[sic] Magazine

U2 – Songs Of Innocence

Since the last album came out, my son has been conceived, born, had his fourth birthday and started school. When the last one came out, he wasn’t even two blue strips on a pregnancy test, and now he’s in a school uniform. The world has changed.

The album is dead, they said.

After 6 years (well, 5 years, 8 months, but who’s counting?), of recorded silence, U2 finally, finally issue forth their new edict. And 6 years is too long – for the previous flop only sold 3,000,000 copies. This one? There’s already a copy for every iTunes account in the world – about 500,000,000. Does this count? Or is it merely another sly ploy? Giving away your album is such a stunt. A major band making their album available for download unexpectedly, for free? Oh wait its 2007 again. And then there’s the wait for the thing: Songs Of Innocence.

In the intervening 6 years, U2 have done… wait, what, exactly? Toured a bit, and turned an 8 month pregnancy-break – which they pretended was to finish an album called ‘Songs Of Ascent’ that never came out even though they played half of it live – into a year. And then they toured a bit more, so they finished their live shows in July 2011 only 29 months after the first one in February 2009. So that’s only three years. The next three years? Silence. According to them, they’ve recorded lots of albums, but only deigned to release the appalling waste of time that was the soundtrack to a Spiderman musical. If I came up with this after six years? You’d laugh at me.

And rightly so.

Lets shove to one side this is an appallingly sequenced record, with a scant 11 songs (leaving out recent singles ‘Ordinary Love’ and ‘Invisible’ in a largely baffling move as they are easily stronger than most of the album), and let’s leave out that it is top loaded with the better material, and thus, tapers off into nothingness and sub-Coldplay drivel. Let’s forget that U2 were once shepherds, and are now the herd.

Let’s also shove to one side the fact that five songs played live on 2010-11 tour – ‘Return Of The Stingray’, ‘Mercy’, ‘North Star’, ‘Boy Falls From The Sky’ and ‘Glastonbury’ – are all absent. If you want ‘North Star’ there’s 20 seconds on a 2011 Transformers film. If you want ‘Glastonbury’, there’s half a guitar riff and half the chorus in the coda to mid-point rocker ‘Volcano’.

Where’s the excitement? The adventure? Where’s the weird? Where’s the sense of liberation that comes from being richer than God, the ability to do exactly and whatever you want? The U2 of 20 years ago is gone, replaced with careerist rockers that do this for a new mansion, who think the way to stay relevant is to have a gap between albums that is only 46 days shorter than the Second World War. U2 are still chasing being ‘Relevant’ and ‘Successful’. They’re old men now, topping off 55 or so, and the charts, relevancy, that’s irrelevant. They are rock and roll pensioners, and should simply concentrate on making great records, selling out stadiums, and letting that be their legacy. No one gives a damn about chart positions for Pink Floyd in a hundred years time. All that remains is the music. At least opener ‘The Miracle’ has some sense of U2 being anything other than a huge commercial machine, with a lyric that alludes to the teenage love of music that is still there. ‘A song that made sense of the world’, he sings. For the first time in a long time acting like a fan and not just a businessman whose product is music. Even if the end result is a somewhat sanitised thing dripping in claps and studio sheen.

It’s followed by ‘Every Breaking Wave’, which is six years old – first mooted for 2009’s three-million-selling-but-still-underperforming No Line On The Horizon and played live on the subsequent tour – and which sounds like, well, it sounds like a typical U2 ballad which could have come out anytime in the past 16 years. It’s good. Not great. And at 11 songs in 6 years – a near Kate Bush style work rate – it’s apparent that U2 are strangled by indecision and thus become irrelevant by attempts to be the young men of pop they no longer are. Especially when ‘California’ opens with a chant of ‘Santa Barbara’ that sounds far too close to the Beach Boys for comfort. A minute late and there’s all the hallmarks of modern Coldplay in wordless vocal hooks, ascending pianos and stutteringly epic drum patterns. For gawds sake, U2 have become followers not leaders. Even their tax arrangements copy Gary bloody Barlow.

It’s not a bad album, at all. But it lacks bite and it lacks weirdness. And when Bono is worth (probably) £1,000,000,000 where’s the justice?

The album itself descends into a mid-paced sludge: well crafted, and prepared, music polished to within an inch of its life, but where is the excitement. Where’s the joy? Where’s the sense that this band are anything other than rich, blasé privileged men with more power than God and more money than power. And when you have all that money and all that power you can go anywhere, do anything… and don’t want. Some of these songs are simply about.. nothing.

At this point, U2 are all about the feelings, and about the abstract: about things you can’t touch, taste, or buy, but about the heart. That’s not bad, not bad at all. Better than bragging about cars and buildings and food. But when the whole band drops out in ‘Iris’ and Bono croons wordlessly and a rising piano motif roars, it’s near enough any Coldplay song from 2005. It’s the sound of something dangerously mediocre, a musical Big Mac.

The second half of the album is, as most U2 records are, far more sedate, made of thoughtful, meaningful ballads about love and war and car bombs. Certainly, U2 are one of the few to address directly the scar of ‘The Troubles’, but as a localised issue, it’s one that perhaps has less immediacy. I mean, if you don’t know car bombs are bad at 50, I doubt you’ll ever get it. And I doubt anyone who makes car bombs would be listening to Bono anyway.

But knowing Bono’s tax arrangements mean he probably only pays a tenth as much tax as someone on £40,000 in the UK makes some people want to plant car bombs anyway. Though please, please, please don’t do that. Just remember the lyrics to the song ‘Crumbs On Your Table.’

Would you deny for others
What you demand for yourself?

For more from Mark, please visit The Final Word