Does U2's critically acclaimed new album 'Songs of Innocence' belie behind-the-scenes turmoil?
U2's new album is swaggering and brash – a confident return to stadium rock first principles. But the surface shimmer belies a great deal of behind the scenes turmoil.
Lest we forget Songs Of Innocence was originally supposed to come out in March or April. There was the usual pre-release froth: an Oscar performance, the debuting of a new song at the Superbowl, magazine covers. And then… nothing.
The stumbling point, it is believed, were fears the LP might underwhelm. It lacked the U2 'spark' - the strident qualities that have made them both critically respectable (in so far as one of the world's biggest groups can be) and globally adored.
"That magic that the band always seems to capture ... they have yet to capture it," one source informed Billboard magazine.
After 2009's uncharacteristically bleary No Line On The Horizon – a long player severely in need of several cups of coffee and some fresh air – they were canny enough to understand they could not underperform twice. Two duds in a row would leave them staring into the abyss of middle-age irrelevance – an anathema to an outfit for whom staying on top of pop's food pyramid is said to be an obsession.
One rumor is that they felt the experimental direction they had taken was not, in itself, sufficient. Working with one of the most credible producers in pop, Brian 'Danger Mouse' Burton, the band had pushed themselves sonically. However, they lacked a knock-out single of the sort that could elevate a collection of engaging songs into a project that was commercially potent. Plus, rival mega-groups were gearing up for a busy summer. For U2, returning to the studio with hit-makers Paul Epworth (Adele, Florence and the Machine), Ryan Tedder (Beyonce) and Flood (a long term collaborator), was deemed the pragmatic option.
"Coldplay have announced their new album will be out in May and I think that might be something to do with it," Mick Kearns, who performs as 'Edge' in U2 tribute act The Joshua Tree told me in March. "Also in my circles of U2 geeks I've heard Larry is not happy with [the new record]".
Far from a radical departure, by every account the frantic last minute slapping together of a more dynamic LP is typical of U2. Those who know them speak, approvingly, of a group happy to fly by the sea of their pants. Some musicians plan in meticulous detail; for U2, inspiration often arrives off the cuff, under tremendous pressure. Such, you suspect, were the circumstances in which the final gloss was applied to Songs of Innocence over the summer.
"Every record they start, they begin thinking they are the world's worst band," long-time collaborator Steve Lillywhite, told me in 2009 as the quartet prepped No Line On The Horizon. "They have to go and make themselves the world's best band. It takes a long time to go from the worst to the best within the writing of an album."
The portrait he painted was of good-natured mayhem in the studio, ideas coming together at the final moment.
"A lot of time Bono is writing lyrics to impress the rest of them," he told me. "Bono will write some lyrics and maybe Larry or Adam will walk in and say 'I'm not really sure I like that line'. And Bono will change it. And then Edge will walk in and say 'what happened to that line? – I really liked it'. So then he'll change it to a third one. Bono wants all his family to be happy with the lyrics he's written.
"U2 is definitely a great big family. There's a a little bit of dysfunction. But that's good for the music sometimes. They can say whatever they want and no one takes offence because, ten minutes later, you're onto the next thing."
In arranging with Apple to gift the new album gratis via iTunes, U2 have demonstrated they remain experts at marshaling a media sensation (when Beyonce similarly released her LP out of the blue in December it generated one tenth the publicity). Still, not everyone believes the Dubliners are acting for the greater good. One prominent critic is esteemed producer Stephen Street (Morrissey, The Cranberries) who, via Twitter, suggested U2 were undermining fellow musicians.
"Giving away recorded music is not a model that helps most signed acts trying to climb the ladder,"he said, adding U2's move was "a disservice to rest of industry".
How much of Danger Mouse's original production is front and centre on the final record is hard to discern, even after several listens. You can twig his influence on the LCD Soundsystem- esque Iris (Hold Me Close) – a paean to Bono's mother – and woozy closer The Troubles. On immediate stand-outs such as The Miracle (Of Joey Ramone) and Volcano, though, it is the maximalist touch of Epworth and Tedder that jumps out at you, the riffs and grooves electrified by their anthemic arena sound.
Of course, with Songs Of Innocence expected to top charts worldwide (notwithstanding the iTunes giveaway, for which Apple is rumored to have ponied up $100 million) and serve as spring board for another exceedingly profitable world tour, U2 will no doubt judge the extra effort worthwhile. You don't get to be world's biggest band by taking the easy option.