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‘Songs of Innocence’ Review: U2 Talk to Ghosts and Avoid Becoming One

The U2 of 2014 come across improbably as underdogs. More startling yet, they've made a record that suits the role.

As one media outlet or another undoubtedly has yelled at you by now, on Tuesday U2 and Apple confirmed that 2014 will go down as a year of more innovation in music distribution than in music making. They’ve conspired to surprise-“gift” the 38-year-old Irish band’s new album Songs of Innocence unto a half-billion iTunes subscribers, whether we want it or not. I bet next month Taylor Swift will announce that her album 1989 will simply be found under everybody’s pillows one morning, in partnership with the iTooth Fairy.

So there Songs of Innocence hangs, eager to be plucked, a fruit so unforbidden as to be practically mandatory. Will it stave off the medics, poison the patient, or be crawling with worms?

Let me first admit that, of the many schools of thought on U2, I belong mostly to the crabbiest, seduced by the early-’80s post-punk romanticism but then put off permanently by the spreading gigantism and messianic grandeur. It would be perverse to deny U2 kept exhaling great songs now and then, just as Bono’s political do-gooding actually has done some good beyond its self-aggrandizing effect. To my ears there isn’t a post-Joshua Tree album (Joshua Tree included) that doesn’t add up to overcalculation and ponderousness. My favorite versions of “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” are still the ones for which culture-jammers Negativland got sued out of existence. (“These guys are from England and who gives a shit?” quoth the late Casey Kasem, nevermore.)

And yet. And yet. Even more than with 2004’s How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb (as it turned out, the answer was “clumsily”) or 2009’s fast-forgotten No Line on the Horizon, U2 returns now to a world in which “stadium rock” is almost an oxymoron. Rock is either a nostalgia package tour (a role U2, to its credit, has resisted) or a boutique specialty item, remote from the center of popular music. As just a band, rather than the band, the U2 of 2014 come across less like the planet’s most irritatingly hyper-capitalist anti-capitalists, and improbably more like underdogs. More startling yet, they’ve made a record that suits the role.

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These songs tend to be more compact and direct, and eschew the global-overmind scale for intimate and personal perspectives, addressing their youths in Dublin, their early years as a band, family, and relationships. Some of the focus and energy is drawn from long-ago punk inspirations, as they make explicit by opening with “The Miracle (of Joey Ramone),” a tribute to the way the voice of the late Ramones singer “made some sense out of the world” for an alienated adolescent, draping high and wistful calls over Ramones-evoking “whoa-whoa-whoa” choruses and grumbling guitar rips. (The song seems so designed  to win me over that I had the impulse to change all my passwords.)

Likewise, the second-last song, the buoyant (and then, again, wistful) “This Is Where You Can Reach Me Now,” recalls a Clash concert in 1977 that showed the band what music could mean if they followed “the path of most resistance.” It’s hyperbole — U2 (and even the Clash) hardly went on to be Crass or Fugazi — but alluring hyperbole.

Tempting as a whole record of punk reveries might be to some, it’s healthy that another share of Innocence’s vitality comes from the band’s choice to join rather than beat the 2014 mainstream by bringing on producers Danger Mouse (Gnarls Barkley, Broken Bells, Black Keys) and Ryan Tedder (OneRepublic, Adele, Kelly Clarkson, Beyoncé, Maroon 5, and, lately, Swift).

Of course producers have been a major part of the U2 story, from Steve Lillywhite early on through the Daniel Lanois and Brian Eno years, but most have been industry vets and/or aural intellectuals who would build on rather than subtract from the band’s compulsive gravitas. These two are more pop-pleasure-seekers. I suspect Tedder has a hand in why the romantic “Song for Someone,” for example, which has the ingredients to become an overgrown U2 feel-fest, instead has arrowlike shape and momentum, coming affectingly to a quiet stop exactly where you fear it might open up into an interminable jam.

(Unfortunately, I’m less moved by “Iris (Hold Me Close),” Bono’s memorial for his mother, and “Every Breaking Wave,” the only two songs here where someone turned the “U2″ dial up to 11.)

Danger Mouse presides over the entire last half of the record, which becomes more bass-heavy, minimalist and percussive, whether on the fierce “Raised by Wolves” and “Cedarwood Road” (about dangers political and personal in the Dublin of Bono’s childhood) or on the more gently sinister “Sleep Like a Baby Tonight” and closer “The Troubles” (which despite its title is not about dangers political in the Dublin of Bono’s childhood).

On all these tracks, there’s a finely judged sense of sonic separation between instruments, vocals, and other elements, the breathing room for more dynamic tension and release. The Edge’s guitar here punches and punctuates, avoiding the smearing that many classic U2 songs use to attain grandeur at the expense of clarity, ultimately making them less than the sum of their expertly played parts.

Instead of a triumphant return to form, then, Innocence is more of a satisfying side conversation, a familiar face coming round to the back door and whiling the time away nicely till dark or dawn. Fans will be glad it dropped by, and while there’s no definitive anthem, several songs will settle in the memory. If it’s not among U2’s “best,” that may be an improvement — lighter, more refreshing, dare I say even fun.

It does feel odd that in a month when half of humanity is spiraling down a vortex of bloody, broken, spiky hurt, and the other half is humming very loudly with fingers jammed in ears, there comes a U2 album with not even a Bonologically vague thing to say about it. Of course, they’ve been developing the record for five years, so it’s hardly going to be topical. Yet in a way, the mood of Songs of Innocence (a fine title if you resist bristling at the Blake allusion) seems more apropos than anything more preaching, beseeching, or God-bothering might have been.

It’s an air of humility, to the extent that Earth’s most hubristic band can muster it — about looking back at where you’ve come from to remind you who you are, about hoping who you are can be enough for those around you, and curiously checking out what those more distant and unlike you (in this case, younger pop generations) might have to add. That kind of tending-one’s-garden alone won’t spring us from our crises, but it is a model of how not to stomp in arrogantly and make everything worse. If even U2 can affect a touch of restraint, perhaps some of the world’s raging egos, pundits, and government blowhards could try it, too.

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