The last time U2 released an album was so long ago that I was still over at the old place. I was also childless, which seems like a world ago. Anyway, when I reviewed 2009’s No Line On The Horizon, my take was that a U2 album now is just about setting up the live experience. That they were so much more than a studio band and, while the riffs were great, I felt like I was missing something hearing them not bouncing off of a stadium wall. Listening to that album again, I feel like that was accurate, but I also ended up being too harsh on them for what was a really good album.
All of which is to say that Songs Of Innocence is not No Line On The Horizon. This feels much smaller, very solitary. It’s headphones music, night driving music. It’s not big, ringing epic rock and roll, relying more on atmospheric synths than their recent records have. (The lead single, “The Miracle (Of Joey Ramone),” is their closest thing to that, and it’s not enough to hold a crowd live.) In line with that, it’s also kind of boring. Most of these songs are good, and they’re all at least fine-with-good-parts. But, and this is crazy for an album that took five years to make, many of them sound half baked. There are stretches mid song that meander aimlessly, unsure of what they want to say or be. Bono’s lyrics are probably the worst of his career, and their badness is reinforced by him resorting to melisma and “whoa whoa whoa” and “oh oh oh” too often. Also “ooh ooh ooh.”
Another break from the typical U2 album, where the best songs are front-loaded, is that the best half of this album is its latter. There are only two likes in the first five tracks and then five of the last six get that rating.
I haven’t been giving out many “and-a-half” ratings lately. I had been agonizing too much over whether something was, say, three or 3.5 clowns. And I just decided that if I could clearly distinguish between the integer clown values that I would go with that. But an album like this is exactly why I brought in the half-clowns in the first place: it has too many faults to be a four-clown album, but I enjoy listening to it more than a three-clown album, which is a bit more of a begrudging like. Still, we’re probably in the bottom third of U2’s catalog when ranking by quality here. Now, that’s obviously a very big handicap for a new release of theirs, but, well, what else are you going to compare it to? They’re kind of their own center of gravity, you know?
Like: “Every Breaking Wave,” “California (There Is No End To Love),” “Volcano,” “Raised By Wolves,” “Sleep Like A Baby Tonight,” “This Is Where You Can Reach Me Now,” “The Troubles”
Meh: “The Miracle (Of Joey Ramone),” “Song For Someone,” “Iris (Hold Me Close),” “Cedarwood Road”
Song Notes: After the jump
- The Miracle (Of Joey Ramone) – this is a good song but you couldn’t tell so much from this recording. The version on the bonus disc, which I merely dabbled in, is much better
- Every Breaking Wave – starts like “With Or Without You”. Bad lyrics: “speak into an answer phone”. Also I think he’s talking about chasing breaking winds half the time.
- California (There Is No End To Love) – could be about Prop 8 (probably that) or UCSB. Bad lyrics: “All I know, and all I need to know, is that there is no, yeah there is no end to love”. Nice reference to Beach Boys’ “Barbara Ann” at the beginning.
- Song For Someone –
- Iris (Hold Me Close) –
- Volcano – gets boring in stretches but pretty good
- Raised By Wolves – hate the growls in vox at the top. Great chorus, maybe the best on album. Bad lyrics: “My body’s now a toilet wall”
- Cedarwood Road – really boring intro but then a cool riff. You don’t have to always do your intro riff four bars, spesh if it’s boring. Bad lyrics: “If the door is open it isn’t theft”
- Sleep Like A Baby Tonight – Sounds a lot like Arctic Monkeys’ “Do I Wanna Know”. Might be my fave if it didn’t sound so similar.
- This Is Where You Can Reach Me Now –
- The Troubles – Hate the backup vox doing the “somebody stepped inside your soul,” which is also a bad lyrics stuff. Again, don’t do the boring riff for four bars.