This is the first album review I’ve written in years. I thought it would be appropriate for me to write considering my earlier 100 percent accurate ranking of U2’s albums and that I am the only pop culture observer to have the bravery to say The Joshua Tree is a piece of shit.
So my opinion on U2’s Songs of Innocence needs to be heard.
But first, a quick word about album reviews: they are stupid. Only the rare sociopathic loner buys music based on them. Everybody up and down the music food chain knows that. Writing about music is really difficult and doing it on deadline is almost impossible. Music is about sound and feeling and the written words is about about silence and reason. The writer is always tempted to start a sentence with a variation of the phrase “it’s like” and employ shopworn clichés like “cross between” and “on drugs” or resort to tossed word salad with hipster catch-phrase dressing (aka: this rickity rocket of a rocker hits the proverbial fence like William Shatner on a bender).
Sidenote: as my old Hartford Advocate buddy Katie Vrabel noted, heavy metal reviewers have a disturbing love of the word “bowel,” which is gross and loaded with uncomfortable Freudian implications.
And while you can walk away from watching a movie or reading a book confident you’ve had a complete experience with a work of art, music is rarely understood on initial listen. You might have to hear something for the fifth or six time, on the right sound system, in the right context, to understand it. That’s why old reviews of classic albums sound they’re written by a smug asshole with shitty taste (looking at you, Christgau).
That said: if you can accept that Songs of Innocence is as much a commodity as the iPhone Watch, it’s pretty good! It’s a c plus collection of songs elevated to a b minus by virtue of Danger Mouse’s production. You’ll hear the choruses blaring in car commercials, sporting events and movie trailers and you may catch yourself singing along in spite of yourself.
U2’s greatest strength remains their seeming unforced ability to create enormous rock hooks. It’s easy to take for granted over the course of a whole album, but it’s really remarkable that every song is ready for arena fist pumping. So even if a song limps out of the gate it’ll hit a hard stride by the time it gets to the chorus.
The song titles are strange clunkers, but I have to applaud U2’s confidence in putting out such naked first drafts. On first listen, Bono doesn’t seem to say anything too stupid in the lyrics except for the musty title of “Sleep Like a Baby.”
The album kicks off with the first of a handful of rockers, the regrettably titled “Miracle (Of Joey Ramone). It’s an anthemic intro and verse and an impeccable build to a let down, limp chorus. The song hangs on a distorted guitar riff that record producers are going to rip off for the next three years. It’s like an alien race reverse engineered the sound of a distorted guitar with nanotechnology. “Raised by Wolves” sounds like it might actually sample guitar sounds from “New Year’s Day.”
“Every Breaking Wave” is a beautiful song with an intro calling back to The Joshua Tree and a chorus that seems written for a Jennifer Aniston romantic comedy movie trailer.
Dangermouse lends “Cedarwood Road,” the other conspicuous rocker, the same polished grit he brought to The Black Keys’ Attack and Release. The atavistically simple minor third single note riff that opens the song could comfortably play over the closing credits of a Sopranos episode. It’s here and on the intro of Miracle that his influence is most strongly felt.
“Sleep Like a Baby” is an early frontrunner for my favorite track on the album. The title is really a pity because it’s actually otherwise strong lyrically, with great lines like “eyes as red as Christmas” and “dreaming is a dirty business” floating over Eurythmics-inflected trip hop and punctuated by a beautiful electronic welp of a guitar solo outro. The synth-pop on “SLAB” and the B-52s organ and jagged new wave guitar on “This is Where you Can Reach me Now” makes me wish they had gone full ’80s but I guess that’s not possible.
Maybe I’ll write about this album again in a couple weeks. But the critical question: how does this effect The Definitive Ranking of U2 Albums? Sorry, All that You Can’t Leave Behind. Hope you weren’t too comfortable in sixth place. Building on the experimental anthem electro-rock of their previous two albums, Songs of Innocence is officially ranked behind War, Zooropa, Achtung Baby and Boy.