Like a thunderclap from the clear blue sky it appeared : U2's first album in five years. In what surely rates as one of the entertainment industry surprises of 2014 the band announced Songs Of Innocence was being made available immediately for free download to Apples iTunes subscribers, after they had performed their new single The Miracle (Of Joey Ramone) at an Apple press conference in California.
The tens of thousands who rushed straight to their computers to listen to the record will be glad they took the time. Soaring and strident, Songs Of Innocence sees the Dubliners going back, with palpable confidence, to what they are best at: uncomplicated rock anthems with vast, uplifting choruses and guitars that shoot for the moon. Indeed, at moments, it almost feels as if U2 are ticking off a check-list of signature tics and tropes. Earnest vocal overreach from Bono, glittering Edge solos, mid-tempo ballads that hum with spiritual yearning – devotees may be pleased to know U2 have dived into their wardrobe of cliches and emerged with arms full. Not since 2000's All That You Can't Leave Behind have U2 sounded so fully comfortable with the idea of being U2.
Throughout Songs Of Innocence, the quartet's 30 year catalogue is rifled shamelessly. The cloud scraping 'woah-oah-oah' of The Miracle of (Joey Ramone), which kicks the LP off, has tinges of early 2000s hit Elevation; the processed grandiosity of California (There Is No End To Love) suggests a missing outtake from How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb.
U2 were rumoured to have pulled the album's release date in March, fearful the project lacked a knock-out hit (they were stung when Get On Your Boots, the lead single from No Line On The Horizon, flopped in 2009). They appear to have remedied that issue by hooking up with producer and songwriter Ryan Tedder on Song For Someone, a brash, buoyant radio clarion call that, as it achieves escape velocity, practically explodes from the subwoofer (even if, as will be the case for many, your first experience of listening to the album is on tinny computer speakers ).
But though U2 are self-evidently eager to continue their reign as world's biggest band – a title increasingly under threat from younger acts such as Coldplay, The Killers and Arcade Fire – Songs Of Innocence is about looking back as much as forward. Bono, especially, seems to be wrestling with growing older, and his changing relationship with the past. On Raised By Wolves and Cedarwood Road he ruminates on his upbringing on the Northside of Dublin ( there are further Irish references on soulful closer, The Troubles ,with backing warblings from Sweden's Lykke Li). The chiming Iris (Hold Me Close) will, for its part, be interpreted as a valentine to his mother (for whom, one assumes, it is named).
With its ghostly, glittering groove Iris is one of several tracks where the influence of producer Brian "Danger Mouse" Burton can be detected. Burton was originally due to oversee the entire record. However, following the release push back in spring, U2 returned to tried and trusted collaborators such as Mark Ellis (aka Flood) and engineer Declan Gaffney as well as Adele producer Paul Epworth and the aforementioned Tedder. Together they have concocted a grandiose, in places slightly ridiculous LP, richly provisioned with thumping riffs, histrionic vocals and Technicolor choruses. Recoiling from the monochrome bombast of No Line On The Horizon, U2's 13th album is their most unrestrained in quite a while – it may well be one of their finest too.