“Songs Of Innocence”
by Michael Webb
There used to be a joke that circulated about U2. The joke says that a recently deceased rock fan is being shown around heaven by St. Peter, when she sees someone with wraparound sunglasses and a leather jacket singing “Sunday Bloody Sunday”.
“Oh my goodness,” she says to St. Peter. “I didn’t know Bono was dead!”
“No no no,” replies St. Peter. “Bono isn’t dead. No, that’s just God pretending to be Bono.”
U2 has come a long way since 1980’s “Boy”. Beginning life as punk rock, they have evolved over time, exploring what a rock group and rock music can be. For a time they were criticized as overwrought and preachy, then appropriative and poorly derivative, then overdone and out of touch. U2, throughout all the name calling, has gone to where the muse has pulled them, influenced but not dominated by those who came before. “Songs of Innocence” can perhaps be described as a reaction to modern trends, but, as with all their work, this is unquestionably a U2 record.
(The charge of being derivative has always rung hollow for me. If all of philosophy is footnotes to Plato, then all of rock music is footnotes to Chuck Berry. Watch a young Berry performing “Johnny B. Goode”, and you’ll see poses that Eddie Van Halen would use 30 years on. Everything old comes back in style, and you’re not borrowing, you’re not paying attention. And as for being preachy? If you were suddenly thrust into a position where your every utterance was recorded and broadcast, there are worse things to do than use your pulpit to advocate for the things that you believe in. )
The disc begins with “The Miracle (Of Joey Ramone)”, a story about discovering the raw power of the American rockers, the ability of music to “exaggerate my pain/And give it a name.” The album is lyrically introspective, dealing with death (“Iris (Hold Me Close)”), rage (“Volcano”), loss (“Every Breaking Wave”), and change of all types. Musically, the band is following its own idiosyncratic lead, guitar, bass and drums being joined by swirling soundscapes that give U2 a rich, full sound that recalls many of the group’s efforts since 1991’s “Achtung Baby”.
Basically, this isn’t the rock and roll grit of “October”. It isn’t the serious “The Unforgettable Fire”, or the electronic mush of “Pop”. This isn’t the retrospective “Rattle and Hum”, or the oblique lyrics of “Zooropa”. This is another U2 album, noble, layered, passionate, and uninterested in what you think of it. And with all the wreckage of other great bands that have fallen around them, their determination, still going onwards, still being motivated to create and produce art, is a powerful, beautiful thing.