U2 is a hard band to write a review for. They come with so much history and baggage at this point, and one must try when writing a review to keep your eye on the donut and not the hole. When an artist has put our groundbreaking work in the past that should neither give them a free pass on new work nor condemn it. A piece of art should live in its own unique space.
I have long defended Bono and the gang to friends and loved ones. However, even I felt like Bono had gone through the looking glass after reading a recent interview book. He, and the other members of U2 have lived such extraordinary lives, more so than even most pop stars, is it even possible for them to relate to most people?
I am happy to report that their new album Songs of Innocence is perhaps their best album since All That You Can’t Leave Behind and possibly even the criminally underrated Pop.
One of the reasons U2 has worked over the years as a band is that each member has unique qualities that compliment each other. They are a true band. Larry Mullen Jr. and Adam Clayton build the foundation that The Edge and Bono dance upon. The Edge paints in soundscapes as much as he plays guitar.
One of the things that has been out of whack on their last few records is those relationships. The Edge has been playing more traditional guitar. Meanwhile the rhythm section has been mixed towards the background. Bono, who was a superb lyricist from the late 80’s through the 90’s seemed to fall back into the sort of vague poetry that often plagued his earlier work on the last few records. His lyrics often seemed like they wanted to say more than they were actually saying.
First off, Bono has righted the ship somewhat on this album. There is a theme running through this album, a loose theme, and it seems as if Bono is looking at where he has come from and the music and politics that shaped his youth. You will see many reviews comment upon this. I have always felt that Bono was at his best when he was playing the sinner and asking the big questions. This started in the late 80’s and came to fruition with the 90’s trilogy. Other than the songs that dealt explicitly with his father on How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb his lyrics started to feel bereft of meaning. He wrote some good character studies on No Line on the Horizon, but not enough that the album thematically gelled as a whole. I still wouldn’t rank the new albums lyrics along side his best work, but in not worrying about making the big statement for once, and instead focusing on his own life, he has gained some of the ground that he lost.
Meanwhile the rhythm section also seems to establish themselves more than on previous albums since the 90’s. That is not to say they are turning out the kind of indispensable grooves they once were, but it does seem to be an improvement. Part of the problem is the mix. The drums and bass are mixed more in the background than they once were. This trend started on HTDAAB.
I still miss the days when The Edge came up with new guitar sounds on almost every track. On Zooropa, the title track from that album, his guitar sounds like laser beams. That album still sounds like the future 20 years on.
However, these criticisms aside they have crafted an album of relatively intelligent lyrics, super strong melodies, and they are once again relying on arrangements that play to the strengths of all four band members. No one quite plays drums like Larry Mullen or guitar like the Edge. Adam Clayton is a Zen master on bass. This album reminds me more of early period U2 than anything they have claimed was influenced by that period in recent years.
Usually when I say something is the work of craftsmen, as opposed to divine inspiration, I mean it as a slight dig. However this album feels like it was constructed by master craftsmen. This is not an industry changing album the way The Joshua Tree or Achtung Baby was. However this is an excellent collection of songs that is played by a band that slowly seem to be understanding their strengths again. Most bands would be happy to create an album of such songs.
I was starting to think that U2’s best years were behind them. While their last two records had moments, A Moment of Surrender, Sometimes You Can’t Make it On Your Own, Unknown Caller, Yaweh, and others, this album is made up of strong songs front to back. If these songs feel like minor victories in a major catalog, there may be some truth in that. However, this album shows that they are still capable of a complete artistic statement. As someone that grew up on their music I hope that this is the first step in a creative rebirth. Only time will tell.