ushered into existence by many midwives, Songs of Innocence appeared suddenly in September 2014, nearly nine months after "Invisible," the presumptive lead single for the record, flopped. "Invisible" is nowhere to be found on Songs of Innocence, yet its vaguely electronic thrum did indeed turn out to be a taste of where U2 were headed after those endless sessions wound up shepherded by Danger Mouse. Songs of Innocence -- its title taken from William Blake, although many music nerds may first think of David Axelrod -- does indeed incorporate electronic elements in a way no U2 album since Pop has, weaving samples, loops, and other flourishes within music that otherwise adheres to the self-conscious classicism that has been the band's stock in trade since Y2K. Which is another way of saying that where the U2 of the '90s looked forward, the 2014 U2 are looking back, aware of a legacy that includes decades of arena-filling anthems, the deliberate reinvention of Achtung Baby, and their initial inspiration from the great spark of punk rock. The latter also provides the thematic fuel on Songs of Innocence, a quasi-autobiographical coming-of-age story from Bono that begins with the big bang of "The Miracle (Of Joey Ramone)." This opening fanfare doesn't sound a thing like the Ramones, nor does "This Is Where You Can Reach Me Now" sound like its reported inspiration, the Clash: they, like everything else here, sound like U2, albeit a U2 who are beginning to carry the weight of their years somewhat uneasily. Majesty doesn't come easily to them anymore, so they've replaced surging melodrama with a brittle, insistent clamor that's intended to dazzle. It's busy enough to be bracing yet it's also wearying, exuding a faint air of desperation that dampens the emotional pull of such lovely moments as "Song for Someone" and "The Troubles" (the latter featuring vocals from Lykke Li) while merely providing clatter elsewhere. Often, there's a nagging sense U2 could've pushed themselves a little harder sonically -- "Raised by Wolves" benefits from the coiled paranoia created by its frenetically circling vocals and guitars -- but that would've required risk, which they've been avoiding since Pop's garbled rollout. Instead, Songs of Innocence showcases how U2 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. They want to be everything to everyone and, in attempting to do so, they've wound up with a record that appeals to a narrow audience: fellow travelers who either thrill at the spectacle or dig for the subtleties buried underneath the digital din. [Upon the surprise digital release of Songs of Innocence in September 2014, U2 announced the physical edition would appear a month later with an extra disc of bonus tracks. The band kept their promise, adding a second disc (along with finished artwork) to their thirteenth studio album for its physical release. Depending how you keep score, this second disc contains either 5, 10, or 11 tracks; the count is thrown off by five cuts being sequenced as one 22-minute track called "Acoustic Sessions" and a slightly alternate version of "Invisible" being buried as a hidden track at the end. Along with these "Acoustic Sessions" -- most being more fully arranged than the title suggests, particularly "Raised by Wolves" -- there is an alternate version of "The Troubles" and an "alternate perspective mix by Tchad Blake" for "Sleep Like a Baby Tonight," welcome variations all but which basically leave two songs as enticements for anybody other than the hardcore: "Lucifer's Hands" and "The Crystal Ballroom." Neither song seems to belong thematically to the loose semi-autobiographical narrative of the proper album and they're also more nimble than much of the record, with "Lucifer's Hands" benefitting from a dense percolating arrangement anchored by a trashy little guitar riff and "The Crystal Ballroom" evoking an arch, art-punk disco quite well. They might not have fit snugly onto the record but as individual songs, they're stronger than some of the tunes that made the cut.] ~ Stephen Thomas Erlewine



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