Only the Rolling Stones can claim an evolution as variable as U2’s; Bono himself has gone from baby-faced new waver to long haired 80’s rocker to international rock star to tongue in cheek pop shocker, and now in this past decade, to sunglass wearing celebrity. Some criticize bands like U2 and The Stones for continuing to play music well into their years, but why should they? Proper rock musicians have only been around for the past fifty years as it is; there has never been a precedent for retirement. At 95 Chuck Berry still plays a regular once a month gig at a local venue in St. Louis, and B.B King has never stopped touring despite having already surpassed the average American life expectancy by ten years. In comparison U2 is still youthful at 38, and despite rumors of splitting the band has just come out with an album of post-apocalyptic proportions in every aspect. As of yesterday it stands as the only record in history to have been owned by 500 million people at the moment of its release, and as the band’s first album in five years its unexpected arrival could not have created more of a global flurry. In a letter to fans Bono wrote that U2 is “collaborating with Apple on some cool stuff over the next couple of years, innovations that will transform the way music is listened to and viewed.” If this is truly the case, then the album might be the impetus of a new direction for U2, albeit a currently foggy and unknown direction.
As a free, preloaded download on ITunes, Songs of Innocence represents the largest album drop of all time, and is now theoretically owned by every ITunes customer in 119 countries. In recent years U2 has attracted the misguided dissent of millennials who claim Bono’s extensive humanitarian work to be something akin to a long-played publicity stunt (which is an argument for another time), however it would be foolish for even them to ignore what has been done by both the band and Apple. Music is losing its viability as a commodity with applications such as Spotify and Pandora about; this move on U2’s part regards the future of music sharing to be something far more accessible than what the previous decade has let on. It may only be a matter of time before Apple starts to revamp the role of ITunes as a music provider -or perhaps creates a more ‘Spotify-esque’ player- and of course, as Apple does so will others. While premature, it seems that the expiration date fixed to the current practice of music commerce may soon pave way for the wet dream of former LimeWire-ers; free, widespread, and legally provided music. And Apple couldn’t have picked a better album to spur on this new age.
Songs of Innocence, which has been described so tactfully by Noisey’s savvy Dan Ozzi as “a gross confluence of self-promotion, commercialization of music, and corporate dick-suckery,” stands as a testament to the genuine lack of taste held by Ozzi. The record is distinctly U2, standing as a bittersweet and autobiographical narrative of the band’s past forty years. Bono sings with the same lyricism that crafted the landmark success of 1991’s Achtung Baby, while touting an intimate maturity that has only occasionally come out in previous albums (“Sometimes You Can’t Make it On Your Own” “Moment of Surrender”). Keeping true to their arena-rock sound of the 1990’s, anthemic guitar and militant percussion abound, and are joined by a distinct and polarizing pop-rock production value that can occasionally overpower the album. There is no hiding that U2 is progressing towards a new immediate sound, one that relies on ambience and the glittery churning of keyboards and distortion. It is by far the pop-iest of U2’s albums -surpassing the glossy aims of 1997’s Pop- yet traverses territory distant from the majority of 21st century pop. These truly are songs of innocence; reflections on growth and relationships that ultimately resolve with the bleak prospects that come with age. Unlike their previous albums Innocence concerns itself little with love, as one of the most powerful tracks- “Iris”- details the death of Bono’s mother when he was 14, and the most haunting- Raised by Wolves- chronicles the aftermath of an Irish car bombing. Innocence draws significance from its discomfort, not caring to sell itself as a universally palatable album. It is arguably the most direct work the band has yet made, and easily the darkest.
However much melancholy Songs of Innocence presents, Bono has already risen hopes for the release of a sister project called Songs of Experience. No date has been set for it, and as it stands there is no indication if anything has yet been recorded. But with a tour coming up, and the physical release of the new album set for October, U2 is gaining a forceful momentum, possibly enough to propel them into the next decade.
One can only hope.