It rather boggles the mind that U2's Songs of Innocence was nominated for a 2015 Best Rock Album Grammy on Friday (Dec. 5). Is it possible voters thought they were voting for Biggest Album Rollout Fiasco after the free release burrowed into people's computers and wouldn't leave? Apple finally was forced to release a "U2 Removal Tool." Perhaps they can pass a link along to the Grammy committee?
Besides, wouldn't U2 be a better fit in some "legacy" category reserved for the once relevant? Then again, given the currently dilapidated state of mainstream rock, maybe it's best to count our blessings Nickelback wasn't nominated -- on a Foo Fighters off-year, no less.
That U2's fellow Rock Album nominees include other quarter-century-plus vets like Tom Petty and Beck is indicative of how few fresh rock acts there are making music popular enough to force the Grammy committee's hand. Last year's Best Rock Song Grammy nominees included Paul McCartney (with extant Nirvana members), Black Sabbath and the Rolling Stones, suggesting the Grammys have become half awards show, half AARP meeting.
Of course, Neil Young, Bob Dylan and Richard Thompson are just a few artists who've continued to release great albums more than a half-century into their careers, so it's not so much a matter of age as it seems to be talent and vision.
U2 once had both. In the 22 years since their last really good album (1993's Zooropa), their sense of adventure and majesty has transformed into style-hopping bombast without the soulful center that 32 years ago boomed out of "New Year's Day" and "Sunday Bloody Sunday."
Over the years, they've flirted with dance music on several occasions, like a freshly divorced 40-something who just got hair plugs. It yielded their greatest flop (1997's Pop), and they've backed away only to be drawn back on their Songs of Innocence. They enlist producer Danger Mouse, who fails to give U2 the kind of creamy beguiling arrangements that grace the Black Keys' unsung 2008 release, Attack & Release.
Mostly, they seem to be revisiting past successes in a vain attempt to culture renewed relevance. They brought back the billowing texture of 1984's Unforgettable Fire by reuniting with that album's producers (Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois) for their last disc, 2009's No Line on the Horizon. The album before that, 2004's How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb, tried to reclaim the crisp, clean, anthemic sound of their first three albums, while 2000's All That You Can't Leave Behind aped the tone and sweep of The Joshua Tree.
That said, Songs of Innocence is certainly not Pop. It's simply not that ambitious (if also not as stylistically tone-deaf). What we get is a moody, majestic, clattering album driven for its first half almost entirely on midtempo ballads with more mawkish sentimentality than brains. It's like they're auditioning to be Coldplay.
The slow tempos and shimmering atmospheric textures of most of the tracks preclude much tension. First-side songs like "Iris (Hold Me Close)," "Every Breaking Wave" and "Song for Someone" are closer to lullabies than rock songs. The simple fact is that U2 has never been as good with introspection or intimacy as with (sometimes ham-fisted) anthemic grandeur.
Indeed, it's difficult not to cringe when, during "California," Bono bellows forth that "there is no end to love," like he's been stealing pages from teenage girls' diaries. Rock album? It's more like a hope chest. And don't get me started on Bono's omnipresent vocal vamps. You've not heard a man "ooo-ah," "whoa-oh" and "aahh-aahh" this much outside of pornography.
It's not a terrible album. There are a couple of interesting late-album tracks ("The Troubles," "Cedarwood Road"). It's listenable, but hardly exemplary, and feels more like a tacit acknowledgement of the money spent marketing the album than the quality of the product.
Of course, that's the very reason the Grammys put a committee above the voting members -- to prevent popularity and sentimentality from compromising the category. Fail? Sure, but on the positive side, who even listens to rock these days? Certainly not most music executives.