By Tassoula E. Kokkoris
This work was commissioned for the site atu2, which was online from 1995 – 2020 and it still protected under a shared copyright.
Wow. What a week, right?
For those off the grid since Tuesday, let me catch you up …
If you live in one of the 119 countries that has iTunes available, and you possess an account, congratulations! You’re now the proud owner of a new, free U2 album. It’s called Songs Of Innocence and it’s waiting there for you in your purchased items list. No, really, it’s there. Honestly, the only way Apple could’ve made the delivery any more magical is if they’d programmed Bono’s voice to say, “Am I buggin’ you? I don’t mean to bug ya,” upon log in.
Some of us would have laughed, but I get why many did not when they received the album. Though I was elated to watch our favorite frontman on stage at the iPhone 6 launch perform a little “E.T.” move and suddenly see all of the songs appear on my phone, I do understand the frustration of those folks who aren’t fans and didn’t ask for new music. I wouldn’t like it if an album by a band I disliked showed up without my prompting.
What I don’t understand are the scores of account owners who don’t know the band. Aside from various infants and toddlers, I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone who doesn’t know who Bono is, and in my brain, if you know who Bono is, you know of the band U2 — even if you’re not a fan.
As if the whining anti-U2 chorus wasn’t loud enough, the band’s stunt with Apple also sparked a backlash of criticism from members of their own fan base, claiming the launch was too big and corporate. That it’s no longer about the music if big business plays a part.
Friends, I beg to differ.
U2 have always aimed to reach the masses. Bono’s repeated claims of wanting the title of “Best Band in the World” have never really slowed, nor does the band seem to create music that begs to be heard in a coffeehouse. Your goals for them (if you want them to keep it small) aren’t their goals.
There is no crime in smart marketing. U2 didn’t get to where they are today by hiding behind their fame; they’ve capitalized on it, as is their right to do. In fact, if they weren’t good at promoting themselves, none of us would even be having this conversation. Why punish them for a partnership that makes perfect sense? Since Tuesday, their back catalog has reappeared on the iTunes charts, securing some of the top spots. As late as Friday night, The Joshua Tree was at No. 7, cuddled right between the Guardians Of The Galaxy soundtrack and Sam Smith’s In The Lonely Hour. Not bad for a collection of songs that debuted in 1987.
They learned their lesson. No Line On The Horizon didn’t do as well as previous albums not because the music was bad, but because they marketed primarily to us: their tried-and-true fans who always wait for the Dave Fanning interview and the chat with Jo Whiley. We don’t expect to see them much on social media, but we buy their music anyway. With this new approach, they’re getting in front of millions who may never before have heard them (hard as that is to believe).
Don’t look a gift horse in the mouth. Remember: Apple bought this album for our catalogs. We didn’t. Sure, we’ll have the option to get more songs if we buy a physical copy or order them digitally a la carte, but right now, the only paycheck they’ve received for Songs Of Innocence came from the tech giant. And like Bono said in his letter to us, it hurts smaller bands when anyone gives away music for free, so it was good that someone paid for it.
Our modern society needs corporations. In a perfect world we’d all buy bread from the baker down the street and get our shoes from the cobbler on the corner, but that’s not reality. I go to farmer’s markets and buy gifts on Etsy, but I also drink a lot of Coca-Cola and enjoy my DirecTV immensely. To put things in perspective: I’m sure that Larry’s first drum set was made by a corporation, as was the notepad Bono scribbled his lyrics upon in the ‘80s. Every vinyl album you ever bought was pressed in a factory of some sort; each cassette spooled in a manner of mass production. See where I’m going with this? The truth is, if you’re reading this right now, on a computer or a mobile device, via the Internet, you’re supporting big business. Make peace with it.
The artistic integrity of the music is in no way compromised by the way it’s distributed. It seems kind of silly to me that there are fans who think the Apple partnership in some way diminishes the creativity of the finished product. I don’t think this could be further from the truth, since we may have in fact got a better album from our band because the demanding launch deadline didn’t allow them to second-guess themselves and Phil Spector-ize their own masterpiece.
So, let’s talk about that masterpiece.
As I was listening to the new album, I couldn’t help but remember my first @U2 writing assignment 10 years ago. Only a contributor back then, I pitched an article to Matt about the similarities between my two favorite bands: U2 and The Beatles. He graciously accepted it and I happily scripted it. I feel like now I should update it.
If The Joshua Tree was U2’s Revolver and Achtung Baby was Sgt. Pepper, this is undoubtedly their first installment of The White Album. Hell, the album cover is even white, and I doubt that’s an accident.
I realize that the title Songs Of Innocence is a nod to British poet William Blake, but there are far more recognizable Beatles parallels for me.
“Iris” is like Lennon’s “Julia” both paying tribute to their mothers; “Cedarwood Lane” is akin to “Glass Onion” in that it reflects upon their personal childhood places. The backing vocals on The Beatles’ “Back In The U.S.S.R.” were intentionally sung like The Beach Boys; U2 pays tribute to that band in “California”.
Who knows what will match on Songs Of Experience?
I’m enjoying learning and feeling the tracks on ‘part 1’ in the meantime. I’ve been listening to all the songs in order, just like we used to in the old days, so they become a collective memory. And let me tell you, this is a raw, stunning album. There are no tortoises or cockatoos killing the buzz here.
I’m going on record saying this is the best thing they’ve done since Achtung Baby. There, I said it.
Here’s my list, ranked weakest to strongest, in my humble opinion:
11. California (There Is No End To Love) Though the nod to The Beach Boys is sweet, and I like California-the-state as much as the next girl, the song doesn’t put me there the way that “New York” catapults me to summer in the Big Apple or “Miss Sarajevo” throws me into a Bosnian war zone. It’s okay, is all.
10. Every Breaking Wave It’s not the song’s fault that I’d already heard it, but I just can’t muster genuine excitement for a track that I discovered on the last tour and thought, “Well, that’s nice.” It is nice, but it’s the most “recent U2” sounding song of the bunch, and I’m into the classics.
9. Song For Someone The guitar intro to this one is so quietly beautiful, and Bono’s voice so clear with Edge’s melodies to complement. The longing in the chorus I can feel in my bones, and I so appreciate that.
8. Iris (Hold Me Close) Bono’s gorgeous tribute to his late mother has all the hallmarks of classic U2, right from the first riff of Edge’s guitar to the honest emotion in Bono’s voice as he describes how the “ache in his heart” where she used to be has shaped him. Heartbreaking and satisfying.
7. This Is Where You Can Reach Me Now The soldier imagery combined with Larry’s old-school military drumming in this one is sublime. They threw a little Rockwell over the top and made it a late ‘70s dance track. A song that could be backed by a marching band or played at a disco. Such geniuses.
6. Cedarwood Road Ladies and gentlemen, The Edge is officially on fire. With lyrics like, “That cherry blossom tree was a gateway to the sun/And friendship, once it’s won, it’s won” over the top of that insane rock ’n’ roll guitar riff, we can see their childhood spring to life in full bloom.
5. The Troubles The haunting sound of Lykke Li’s voice layered over Bono’s, along with the strings, makes this one stand out like none of the others on the album. If this came on the radio, most people wouldn’t immediately recognize it as a U2 song because it’s such a departure for them. It’s fresh, oddly submissive and powerful.
4. The Miracle (Of Joey Ramone) I feel about them the way they feel about The Ramones. They awaken a very deep part of my soul, and that awakening has guided me for years. The African-inspired howls coupled with the beats throughout give the tune a tribal sensation that perfectly communicates the energy I feel when I’m amongst you fellow fans at one of their shows. We become part of the same vibration both physically and spiritually. And that will feel all the more amazing during this song with the Edge refrain radiating beneath us as the ground shakes.
3. Raised By Wolves This one could have been an extra track on Boy, and I mean that in the best way possible. It’s angry and passionate and stripped-back and basic and visceral. I’d like more of these types of songs, please.
2. Sleep Like a Baby Tonight Bono channels John Lennon’s painful “Cold Turkey” voice for this menacing lullaby and hits falsettos we haven’t heard since Macphisto took the stage. The dreadful subject matter here likely allows those high-pitched demons to rise and that makes it all the more devastating. It’s the darkest track on the album, but also one of the most flawless.
1. Volcano This song allows Adam to shine with blinding brightness. When I listened to this for the first time, I could have sworn the bass rhythms traveled through my headphones, down my throat and into my chest, making my heart burst in time with every note. It was as if the music was buried in my cells, awaiting the cue from U2 to ignite. Each section of the song brings a different dimension to an already interesting arrangement. It’s complex in that you never know where it’s about to go, but each destination is better than the last. An absolute triumph.
Speaking of how “Volcano” felt like it was already inside me the first time I listened reminds me of a documentary I saw a few weeks back, for which I am now obsessed. It’s called Alive Inside and tells the story of a man who began bringing music to patients in nursing homes to restore memory and awaken a part of them that has been dormant for years.
I was so fascinated and moved by the film, I donated one of my old iPods to the organization and made my own if-I’m-ever-in-a-coma or when-I’m-too-old-to-remember-you list of songs for my friends and family to be aware of in case I ever need them.
Of course, U2 made the cut.
(c) @U2, 2014.