U2 “Songs Of Innocence”
After the hubbub and palaver of getting the album to millions of people whether they wanted it or not, U2′s return is a case of business as usual on every level
There’s a scene in Rob Doyle’s excellent debut novel Here Are the Young Men which came to mind a few times in the last couple of days. Set in the summer of 2003, the main characters dwell in that twilight world between finishing their Leaving Cert exams and moving into the adult world. One day, after another round of drinking cans and smoking hash, they decide to pay a visit to Bono’s gaff in Killiney. It ends, predictably enough, in the lads roaring dogs’ abuse at one of the the singer’s emissaries via an entry phone at the gate. It’s 2003 and nobody likes Bono.
It seems nobody likes Bono or U2 in 2014 either. Since the band released their new album “Songs Of Innocence” last week in conjunction with Apple launching a few new phones, a watch and an online payment system, the backlash has been something else to behold. While I wish it had solely to do with the music (and we’ll come to the music presently), it’s more to do with the high-handed, obnoxious, ill-considered manner of the release. Sticking your unwanted and unbidden album into the digital domains of 500 million customers is the kind of thing which people don’t like. It’s also the kind of thing spammers and hackers can only dream about. Getting paid for it – and Bono and Team U2 keep insisting that they’ve been paid – and not allowing users to delete the damn thing makes that spam and hacking dream even sweeter.
It’s telling that Apple have now provided users with a tool to remove the album from their libraries. Apple know which side their bread is buttered on. The money they’ve spent on this fandango may seem huge to us – an $100 million campaign on a new album is definitely beyond the means of most music companies – but it’s a spit in the ocean to a company with $160 billion in cash reserves the last time they counted. Apple didn’t get to be a business with that sort of wedge without taking notice of what their customers were saying so they were quick enough to provide fans with a way to delete the album if they wanted to.
The band, on the other hand, keep bleating and blathering as if they’re right and everyone else is wrong. Their manager Guy Oseary keeps talking about gifts, while Bono keeps talking about getting paid. You keep seeing news reports and press releases about how well their other albums are now selling (*). The machine is at full pelt.
But in all of this, Team U2 fail to recognise that there’s a much greater world out there who have absolutely no interest whatsoever in this band singing about their old Dublin haunts or anything else. They’ve also failed to recognise that these kind of release campaigns are relics of a long, lost age. No-one beyond the pre-converted and the street teams and the reviewers who have to listen to it give a damn about a new U2 album. At least, that said, there will be a physical release for the lads to turn up outside HMV on Grafton Street at midnight when it goes on sale. At least, there’s still a HMV on Grafton Street for them to queue outside. Uhm, there’s still a HMV on Grafon Street, isn’t there?
Just how did it come to this? Not the lads outside HMV, but the band and all those bum notes. Once upon a time, U2 astutely and instinctively knew which way the wind was blowing. They knew when to hold them and when to fold them. They knew the right things to say, the right people to nod at, the right cultural totems to endorse. Regardless of how you viewed their music, you had to admire their gumption when it came to being at the right part of the curve. They rarely put a foot wrong.
But in recent years, U2′s dancing has been all the wrong steps. Be it the band’s collective culpability when it comes to the messy tax thing to the singer’s doubtless good intentions when it comes to campaigning and activism overshadowed by who he had to hobnob with to achieve anything, U2 have become the band we love to loath. The goodwill which used to be extended towards them has completely dissipated and they’ve become the punchline to all manner of japes and jokes.
Of course, much of this is down to cultural changes and the like – rock and pop stars are no longer viewed in the same respectful light as was the case in the 1980s and 1990s and we know that they’ve foibles like everyone else – but it is still remarkable to see so many spanners in an once mighty machine. When you’ve people like Paul Brady – Paul fecking Brady (sorry Paul) – coming out to give them a dig in the mush, you know things are bad. This kind of carry-on didn’t happen at Self Aid, you know.
If you’re a bunch of musicians like U2, though, you have a chance to redeem yourself through your music. This ties into something I’ve started banging on about in the last year or so to anyone who’s unfortunate enough to be within earshot. Musicians have this incredible talent to write songs and make music which will stand to them until the day they kick the bucket. They have an ability to do something which most of us just cannot do. They can make music, they can write songs, they can entertain, they can create. They can put it all their feelings and emotions and beliefs and thoughts into a form which can resonate with listeners for life. Regardless of what stage of engagement they’re in with the music industrial complex, that ability is always there.
In the case of U2, we know from their interview with The Irish Times and the song titles that it was all back to the northside for this album. If you’ve ever read an interview with any band seeking inspiration for a new album, you’ll recognise where Bono is coming from with this quote: “it’s us trying to figure out why we wanted to be in a band in the first place, the relationships around the band and our first journeys – geographically, spiritually and sexually. It was tough and it took years. Put it this way: a lot of shit got dragged up”.
But all that shit and all the highly paid producers on hand to help co-parent the album didn’t result in any great songs. This has been U2′s failing for many years now. Every one of their albums in recent years has failed to ignite in the same way as the great albums in their canon because the band have lost the ability to write a whole bunch of such songs which zing and excite. Yes, sure, the street teams will be losing the run of themselves in the comments below to tell me that “The Miracle (of Joey Ramone)” sounds amazing and that I’m overlooking the emotion of “Iris” or how “Cedarwood Road” rolls. That’s fine, that’s the job of a street team or fanboys with typewriters or the kind of unctuous hack who wants to keep favour with the band.
The job of a fair, unbiased and uncompromised reviewer is surely to point out that these songs and others are merely average and that average just does not cut it. This is not the work of a great band, but rather an once great band now so constrained and constipated that they’re unable to find a way through the morass without resorting to cliche and another muddy riff from the guitarist. Instead of using their talent, U2 have squandered it.
The Dublin which informs “Songs Of Innocence” no longer exists so it’s a world created in a fog of nostalgia, like one of Roddy Doyle’s Barrytown novels. You can understand why going back to their sepia-tinged world of much more innocent days would appeal to the band, a band so out of ideas and inspiration in the modern world. Yet you can be sure that the U2 who really did live in and around Cedarwood Road would sneer loudly at what the U2 of the multi-millionaire class have produced.
It’s interesting too that one of the things which informed the band back then is lacking from “Songs Of Innocence”. U2′s spirituality, religious beliefs and membership of the Shalom prayer group were a huge part of the band’s make-up back then. A few years ago, Michael Ross wrote a fascinating piece about the band’s early days for The Sunday Times which covers this ground very well. Yet you’ll be looking long and hard to find any of that seam in the wash here. There are some things the band are prepared to leave behind.
It’s quite painful and frustrating to have to spend so much time listening to such sub-standard fare when there’s new music from the likes of Caribou, SBTRKT, Aphex Twin, FKA twigs, Benjamin Booker, Caoimhín Ó Raghallaigh, Sinkane, Call Super, Mirel Wagner, Odesza, Girl Band, Fat White Family, Slaves, All Tvvins and Moiré waiting to be heard or explored further. U2 fans may grumble that they don’t know any of those bands so perhaps they should toddle off and check them out. Be a much better use of their time. In a world full of musicians who really have their mojo calibrated correctly and who still know what it takes to make sounds which tingle and tease and thrill, it’s hugely disappointing to hear a band merely go through the motions.
This has been U2′s tack for a decade or more. They have lost their way as a band and as a musical going concern. They’re all about the money, as Bono keeps reminding us, and have become a story which now seems to belong more on the business pages than the music or arts pages. They will always command much more attention and profile than their mediocre new albums warrant because, sadly, this is the way of the world and U2 can trade off the audience they had when they actually worth listening to. Apple have tapped the band because of that old audience and not because they think “Songs Of Innocence” is an album which needs to be heard by millions. U2 will keep producing new music because that’s what is required to keep the machine spinning, to keep their name in the headlines, to enable the band to keep selling tickets for the lucrative live tours.
The sad fact of the matter is that U2 are not producing new music because they really want to. They are not producing music because you have four men looking at each other and seeing a hunger for creation and expression and artistic satisfaction in each others’ eyes. That’s the difference between the U2 who produced “Songs Of Innocence” and the U2 who inspired “Songs of Innocence”. The old band really, really, really, really wanted to make music because that was all they knew what to do and could think of no other way to make their mark in the world and they were bursting to have a go and leave drab, grey Dublin behind. The new band? The new band just want to get paid.
(* an earlier version of this post mixed up the timeline between the news story linked to above and the press release about how well U2′s other albums are selling – the news story came before the press release was issued)