Songs of Innocence
Sep 11, 2014 Web Exclusive
"They'll never stop The Simpsons," sang Dan Castellaneta at the end of "Gump Roast," a critically slated clip show episode from the long-running cartoon. "Have no fear we've got ideas for years." That was back in the series' 13th season and it's hard to argue that in the dozen years since that The Simpsons retains the cultural importance of its golden age, if any at all. Certainly the second half of that line rings false: the vast majority of episodes since then have been lacking in ideas, feeling stale compared to the biting relevance of the good times.
Plodding along the exact same furrow are U2. Beloved, rightly, for a vast body of work decades ago that any music lover worth their salt admires and respects if not enjoys, on they've gone since 1997 with increasingly diminishing results that reached a nadir with 2009's dreary No Line on the Horizon (can someone please call Rolling Stone's David Fricke to see how he now feels about calling it "U2's best...since 1991's Achtung Baby"?). After seeing his album yield just one hit and no songs anyone can remember five years down the line, Bono reportedly grew frustrated and wanted to take his band's sound in a new direction as he had with the thrilling Achtung Baby. Here we are then, with the result of five years of creative soul searching: U2 have smashed the mould... and rebuilt the exact same mould.
It's not that the songs on here are necessarily terrible; certainly there's nothing to plumb the depths of "Elevation" or "Get on your Boots," but rather that Songs of Innocence is a soulless and unwanted lump of shiny plastic. It's like when The Simpsons went HD. Gone is the heart, the tenderness of "And Maggie Makes Three"/"All I Want is You" or "Mother Simpson"/"One Tree Hill." Instead there is a glossy sheen to the album, five producers flattened under apparent instruction. Unsurprisingly, for a band that has got into bed with the iPhone manufacturers, it sounds like an Apple store. "Song for Someone" is the album's big anthem, complete with its reverb-laden "yeaahhh-eee-yeaaahh" hook and predictable minimalist guitar lines and swelling crescendo, but let me be more specific Bono: it's a song for thick sociopaths who can't form emotional attachments and have to have them manufactured—iFeelings—to wave their smartphones in the air to once they've paid $85 to see you in some stadium somewhere.
The songs on the first half of the album are bad, but it would be remiss not to note that there's an improvement as it goes on. "This Is Where You Can Reach Me Now" heavily features rubbish vocal harmonies but does reach back to those Zooropa-era weird guitars, while "The Troubles," which features guest vocals from Lykke Li, is tender and minimalist. It's a nice reminder of what U2 could still do if they weren't, as Neil Finn so perfectly and pithily put it, addicted to big. The problem is that there aren't enough ideas here to justify the album. When they're not self-plagiarising, as they are on "Every Breaking Wave," the intro to which is essentially a polished "With or Without You," they're outright ripping off riffs, as is the case on "Volcano" (Neil Young's "Hey Hey My My (Into the Black)" played on bass) and "Cedarwood Road" (the DER-DER-DER-DER-DER bit from Radiohead's "Paranoid Android").
A new U2 album in the same mould as their last is something that no one was waiting for, let alone wanted forced upon them as this was, downloaded automatically on to the computers and phones of 500 million people with an iTunes account. Ultimately I'd rather go back and watch my season eight DVD of The Simpsons than catch the new episodes and if I'm in the mood for U2 I'll listen to The Joshua Tree rather than anything post-Pop. When the aliens land and come to me as their cultural oracle asking to hear about "this U2 we've heard all about," nothing from Songs of Innocence will be considered for the mixtape. (www.u2.com)
Author rating: 3.5/10
Average reader rating: 7/10
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