When Apple announced the major event it was hosting Tuesday, it was largely expected to be an extravaganza meant to showcase the release of its new iPhones and the rumored Apple Watch. And sure enough, it was, and reactions to the nascent products have been largely positive.
But what the music and entertainment world did not anticipate was the coinciding release of a brand new U2 album. Some kind of involvement by the band had been anticipated in the press because of its longtime relationship with Apple, and Apple CEO Tim Cook even noted that it was the 10th anniversary of the band’s special U2 edition iPod during the presentation. Nevertheless, when the band came up on stage to perform its leadoff single, “The Miracle (Of Joey Ramone)” for its 13th album, it was a shocker.
U2 is no stranger to spectacle, and so it was not a surprise that the band milked all of the drama out of the event that it could. Immediately after playing the new single, Bono engaged in some rehearsed and playful banter with Cook, in which he announced that “Songs of Innocence” would not only be released on iTunes, but that it would also be free and already on every iTunes customer’s library.
And being the gigantic U2 diehard nerd that I am, I stopped everything I was doing to take a listen. I clearly wasn’t the only one — the iTunes store has been crashing all day and “#SongsOfInnocence” and “#U2” have been trending on Facebook and Twitter.
As the album’s title might suggest, Bono and the group clearly intended for this to be a more personal record, harkening back to the innocence of Bono’s youth. The obvious nod to Joey Ramone on the record’s first song, as well as what Bono has described as an homage to the Clash on “This Is Where You Can Reach Me Now,” also indicate the more intimate and nostalgic tone of the songs.
All of the first three songs on “Innocence” have a radio-friendly accessibility and positivity to them that reminds me more of some of the band’s recent successors, like The Killers or Coldplay. However, lead guitarist the Edge’s emotive guitar solos and the Beach Boys-like harmony featured on “California (There Is No End to Love)” put a real exclamation point on the songs.
One of the other gorgeous touches that the band uses throughout the album and on the next song, “Song for Someone,” is the harmonizing between Edge and Bono. The Edge is arguably, in addition to being one of the most unique and innovative guitarists ever, one of the most under-used and under-rated backing singers in music today, and it shows on this song. It’s a touching moment when the two singers collaborate on one of the many, and aforementioned personal notes on the record — “I was told that I would feel nothing the first time / I don’t know how these cuts heal.” This semi-acoustic number will most definitely be a “candle-lighter” moment whenever U2 plays it live.
The thumping bassline that introduces the album’s next song, “Iris (Hold Me Close)” serves as a tantalizing way to prep the listener for Bono’s most personal lyrics on “Innocence” and one of its most compelling tracks. In an interview with Rolling Stone, Bono describes the song as a sort of eulogy for his mother, who died when he was 14.
“Volcano” lives up to its name. It’s a primal, punky song that has even more menacing bass and uncharacteristic, cannonball-like guitar riffs from the Edge. The choir of voices that kicks in at the song’s climax makes this one a fantastic rocker unlike anything else in U2’s catalog.
“Sleep Like a Baby Tonight” is an obvious nod to Joy Division and a contender for a good James Bond theme song. Its ominous synthesizer tones match Bono’s lyrics. “Tomorrow, dawn’s like a suicide / But you’re gonna sleep like a baby tonight.”
The band’s tribute to the Clash, “This Is Where You Can Reach Me Now,” is one of the best, most energetic songs they group has done in years. Its opening line “Soldier, soldier / We signed our lives away” feels self-referential, to the band’s famous “War” album and it features funky guitar work from the Edge that likewise makes the song feel like it is coming from the U2 of an earlier era.
Listening to the album, it’s clear that waiting was not in vain. While the album’s spontaneous release or Apple’s new technology might garner the headlines, for this U2 lover, it’s the strength and vitality of the confessional, punky and soaring songs featured on “Innocence” that make all the difference. Listening to it all the way through the first two times, it’s clear to me why seeing them in concert in 2011 was one of the best experiences of my life. This album might just be the one that will help U2 to break through to a millennial generation that thinks of them as the ultimate “dad rock” band.