It's said that in the early 1970s, the first Premier of the People's Republic of China, Chou En Lai, upon being asked to assess the impact of the French Revolution almost two centuries earlier, replied: "It's too soon to tell."
I have similar reservations about U2's new album, Songs Of Innocence. You need a good six months to take it all in - or in Bono's case, on this, his most personal set of lyrics ever committed to music, you need a lifetime to take your life in. Unlike any other U2 album, Songs Of Innocence (a fine title if you resist bristling at the William Blake allusion, said Spin magazine) is Bono and his band of brothers looking back on their beginnings, their past, their roots, and the city and the streets with names like Cedarwood that made them. It's a magical mystery tour into their inner beings; it is often like reading Bono's private diary from an earlier age. "I've seen for myself/There's no end to grief," he sings on California (There Is No End To Love).
Songs Of Innocence, U2's 13th studio album, is Bono's not-so-innocent life on record. "Hold me close," he sings on Iris (Hold Me Close) about his mother Iris Hewson, who passed away in 1974, "I've got your light inside of me." And then: "The star that gives us light has been gone a while/But it's not an illusion." On Volcano, it is not an illusion at all what Bono is feeling - it is that very physical buried rage of losing his mother. (Maybe the whole album is, in that John Lennon way, about his mother's death and the effect, emotional, psychological and spiritual, she had on his life.) It's as if the past, and in particular, his mother's death when he was only 14, holds, not unreasonably, the key to the riddles in Bono's personality and his life.
"Something in you wants to blow," Bono sings on the discordant therapy-speak of Volcano. "You're on a piece of ground above a volcano." In terms of the volcano, Bono once told New York Times' writer James Traub about the aftermath of his mother's death: being left with, he reflected, an older brother and a father who, he has said, "would always pour salt - and vinegar - onto the wound."
The Troubles is probably closer to an examination of a troubled young man who lost his mother at an early age, and became preternaturally sensitive to the world around him, than any trenchant analysis of the North. "I have a will for survival/So you can hurt me/Then hurt me some more/I can live with denial/But you're not my troubles anymore," he sings.
The landscape of Bono's Dublin during his youth is rich with meaning both physical and metaphysical: on Cedarwood Road, he sings that "you can't return to where you never left. I'm still standing on that street." (The song is dedicated to Guggi, who grew up on that Finglas road with Bono). This Is Where You Can Reach Me Now takes its inspiration from a concert featuring The Clash in Dublin in 1977.
The Edge is paying homage, too, with the sound on this track echoing The Clash's sound on the Sandinista! album. Undettered, Bono does his own homage to childhood sweetheart and wife Ali on Song for Someone: "If there is a kiss I stole from your mouth," the Messianic existentialist/sweet Northside Dublin boy-at-heart sings. "And if there is a light, don't let it go out."
Musically in parts it is probably a bit too much like Coldplay, Snow Patrol and The Killers or even Franz Ferdinand (on Volcano) for comfort. But that is like excoriating The Beatles for sounding like Oasis, or The Velvet Underground for sounding like the Jesus & Mary Chain.
Or even excoriating God for sounding like Bono...