Songs of Innocence
U2’s new album is soaked in the memories of the band’s adolescence. Lyrics are full of references to the Dublin bombings, old friends and former haunts. Those expecting a raw record stripped back to the pop punk of their earliest work, though, will be disappointed – this is U2 after all, so no production process goes untroubled.
What the band have done is mined their sound and scattered glittering elemental shards of it throughout. The Edge's choked and delayed riff on Iris could only have come from one player; Adam Clayton's propulsive bass on Volcano could have been lifted from any of the band's 1980s albums; Larry Mullen's smooth as a chassis drumming on California provides the song with his typical, clear-cut definition. And Bono was never a man to go unnoticed.
Perhaps the cleverest of these self-references is on Raised by Wolves; a juddering, upright piano develops into a tense, fraught affair, carrying lyrics centred around the 1974 bombings in Dublin, with riffs and bass lines that reference the U2 of old, before a sparse piano sound immediately brings up memories of 1983's New Year's Day. The intent is clear, and very satisfying.
This is an album of verses more than choruses. Skittering guitar lines and swooning, layered vocals set up plenty of drama (for example on Sleeps Like a Baby Tonight). But these emotional heights are rarely matched by an equivalent release in the choruses. This album also has plenty of examples of that almost old-fashioned rock notion, to tell a complete story in a song. This gives a strong, soundtracky feel to tracks such as This Is Where You Can Reach Me Now.
Danger Mouse's much trumpeted production, on this first listen at least, doesn't seem to have had a radical impact on the band's overall sound, though there's undoubtedly a more electronic undercurrent to the pristine sheen of the production. If it's immediate, stand out contributions you're looking for, head straight to Lykke Li's deft vocal on album closer The Troubles.
On first listen, this is a much better album than U2 have produced in recent years. It’s not among their best work, and doesn’t mark a radical departure or a wholehearted throwback to their lean, supple earliest work. It’s intriguing and artful, and more than one track here has enough emotional and artistic nous to satisfy a stadium near you.