A year and a half ago, U2 released their latest album, Songs of Innocence, to every iTunes account for free, so if you have iTunes, you have the album. I’ve long toyed with penning my thoughts on the album, but its taken me a while to put them together, so here goes nothing…
The name of the album signifies a return to the band’s roots, as an aspiring punk band in Dublin and opens with an edgey tune (pun intended) punctuated with hard riff and distortion on The Miracle (of Joey Ramone) reminiscent of 70s punk which spawned the band. The song chronicles the band’s experience sneaking into a Ramones concert while U2 was still unknown – Bono had been told he sang like a girl and girls didn’t sing punk. Bono states that hearing Joey Ramone’s voice gave him the inspiration to find his voice “so I can exaggerate my pain and give it a name.”
The second song of the album, Every Breaking Wave. is driven by a steady bass and drum beat while the Edge articulates with his guitar what Bono can’t vocalize. Lyrically, the song is a cry for fidelity in the face of temptation. Every breaking wave on the shore / tells the next one there’ll be one more. Reminiscent of the Joshua Tree’s great love song, With or Without You, Bono asks, “If you go your way and I go mine…are we so helpless against the tide?” Answer to the temptation isn’t to cling fast to the shore, but to go deeper in love: “Are we ready to be swept off our feet and stop chasing every breaking wave?” … a great question we all can ask ourselves. Those who actually purchase the album are treated to a powerful acoustic version of the song, which caused a friend of mine to remark, “Bono’s still got it.”
The third and fifth songs are tied together. California begins with a Beach Boys-esque harmonization as the Bono recalls the band’s first visit to Los Angeles – “the polar opposite of Dublin” Bono writes in the album cover. Bono set out in search of Bob Dylan’s house on that visit – because Dylan couldn’t sing – and then Brian Wilson’s house (hence the intro to the song) – because “Brian sang like a girl too.” And while California seemed as far away from Dublin as the end of the world, Bono sings “all I know and all I need to know is there is no end to love.” He writes in the ablum cover “there is no end to grief…that’s how I know there is no end to love.” The comment is a reference to the loss of his mother who suffered an aneurysm at her own father’s burial when Bono was 14 years old. Iris (Hold Me Close) begins with a synthesized version of the Irish pipes which play a sorrowful tune in 1981’s Tomorrow from U2’s sophomore album, October – once again, tying the old in with the new. Bono writes that on death “we tend to look the other way until the spectre’s face enters our own” and sings movingly, “Something in your eyes took a thousand years to get here…I’ve got your life inside of me.” While in Tomorrow Bono cries out “I want you to come back tomorrow” in Iris the cry is “Hold me close and don’t let me go / Hold me close like I’m someone that you might know.”
The fourth song is the crowning jewel of the album, in my opinion. Song for Someone is about intimacy, forgiveness, love, and, ultimately, prayer. From the opening words of the song, “you’ve got a face not spoiled by beauty/ I have some scars from where I’ve been…” Bono’s contrasting himself to an Other, Someone greater than he. “You let me in to a conversation / a conversation only we could make.” The imagery throughout the song is beautiful, invoking marital intimacy and healing one’s brokenness. “And this is a song, song for someone.” The unnamed someone is someone who stand outside time and beauty, someone who can heal our wounds. Written in the same vein as U2 classics like Bad, All I Want is You, One, and Kite, the song starts soft and reaches a towering crescendo in the middle. Bono admits to doing too much in many of their earlier songs and at the climax of Song for Someone he’s content to let the Edge explore the unspoken spaces between verses in this song for an unnamed someone. As the music retreats to a simple melody on piano, Bono closes the song for someone with the hint of who he’s singing to while echoing the band’s classic, Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For:
And I’m a long long way from your Hill of Calvary / And I’m a long way from where I was and where I need to be…there is a light, don’t let it go out.
The sixth and tenth songs, Volcano and This is Where You Can Reach Me Now, are heavy dance infused beats which may recall memories of the band’s ventures into electronica in the 90s with Zooropa, Pop and the pseudonymous Passengers. However the heavy bass and guitars are also reminiscent of the Clash and INXS and are downright fun to listen to.
The fun is gone in the seventh and ninth songs of the album, Raised by Wolves and Sleep Like a Baby Tonight. Sleep Like a Baby Tonight Bono’s voice is masked with stings and effects and the Edge slashes thru it all making it an incredibly haunting tune. Raised by Wolves chronicles growing up witnessing the violence of Northern Ireland. The song has an edge (no pun this time) and an urgency that I can’t really recall any other tunes of the band’s having. The song puts you on alert, feeling like a bomb is about to go off, indeed the song specifically recalls the twin IRA bombings on a Friday afternoon in Dublin and Monaghan. Interestingly, U2’s last album had a song called White as Snow, which imagined the final thoughts of a soldier dying from an IED explosion in Iraq. In that song the fictitious soldier recalled, “As boys we would go hunting in the wood/ To sleep, the night shun out the stars/ Now the wolves are every passing stranger…” Its more than coincidence that the mention of wolves attacking has arisen on back to back albums.
Raised by Wolves deliberately recalls Ireland’s Troubles, and so its apt that the eleventh song is named The Troubles. The defiance in the lyrics recalls Sunday Bloody Sunday even if the music doesn’t: “I have a will for survival/so you can hurt me then hurt me some more…but you’re not my troubles anymore.”
As so much of this album looks back to the band’s beginning, and the eighth song is entitled Cedarwood Road, the street address of Bono’s boyhood home. The song captures the fear and hope the band must have faced as boys in a place that’s been wounded, slowly healing but above all, is still home. The song ends with the line, “a heart that is broken, is a heart that is open.”
The actual album contains a second CD, which has two bonus songs – Lucifer’s Hands, where Bono defiantly shouts, “you no longer got a hold of me, I’m out of Lucifer’s hands” – and The Crystal Ballroom, which is heavy on the beat and sounds like a dance club, it fits with Volcano and This is Where you Can Reach Me Now. The bonus CD also contains alternate versions of The Miracle, The Troubles and Sleep Like a Baby Tonight. In my opinion, the best part of the second album is the Acoustic Sessions which features Every Breaking Wave and Song for Someone in stripped-down acoustic versions, as well as Cedarwood Road, The Miracle, The Troubles, and Raised by Wolves.
All in all, I thought the album is one of the best U2 has put out recently. As a big fan of U2, its hard to rank where I’d put this one, but for my money, I’d say its the best one in the post-Joshua Tree era, for non-U2 fans, that’s a way of saying it’s the best in 25 years. It’s been almost two years since the release and if you haven’t listened to it on your ITunes yet, it’s time to do so.