With a ridiculous amount of coverage about U2 partnering with Apple and giving away their new album for “free,” it’s hard for anyone not to have a ridiculous opinion about it. It’s an embarassing moment of perfect confluence: technology, music, choice, privacy, age, and relevancy all come together into a terrible event that was coming, somehow, anyhow, and we were armed and ready to bitch about it lightly and ineffectually, our point seeming to be: the corporations are powerful, and we are fucking idiots. It’s an event that, unfortunately, gets more twitter time than Emma Watson’s articulate speech about an important issue.
We live in a society that wants it’s things now. “I don’t have time to care, I have to get back to my job. I didn’t ask for U2!” No, but you got it. And so you are angry. Because you are a ridiculous brat living in a state of such privilege that you have lost your fucking mind. Seriously. Shut up, civilization. You may go so far as to sign an online petition or tweet, like you also didn’t with the far more invasive Facebook messenger app. But, I hear you saying: this is music! This album is not cool! Correct, nor is its method of its dissemination, but, really, who the fuck do we think we are? Why is this discussion worthy of us? Is this all we are now?
When “I don’t want this free thing!” becomes a Twitter rallying cry, I am just about ready to check out. And not because it’s entitled cry, which it is, but because that’s the extent of the emotion. It’s not an emotion that compels anyone to change the system to suit them better. “They” (meaning U2 and the other evil overlords) know, in three days we’ll either delete the album, listen to it, or forget about it, but the complaining will stop. We might even pick up The Joshua Tree remastered along the way. Either way is fine. They still win. It’s the way Harper wins, every time: make your move, don’t listen, wait, win, repeat. All we’re gonna do is send a bitch into the atmosphere: fuck U2, whoever they are. And then it’s gone and has done nothing. But effecting anything is not the aim of the privileged. The privileged take a sip and demand the bottle get taken back. This will not do; I want something relevant, so fuck U2.
It’s an easy cry to make, given U2’s penchant for being hated. This album release lubes the rocks to allow Bono-haters to crawl out heavily armed, joining forces with the masses to change their online status to reflect their new found power in numbers. Music on my phone without my asking, especially U2, is these days tantamount to assualt, but that is clearly not U2’s aim. Their aim is to continue to make millions of dollars and they will, relevant or not. Yes, Songs of Innocence is one of the great failures of the last two weeks, and adds numbers to the Bono-haters seeing sunshine - but U2 still wins - they are capitalists, and you are whiners.
It’s obvious this is only the first of this sort of thing, and to that end, explains why the big backlash. Yes, after this, they’ll be a pause for thought, out of respect for the corporate merge that failed (it didn’t) but then very soon, you will get more. Wait, win, repeat. Free music. In your library. Without you asking. And U2 did it first. Are they innovators or just greedy bastards? Well, everyone is a greedy bastard these days. And while Metallica was against Napster, U2 remains, again, like it or not, on top of trends, and, like Radiohead’s In Rainbows, adapts to, uses and accepts the reality of today’s technology in order to release their music. It makes sense. In the arena of “old guy rock bands” it is only really Metallica that proves themselves completely irrelevant. But I digress.
Admittedly, I’m a huge U2 fan, but an even bigger fan of privacy and of maintaining a society not completely bonkers, so this release has been a tricky one for me to figure out how I feel about it. I want to believe that U2 is still in there somewhere, and there are moments on the album where that’s clear, but mostly this release sees the next chapter shift in music and money swallowing each others’ tails.
So here I am with an incredibly privileged and boring problem: how do I deal with this? How do I add my voice to the chorus of idiots bitching about music appearing on my phone, rather than worrying about, say, melting ice caps. It is because I, like the vast majority, don’t care about most problems and choose instead to spend too much time waxing on the merits and failings of two brands, U2 and Apple getting it on and producing a skinny child that we’d all prefer stayed upstairs while we have guests over.
Artistically speaking, with Songs, U2 have finally, at last for me too, jumped the shark. In fact, they’ve bought the shark. Bono is riding it like a cowboy in a Popmart-style Seaworld extravaganza, not realizing no one is watching and those that are are demanding their money back at the gate, seeing through the flashy production to see a shark imprisoned and recognizing it as cruel business, devoid of beauty. This move is not irrelevant though, it is, in fact, incredibly relevant. This move is unfortunate, and seems evidence of U2’s blind faith in its own purity of intention. This era sees them unhinged in a way we haven’t seen before, perhaps due to this being their first release post manager Paul McGuiness, and I feel it’s safe to say we’re feeling his lack of influence.
I realize that, for most, U2 jumped the shark years ago. I am one of those strange post-Joshua Tree fans that feels they did their best work after The Unforgettable Fire. Boy, War, mean little to me, except as practice leading to Achtung Baby and Zooropa (in which lineage No Line on the Horizon follows). I’m a Wim Wenders U2 fan, a Passengers U2 fan, a Million Dollar Hotel U2 fan. I am a fan of U2’s experimental, produced stuff, often with Brian Eno, Daniel Lanois, and Flood. Without them, U2 is just a stadium rock band. With them, there’s something clever going on. I mention this to explain that, as a fan of U2’s modern stuff, I should like this current album, as well as admire their way of shoving it on us. I don’t. Not because of the method, but because of the content.
Songs of Innocence is bad. U2 has taken its worst album in, well, maybe ever, and given it the biggest album release ever. Which, again, is not irrelevant. The Shmoo is irrelevant. This car crash of companies attempting to bridge the final gap between art and commerce is hugely relevant, and especially since it’s bad. It marks a failure at some level of its creation, and proves (again), that creation cannot, and should not be monetized, that art cannot be produced for the masses for production’s sake, and the rest of this thought is a massive topic for someone else to write about.
But you know what I mean. It’s a failure at the highest level of the business of tech and rock. You can’t make art for money. Not really. Art must be made for art. It largely comes from passion, and hard work, and belief. Which is what younger people know, and older people forget. Or spend far too much time trying to grasp like they did when they were younger. 20-somethings know about art. What 20-somethings don’t know about is relevancy, and they are the ones leading the chorus of “what is this doing on my phone?”
“Relevancy,” for the sake of this bit of writing, is a too much used word in today’s pop vernacular, pertaining more to what 20-somethings want than to actual relevancy. The two have become confused, either by marketing campaigns or by 20-somethings talking too much. Either way, 20-somethings have no business discussing relevancy. Relevancy, as a thing, demands distance in order to see the context of the thing being analyzed. But 20-somethings are embedded in the thing itself, unable to discern the thing’s outlines yet. The striving for relevancy, so seen in a youth culture working so hard to look the same, is a dangerous goal, and a sad hallmark of our current culture. It is the same as a child dreaming of being famous for famous sake, without any wish for learning or hard knocks along the way: you can’t just be relevant, you can only be relevant in the context of the bigger picture. There’s the old adage that it’s not for the artist to determine relevancy, but for the art to do so outside of the artist. U2, here, is attempting the former. Attempting relevance for rock stars is akin to comedians donning drag to do their “dressed as a woman” movie: it’s obvious, and far as far can be from a funny, artistic, or certainly a relevant, sensibility. It’s shitty art.
Many would argue that U2 have been putting out bad albums for years. Fine, this comes down to taste, though I’ve found, even in their weaker work, that there’s always been, at least, an element of risk, a small amount of experimentation involved. Even the Grammy-winning / hugely disappointing How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb - with name and cover art joining in the awful - was at least an effort to return to loud stadium rock after the intimacy (and amazingness) of All That You Can’t Leave Behind. While there are moments of experimentation on Songs, this is an album attempting to be a pop music concept album and unfortunately, there is no such thing as “concept pop:” there is only bad pop music. Which is what this album is. It’s very clear that Songs is an album attempting to bring U2 to the youth, but, as Blake explained, there is no return to innocence once you have entered experience; any attempts are in vain.
In fact, the whole album is mired in attempts at returning to youth, most of all by the work of bubblegum producers. U2 comes with it’s own set of strengths and weaknesses and demands a seasoned producer to wrestle them down. But here, Danger Mouse comes in, lets U2 do what they want, throws in some beeps and tone, takes the cheque and gets their name on the album. Never, and I mean never, let U2 do what they want. In previous outings, one got the sense that Daniel Lanois had the agility needed to temper U2’s predilection for pretention, holding them at bay, an essential member of the extended band. Often, you could almost hear Brian Eno leaning into the mike: “A little less “Yahweh” this time, Bono” sort of thing. But on Songs, there is no tempering. You can smell the bubblegum in the studio. You check under your shoe to make sure you haven’t stepped in it. You haven’t. They have.
So why am I surprised when a populist band makes a more populist album than they’ve ever made before? Because they didn’t do it well, and even when U2 fails they are committed to it. This doesn’t even feel like they mean it. The Miracle Joey Ramone opens the album, and unlike the openings of Vertigo or Beautiful Day, this one announces, MEH, here’s our plodding album. This might sound good live, but I really ain’t sure. Next comes Every Breaking Wave. This is Kite. And it’s a pretty catchy tune. If any of the tracks from this album make it onto the radio for a bit, it’ll be this one. It has that annoying ‘cling cling cling’ thing of City of Blinding Lights but here they do it better. This is the classic U2 track that sticks in your head after a few listens. It’s so old school U2 I’d hazard they wrote it years ago and it didn’t find a home until here, where it actually seems out of place. Track three, California, is so bad I think they stole it from Katy Perry who knows very well the only thing that’s required in pop genius is to insert the word “California” and you’ll be played at wet t-shirt contests on spring break for summers to come. Or so thinks Danger Mouse. I hope there are 12 year olds coming out from under rocks to bitch about that guy. Next is Song For Someone. Here’s your Sometimes You Can’t Make It On Your Own slow creeper and the second ballad as usual coming in at track 5. Even the lesser of U2’s ballads have some deep emotion in it. Not here. Iris fares better. Again, classic U2. Every word and the chorus (and bracketed) “Hold me close” rolls off Bono’s tongue like he’s been singing it forever. Finally, Edge’s guitar comes to life and that’s good cuz it’s been dead ’til now. Then finally, Volcano. The best song on the album, and what they wanted Get On Your Boots to be. Volcano is also where they succeed in a modern sound and I’m not sure why critics are overlooking this one. It’s the only one that’s catchy, original, and nobody could do this but U2. Next is Raised by Wolves, the classic U2 bridge song that comes between chapters on a U2 album and I like it. It’s odd and it’s new. It doesn’t really go anywhere, but, like Acrobat, that’s okay here. It’s an interesting enough diversion and gives one hope that we’re finally on a hot streak. This is immediately dashed by the next three tracks, all of which are skippable. NEVER have I consistently skipped through three tracks in a row on a U2 album but nothing good or interesting here. Lastly we come to The Troubles. I like Lykke Li and she’s a haunting way to end this album. If Songs of Innocence ends with The Troubles, maybe they really are doing William Blake because innocence contains experience, and ending here leads us to believe we’re heading somewhere else and please Bono, let me be right that the album ends with a sniff of something clever going on. Please.
You can’t go back to the past, and you shouldn’t. The hardship in life is realizing and living the reality that the present is where you exist now. Nothing wrong with an album about reflecting on where we came from, but adding a producer of pop music to ensure the sound is now is not going to achieve that. It’s only going to create a gap between generations and a muddy attempt at artistic relevance that isolates the band from their past and their present and prevents their future. They seem lost in time, neither willing to accept who they are, nor accurately depicting where they came from. Songs of Innocence is indeed innocent, but only in that it’s under thought out, perhaps rushed, which makes sense of much of the confusion over release dates with this one. Maybe it’s still not ready. No Line was great because they were firmly who they are now, today. Early U2 is popular because it’s raw, as only youth can be. At 50, the only thing raw about U2 is the Edge’s vegan diet flown in from L.A. And that’s okay. There is nothing wrong with age; but there is something wrong with denying it.
Songs of Innocence, if nothing else, heralds a new, unfortunate era for U2. The Stones are doing quite well at it, and I suspect U2 will as well. They will continue to release more albums and, fingers crossed, a few better ones. But with this release, I will belong firmly to the middle chapter of their careers, post-Sort of Homecoming, pre-Songs of Innocence. No Line on the Horizon got me excited. It sounded like the beginning of something massive. It was, instead, a grand finale. An era I will miss in the way others miss the younger, innocent U2.
In a final word I’d like to admit that this article, along with all the other noise wrought about this U2/Apple release is, itself, irrelevant. Hell, this article’s way more than 140 characters, and the album came out over a week ago (insert ironic emoticon here). But what is relevant, though it sounds like cliche in this cynical age, is trying. And yes, U2 wants to be more rich than God, but they are trying. You may not like them, and I understand if you don’t, but they are working hard. Failing. And they’ll be back again. With another, here’s that word again, relevant way to promote themselves.
Songs of Innocence makes U2 more relevant than ever, like it or not. They are, again, pioneers, far more than entitled beard kids whining about free music over a pork belly taco. I realize I’m being hard on the youths. I guess I just wish they’d relax a bit. It all seems so uptight to complain from up there on their youth thrones. Come down. Relax a bit. It’s just music. You’re entitled to it, and you’re entitled to judge it. But you don’t say what’s relevant. Context does.