The most comprehensive review of U2's 'Songs of Innocence' you're going to read, by John Meagher
You’ve read all those ‘first listen’ reviews. John Meagher has lived with the new U2 album for the past few days. Here’s his assessment.
In 1974, Bono was 14, and it would prove to be a seismic year for him – for all the wrong reasons.
His mother Iris died suddenly of a brain aneurysm and he and his older brother Norman would spend the remainder of their teenage years being brought up by their gruff and taciturn but loving father Bob.
If that marked the end of a certain type of innocence for young Paul Hewson, then the Dublin-Monaghan bombings of the same year must have provided another indicator to him that the world can be a cruel and heartless place.
Forty years on and both events take centre stage on U2’s latest album whose pointed title references William Blake. The English poet has long been an important cultural touchstone for Bono and friends – ‘With A Shout’ from second album October was inspired by Blake while his celebrated hymn ‘Jerusalem’ was belted out by Bono during the band’s headline set at Glastonbury a couple of years ago.
But back to ’74 and its legacy. On the highly personal ‘Iris’. Bono examines the fall-out of his mother’s death in lyrics that are intensely raw and painful. “The ache in my heart,” he sings, “is so much a part of who I am.” It’s a highly affecting song – especially for anyone who lost a parent as a child.
Then, there’s the dark, foreboding ‘Raised by Wolves’, which ruminates on the deaths of 33 people in the worst single terrorist atrocity of the entire troubles. Three bombs were detonated in Dublin that Friday evening in May, but it’s the one in Talbot Street that Bono hones in on – right up to the registration number of the stolen “blue mink Ford” in which the device was placed. “Boy sees his father crushed under the weight/ Of a cross in a passion where the passion is hate.”
No other album in the U2 canon looks back to the past quite as much as this one. Cederwood Road is the name of the street in north Dublin where Bono was raised and also provides the title for a song that attempts to evoke the joys and fears of being a teenager growing up in a rough part of urban Ireland at the tail-end of the 1970s. Some have questioned just how middle class or otherwise Bono’s formative years truly were, but this song suggests he occasionally ran the gauntlet from various street gangs.
Elsewhere, Bono namechecks two of the heroes of his childhood – Joey Ramone and Joe Strummer – and the band deliver a punk attack that attempts to do justice to both men, albeit with mixed results.
A snarky review in the Financial Times counted the number of first person references on the album, with Bono reportedly saying “I” 137 times. It’s true that it sometimes feels as though we’re listening to the frontman’s solo debut – there’s certainly fewer Edge trademark guitar work than before, for instance.
The closing track essentially dispenses with Edge, Adam Clayton and Larry Mullen and finds Bono duetting with the gifted young Swede Lykke Li over a sumptuous orchestral arrangement. The resulting song, ‘The Troubles’, is up there with the best tracks of the band’s career, not least in that moment when it builds into the most stirring finale. It helps, too, that the voices of Bono and Li compliment each other so well.
But one can’t help feeling that Songs of Innocence is not a terribly cohesive album and one wonders just how much of the band’s contribution was left on the cutting room floor.
When it was finally unveiled at the Apple product launch on Tuesday, it marked the end of an apparently torturous five years when U2’s creativity seemed to have run aground. And even the most obsessed fan of the band might have trouble making a case for the merits of a song like (the Joe Strummer-referencing) ‘This Is Where You Can Reach Me Now’ with its misguided effort to channel a ska-punk aesthetic. Similarly ‘Raised by Wolves’ is let down by the oh-so-flat arrangements – a particular shame as Bono’s observations are well worth investigation.
Weirdly, the album also feels both laboured and rushed – which is quite an achievement when you think about it. The lack of a central producer also detracts from the songs – the fingerprints of Brian “Danger Mouse” Burton are over some of the more intriguing moments (including ‘The Troubles’) while the Irish producer Declan Gaffney makes his presence felt too. The contribution of the more pop-oriented boffins, Ryan Tedder and Paul Epworth, are much harder to ascertain.
Twitter has been full of angry people annoyed that this album has turned up on their iTunes accounts without their permission, but even those largely immune to U2 might be taken by its mix of straight-up rock and heartfelt reminiscences.
Ultimately, though, Songs of Innocence is likely to come to be seen as mid-level U2 – it’s a long way off the level of The Unforgettable Fire and Achtung Baby. But talk of artistic bankruptcy is not relevant just yet.