The PJ Tatler

After All the Rage and Screaming, Is U2's Songs of Innocence Any Good?

When Apple released U2’s first new album in years on September 9, the company of the late Steve Jobs surely expected earthwide gratitude. Songs of Innocence was free, after all, it was freaking U2, and iPhone and iPod users didn’t even need to lift a finger or pay anything to get it. It was being pushed to their devices automatically.

Turns out, that was the problem, and one that Apple and U2 should have anticipated. This is the world of the tech-spoiled libertarian socialist millenial and the aging hippy dippy baby boomer. The same people who are too cool to get worked up much over terrorists chopping American heads off in Syria — if they’re even aware of that — scream with bloody rage that a bunch of free songs showed up on their phone without their consent. Hey, life is tough in the First World.

Apple had to roll out a U2 removal tool to quell the volcanic reaction to their decision to give away free stuff.

Had Songs of Innocence merely showed up as a surprise release, but with opt-in instead of opt-out, or with no connection at all to Apple, it would have had a chance to get embraced or rejected on its own merits. That chance was totally lost, and ongoing lack of reaction to the actual music suggests that it will never get a fair shake.

It’s also fair to point out that U2 belongs to the demographic that owns Apple, but not necessarily the demo that’s most passionately in love with the Apple brand. I’d have been annoyed if someone forced music from my parents’ generation onto my phone, despite the fact that I like a lot of it. Give me some Buddy Holly any day — but don’t force it onto my phone without asking, m’kay?

At this point I’ll confess something about U2. The first time I ever heard them, they were still an up-and-coming band. Yeah, I’m that old. A friend handed me the cassette (remember those?) and said “Hey, check this band out. They’re pretty good” or something like that. It wasn’t a particularly memorable conversation and we had had many just like it. He was that guy who knew about the good bands before the rest of us. He introduced me to U2, R.E.M., The Call, Simple Minds and probably a few others that I’ve forgotten. I returned the favor a few times, but mostly with bands that 99.9% of readers will have never heard of — Daniel Amos, and a few others.

The first strains I heard from Bono and company were from Live At Red Rocks. This was in 1983, I think, not long after that album had come out. I was still a kid. I heard U2 early, then, and I absolutely hated them. By the time Bono rang out “How long, how long must we sing this song?” I wondered the same thing. That song seemed to last forever, and not in a good way. That’s right — I immediately hated what has turned out to be one of the great live albums in rock history.

They eventually grew on me, and by the time Joshua Tree came out I was a little wiser and was a confirmed fan. I still remember appreciating the nuances of that album in headphones on my CD player. “Bullet the Blue Sky” still has a visceral edge to it. I missed the tour when it came to Dallas, and have regretted it ever since. I skipped that concert because by then U2 were so huge that everyone was going, and I didn’t want to just follow the crowd. It was pretty stupid, to be honest. They wound up defining the 1980s and the 1990s.

But little did I know at first listen that U2 were bringing a whole lot more to their music than first met the ear. That line, “How long,” was a refrain from a song that the band built atop Psalm 40. What rock band not on an explicitly religious label does that?

Even though Bono titled the song “40,” the reference probably flew past most of his listeners. It flew past me for a while. U2 have had that quality over the years, slipping into deeper waters than most other rockers, while still cranking out hits and successful albums and selling out arenas and reinventing their sound and themselves and kind of gliding around stardom and all that. Rebels with a clue, these guys.

The association with Apple may have finally killed the grander side of U2. Which would be a shame. They’re not just in it to market phones or write hammer tracks for Batman movies.

Unlike most bands who stick around for 30-odd years, U2 really haven’t lost a step. They haven’t gone into nostalgia or self-parody mode. They haven’t replaced their entire lineup with a bunch of sound clones to satisfy suits at a concert-promotion corporation.

They’ve made missteps to be sure — a couple of those experimental 1990s albums and No Line on the Horizon come to mind. Remember when Bono did that Mephisto thing on tour? That was weird. They were into that biggest band in the world thing, no doubt.

But Babe Ruth was baseball’s strikeout king along with being the home run king. U2 have lobbed up some stinkers, but they also created BoyWar, The Joshua Tree, Achtung Baby, All That You Can’t Leave Behind, and now Songs of Innocence. They did “Pride (In the Name of Love),” “Sunday Bloody Sunday” and “With Or Without You” and “Elevation” and “Mysterious Ways” and so many other toweringly great songs. That’s quite a body of success, across a whole lot of time.

I’m not defending them as a fan, and they certainly don’t need me to. It’s just a fact. U2’s body of work is in the conversation as to which is the greatest since rock music came to be. For that, some will love them and some will hate them. That’s life. And they have done it with the same four guys, the same three or four chords (and the truth!) for the most part, and the same or similar visions of life and what music should be.

The title of their last one, the one that generated so much ridiculous rage, probably flies over heads like “40” once did to teenage me. Bono ripped it off from a guy named William Blake. They probably don’t teach any of his work in public schools anymore, which is a shame, because Blake was a beast of a poet and a monster of an artist. His best stuff was just fun to read. Some of his other stuff is still impenetrable. His art ranged from awe-inspiring to scary.

Blake was also a rebel in his day, with his wild red hair in the day of powdered white wigs and his rejection of pretty much every fad around him in late 18th and early 19th century England. William Blake was the opposite of a fanboy. He liked to go out of his way to pick at stuff and tear it apart. He would’ve skipped the Joshua Tree tour, but he would never have regretted it. He would’ve have mocked you for going. He’d be an Android guy, or maybe he’d go off the grid altogether.

But like Bono and the boys, Blake the edgy and controversial poet held onto his essential Christianity all of his life. That’s probably why the schools don’t mention him much now, and why so many have this instinctive hatred for U2 today, apart from the fame backlash. There’s something under the surface that scratches some people.

It’s no accident that U2 called this latest, and possibly last, collection of new material Songs of Innocence. Blake’s book is part of a matched set, Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience. The first was an exuberant collection of vibrant poetry and art. The latter is a dark, foreboding work of terror and sadness. Innocence lost and slid to hell, pretty much. You’re innocent when you’re young, and experience encrusts you with pain and cynicism. Only the young die good.

U2 have trod the opposite path. They emerged in 1980 with Boy, an angry-sounding, terrified-looking and rattly collection that also included a big clue to who they are, in “I Will Follow.” That’s a sad yet thumping song about Bono’s then recently deceased mom, which the band still performs on every tour. But it also carries a secondary message snuck in from Ruth.

After all these years they have gone from being an obscure little Irish band mad at the world to being the biggest band in the world to being kind of hated as establishment sellouts. Get a free album from them now, and it’s socially acceptable to fly into a public rage about it.

If you last long enough in the glare of fame, you’d probably go from hero to villain and back again a few times too, without doing anything in particular to provoke the mood change. Humans are fickle like that. One day you’re a hero, but before long, they want to kill you.

There are adults out there with jobs and houses who don’t know a world in which U2 isn’t four giants astride the pop culture world. Or four derivative hacks who can barely sing and can’t really play guitar backed up by vague lyrics and a killer drummer, depending on what you think of their music. They don’t know Bono before he became so Bono, always talking about poverty and wearing those sunglasses and being kind of a lovable but pretentious dork who is constantly pecking at politicians to forgive Third World debt. There was a time when Bono was just this young guy with a mullet who fronted a little band of schoolmates who wanted to be musicians but they couldn’t even read music. He wasn’t always this easy-to-hate rock colossus. Once upon a time U2 did a Christmas song or two. They did a catchy cover of “Everlasting Love.”

By now, U2 ought to be the most jaded people on the planet. They’re rock’s king billionaires. They have seen everything. They could buy a small country and set themselves up as its despots for life. They have a business empire that spans the globe. There was a time when Bono, the Edge, Adam and Larry could have totally sold out, had any woman and any drug and any thing on earth that they wanted. Two of them did chose new names for themselves in the beginning, silly little rock names that have stuck for a lifetime now.

It turns out that they didn’t get cynical and they’re not jaded, at least if Songs of Innocence is what we have to go by. I finally listened to the entire album at one pull on the way to a gun show over the weekend (hey, I do live in Texas). This album is freaking great, one of the greatest the band has ever produced. There isn’t a bad song on it. I won’t say that it’s Achtung Baby revisited, but it’s very very good.

U2 have mostly gone back to the stripped-down energetic sound of their origins. There are songs on here that would fit with the angry young U2 that shook the world from Dublin as New Wave was tearing through the music scene. There are songs and chords and distortion and lyrics on here that fit with their Berlin phase and later on. And at the same time, they sound like grown-ups who have lost some precious things, and found others along the way.

The quartet aren’t full of themselves either, at least, no more full of themselves than any rock stars are, and a whole lot less than those Apple fanboys who raged at the free album and still will wait days in line for the next wonderwork from Cuppertino that will play catch-up to whatever Samsung has been doing for a year ahead of them.

The final verse of SoI‘s lead tune, “The Miracle (of Joey Ramone),” has Bono putting himself in his own place:

I woke up at the moment when the miracle had come
I get so many things I don’t deserve
All the stolen voices will some day be returned
The most beautiful sound I ever heard

In the age of the humblebrag, what famous person ever says that they have anything that they don’t deserve?

This is the same man who sang, a decade or two ago, that “every artist is a cannibal, every poet is a thief, they all kill their inspiration and sing about their grief.” This is the same man who observed that “If  you want to kiss the sky, you’d better learn how to kneel.” The same belief in those old lyrics keeps showing up in the new ones. Bono doesn’t get lazy and buy ghostwriters.

There’s a word to describe that line from rock royalty about “getting so many things that I don’t deserve” that has become so unfamiliar today, that it has been all but dropped from the English language in favor of fads like “sideboob.”

That word is “humility.” Another is “grace.” We moderns have mostly rejected both.

And we rage when someone gives us something of value for free, requiring no effort on our part to receive it.

It’s hardly the first time humans have done that. And it’s hardly the first time we have raged about it.

The tale of grace and rejection isn’t lost on U2; they address it in “Cedarwood Road.”

If the door is open it isn’t theft
You can’t return to where you’ve never left
Blossoms falling from a tree they cover you and cover me
Symbols clashing, bibles smashing
Paint the world you need to see
Sometimes fear is the only place that we can call our home

Pulled away from the Apple hype and the biggest band in the world noise, U2 are still capable of being the most interesting and surprising band in the world, even if some people hate them now because it’s fashionable and there’s always some new popular backlash to chase and post about on Twitter and Facebook. For all that they’ve seen and heard and done and failed at, U2 are still four Irish lads who have come through it all with something that few in this world ever really have.

It’s not their pile of money, or their fame, or their ridiculous influence on all of rock that trails in their wake. It’s not their Super Bowl show or their status atop the rock heap. It’s something that you can’t buy.

Songs of Innocence brings evidence that Paul Hewson and his mates have discovered something simpler, deeper, and greater, at this stage of their lives. That thing is joy.

Songs of Innocence is infused with it, and something else too. The terrified Boy from 1980 who had lost his mom, has found a measure of peace.