Taking a trick from Beyonce’s playbook, U2 dropped its 13th studio album, “Songs of Innocence,” today without warning. The Irish band made the announcement at Apple’s event in Cupertino, Calif.
The aptly named “Songs of Innocence,” produced by Danger Mouse, with additional production by Ryan Tedder, Paul Epworth, Flood, and Declan Gaffney, is a song cycle that draws on the band members’ past— a time when they first met and everything was possible. It pays tribute to their influences (The Ramones, The Clash, The Beach Boys), first loves, growing up in the shadow of IRA violence, and the fallout of tough economic times. Bono’s vocals sound fresh and invigorated and the production sparkles. It’s a lovely album that is sentimental without ever losing its edge.
Below is a first-listen review: my take on each song by only listening to it once as I play the album straight through.
“The Miracle (Of Joey Ramone)”: A chugging, mid-tempo track that recalls the moment that the members of U2 first heard and saw The Ramones and how it opened up the world to them. “I woke up at the moment the miracle occurred/I get so many things I don’t deserve,” Bono sings. It’s an intensely personal track. Musically, it’s not an homage to punk pioneers, but it captures the innocence of musical discovery. GRADE: B
“Every Breaking Wave”: Gentle, mid-tempo track anchored by Larry Mullen’s steady drum beat then breaks open to a more expansive tune about chasing things we know will beat up. The refrain echoes OneRepublic, which is not surprising given that Ryan Tedder produced the track with Danger Mouse. A very radio friendly effort. GRADE: B
“California (There is No End to Love)” The track opens with Bono chanting “Barbara Santa Barbara” in both a tribute to the city and the Beach Boys’ “Barbara Ann,” before giving way to a synth and beat-laden echo-y, propulsive track about how California/Hollywood dims your light if you let it. Written about the band’s first trip to SoCal, it sounds like it could have been on “No Line on the Horizon.” GRADE: B
“Song for Someone”: Sounds like another love letter from Bono to his wife, Ali, whom he met when he was 14. “You’re got eyes that can see right through me/You’re not afraid of anything they’ve seen…I don’t know how these cuts heal/but in you I found a rhyme.” The Edge gets some nice restrained solos in here. Deeply romantic. GRADE: B+
“Iris (Hold Me Close)”: Staccato, trademark playing by The Edge serves as the bed for this track about Iris, Bono’s mom, who died when he was 14. She collapsed at her own father's funeral, only to die herself a few days later. It’s extremely personal, yet the love expressed is universal in its appeal. GRADE: A
“Volcano”: One of the most distinctive tunes on the track starts with a wicked bass line from Adam Clayton. It turns into U2 crossed with Oingo Boingo as Bono’s voice bounces all over the place in the electronic-fueled cautionary tale. Fun and quirky, especially as the voices rise in the background like ghosts of tunes past. New Wave is alive and well. GRADE: B
“Raised By Wolves”: Driving track framed around a 1974 car bombing that killed 33 people in Dublin. “I’m in a white van as a red sea covers/metal crash I can’t tell what it is,” Bono sings. “The worst things in the world are justified by belief,” he adds, a very strong statement for someone who has always worn his religious convictions on his sleeve. The skittering track is propelled by sharp keyboards and Mullen’s relentless beat. GRADE: B+
“Cedarwood Road”: About as hard rock/metal an intro as U2 has ever recorded, “Cedarwood Road” then transforms into one of its more traditional mid-tempo tracks (it’s a shame…it would have been interesting to see where they’d gone with the song if they’d kept the metal edge consistently instead of referencing it only occasionally as the song proceeds). The song, dedicated to Bono's childhood friend, Guggi, is about the street he grew up on and the tumult both out in the open and behind closed doors. “And friendship once it’s won/It’s won…it’s one… A heart that is broken/is a heart that is open.” GRADE: B-
“Sleep Like A Baby Tonight”: U2 switches it up again on this slinky, electronic track that starts out with a hypnotic, programmed loop and benefits from a distorted, fuzzy switch up. “Tomorrow dawns like a suicide/ But you’re gonna sleep like a baby tonight,” Bono sings. Then he surprises again by going into a ragged falsetto. Probably the album’s most adventurous track musically. GRADE: B
“This Is Where You Can Reach Me Now”: Dedicated to The Clash’s Joe Strummer, the standout on the track is Edge’s piquant guitar work. Just as “The Miracle (Of Joey Ramone)” pays homage to the Ramones, this track is a tribute to The Clash guitarist-- a soldier, in Bono's eyes-- and, more specifically, the group’s classic, “Sandinista!” GRADE: B
“The Troubles”: The title, of course, refers to what the fighting between the English and IRA was called, but this dreamy track refers to more than that. The lyrics address that issue obliquely but the song is more about how we give away our soul without even realizing it. Interesting choice to have backing vocals/refrain sung by a chorus reminiscent of Duran Duran’s “Come Undone.” GRADE: B