When U2 and Apple released a surprise album on unsuspecting iTunes accounts earlier this week, the easy kneejerk reaction—especially given the band’s recent track record—was to assume that the freebie price would be reflected in the quality of the music. Despite employing some sophisticated electronic ambience and welcome jagged guitars, U2’s last album, 2009’s No Line On The Horizon, had frequently embarrassing lyrics and an unfortunate lack of emotional resonance. A tepid new single from earlier this year, “Invisible,” similarly felt like a facsimile of a U2 guitar anthem—all surface bluster and muted sentimentality.
And while Songs Of Innocence occasionally suffers from the same problems, it’s a far better record than its method of delivery and price might indicate. Produced mainly by Danger Mouse—with additional contributions from pop-friendly masterminds Ryan Tedder and Paul Epworth—the warm, intimate album finds the members of U2 getting out of their own way. In many ways, it resembles 1997’s Pop, in the sense that it sounds as though the band ceded some artistic direction to these outside collaborators. Danger Mouse’s space-filled production sparkles, and Epworth’s luxurious but crisp pop-rock approach permeates Songs Of Innocence‘s first half; highlights include “Iris (Hold Me Close),” which mixes spongy synths and harmonies with traditional U2 guitar arpeggios and shards of piano, and the swooning electro-pop lullaby “Song For Someone,” which features lovely, restrained Bono crooning.
Things get more interesting in the album’s second half, when U2 ditch the tasteful anthems in favor of bolder influences and outré detours: glam rock’s hellfire harmonies (“Cedarwood Road”), Radiohead circa In Rainbows guitar noodling and a nasty funk-reggae underbelly (“This Is Where You Can Reach Me Now”), and corkscrew-curl post-punk riffs (“Raised By Wolves,” a song whose yelping, desperate chorus nods to the group’s Boy/October days). Even better are “Sleep Like A Baby Tonight”—which boasts loping, sine wave synth ridges, grinding buzzsaw guitars, and a Bono falsetto jump that’s piercing and unsettling—and the string-swept “The Troubles,” a ballad that recalls U2’s Passengers output with ghostly, feathery vocals from Lykke Li and a moony tempo.
What’s more heartening is that the lyrics on Songs Of Innocence are far more self-aware—and less reliant on empty platitudes—than those on recent U2 records. The band re-examines the events and people that have always shaped and inspired them, only from a modern perspective. “Iris (Hold Me Close)” is a wrenching, moving song inspired by the death of Bono’s mother, while other songs discuss Irish car bombings, the ongoing impact of war, and deeply felt romantic love. “The Miracle (Of Joey Ramone)“ is even about how a song and a voice—guess whose?—can change your life.
Certainly the lurching, clashing “Volcano” continues U2’s tendency toward aggressive rock songs with cringe-worthy lyrics (“You were alone / But you are rock ’n’ roll / You and I are rock ’n’ roll”), while “Song For Someone” relies on clichés (“And there is a light / Don’t let it go out”). And recycling past themes might be a red flag that the band is out of ideas. But after all, to be a U2 fan (or even an admirer) is to be able to suspend cynicism, and to approach the band as they are—not as they were or how they should be.
For an act that’s set itself up time and time again to be the biggest band in the world, releasing an album to hundreds of millions of people at once is hard to top. It’s certainly savvy marketing, taking the pressure off of record sales when the physical release arrives in October, and making digital altruism and “What does it all mean?” thinkpieces the main stories, ahead of musical quality. The gesture also draws attention away from the fact that, at least musically, U2 are no longer going to reinvent the wheel with every record. In fact, they may not feel comfortable making a record without an entire committee of collaborators. But on Songs Of Innocence, U2 don’t seem compelled to recycle past glories in order to reach for relevance. That’s a tiny—but notable—victory.