Had Apple not been readying the launch of its new iPhone 6, U2 might have had to invent the thing itself. In a bold move only this band could pull off, Bono and the gang hijacked the tech giant’s Sept. 9 unveiling and announced the release — free to all 500 million iTunes users — of their 13th studio album, an 11-song set five years in the making. Songs of Innocence is a colossal-sounding record from rock’s ultimate stadium wreckers, and a quick listen reveals why no other marketing strategy would have worked.
In interviews accompanying the surprise release, Bono and guitarist the Edge cited some of their boyhood heroes as major influences on the record. The opening track, a heavily processed rocker called “The Miracle (of Joey Ramone),” is an almost comically reverent tribute to the Ramones, while “This Is Where You Can Reach Me” is a kind of howling, skanking disco-punk homage to the Clash. If U2’s hearts and minds are in the ’70s, though, its instruments are plugged into whatever electronic doohickeys modern-day disciples (Imagine Dragons, Coldplay, the Killers, etc.) use to mimic their spacey grandiosity.
Not that anyone who’s been following U2’s trajectory for the last 30 years should have been expecting a return to the pointy post-punk of early albums like Boy (1980) and October (1981). Instead, the foursome saves the nostalgia for the lyrics. “California (There Is No End to Love),” a more blustery version of the synthed-out rock that producer Brian “Danger Mouse” Burton makes with his side project Broken Bells, deals with the band’s first trip to Los Angeles. “Cedarwood Road” — another Bells-y cut whose falsetto backing vocals might as well belong to that duo’s singer, James Mercer — is all about the Dublin street where Bono grew up.
The closest U2 comes to marrying throwback sounds with sentimental lyrics is “Iris (Hold Me Close),” written for Bono’s mother, who died when the singer was 14. Here, the Edge’s signature ’80s-era refracted-light riffage, not to mention bass and piano accents reminiscent of 1983’s “New Year’s Day,” are good fits for lines like, “Hold me close and don’t let me go” — pleas Bono delivers with taste and restraint.
Elsewhere, U2 serves up tastefully restrained rocking of a more modern variety. On tunes about Irish paramilitary car bombings (“Raised by Wolves”), youthful anger (the sludgy, bass-driven standout “Volcano”) and the hopeful dreams of common men (“Sleep Like a Baby Tonight”), the group tweaks the sound of its last three albums just enough to prove its been paying attention, and to up the ante for the next crop of imitators.
“Are we ready to be swept off our feet?” Bono asks on “Every Breaking Wave,” a song that’s neither a tsunami nor a ripple. It’s one U2 might play live just before “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For,” and unless Apple has some super amazing new apps up its sleeve, it — like so much of Songs of Innocence — is strong enough to keep fans from messing with their iPhones.
Three best songs: “Volcano,” “This Is Where You Can Reach Me,” “Iris (Hold Me Close)”
Songs of Innocence
Producers: Danger Mouse, Declan Gaffney, Paul Epworth, Ryan Tedder, Flood
Score: 4 of 5 stars