Listen to Songs of Innocence. That seems like an odd thing to have to say to music fans and scribblers of the scene. But plug in and actually listen to the album before dumping on it.
There has been a strange rush to declare Songs of Innocence a flop. An almost palpable desire for the album to be bad, to be able to finally stick a fork in U2, to declare them dead, to burn those old Achtung Baby tour shirts like LeBron-haters burned those Cavs jerseys when their hero fell from grace. There is some innate desire in us to kill our heroes, a perverse desire for U2 to finally have their Fat-Elvis phase. Staying power is disconcerting in a nation obsessed with the new, with plastic surgery and eternal youth, on to the next big thing before the molten metal has cooled on the last hot item.
Surely this new album must suck, they say—the band is old, tired, rich. Got nothing left to prove. And there was that whole corporate-infused iTunes deal. The half-decade since the last album stoked a gleeful certainty that U2 might finally fall flat. This was aided and abetted by the tepid reception given to Invisible, and the open-mic soul-searching of the band. What a weird f#cking world we live in where we punish successful artists for aging, for questioning their own relevance, for acknowledging their doubts, for being—gasp!—human like the rest of us.
All the cool kids said it sucked—and the pack-mentality groupthink amongst the cool kids on the Internet would make the anti-heroes of Mean Girls seem like Mother Theresas of individualistic compassion. The quick-fingers of the internet brat-pack need to be the first and most vociferous to sneer public condescension—Twitter, Facebook and Instagram as the virtual spikes of our punk-rock jackets. Perhaps it is fear—the preemptive strike of the nihilist hipsters, to make sure that nobody would suspect them of belief. But so quick was the flood of derision on Tuesday that one suspects these negative U2 reviews were lurking in back pockets and on hard drives for months, if not years, like the Patriot Act waiting for a bomb-blast to give it purpose.
U2 are an understandably easy target—like hating the Yankees or the Cowboys. They are big, brash, ballsy, unabashed about wanting to be the biggest band on the planet. Well goddamn it anyway—but I say god bless them for striving. God bless them for plugging in their amps and stepping up to the mic and daring to keep creating when they’ve got nothing left to prove, from an oasis of financial luxury where most of us would have ballooned into the very Fat-Elvises we seem so desperate for them to become.
This is the cynicism of our age—the defensive posture of young writers slagging their successful predecessors, the same cynical knee-jerk dismissal rampant in our politics—Obama is no better than Bush because he didn’t magically create nirvana on earth, the declarations of this Pope irrelevant because of a bad priest somewhere. An endemic habitual nitpicking that would have a resurrected Jesus himself inevitably declared a disappointment because of his failure to be epic every waking minute.
One of the reasons so many hate U2 is that the band refuse to surrender to pessimism and gloom. For all my love of their melancholy, what has kept me coming back across the decades is that U2 are masters of hope. They dare to be earnest in a time of self-absorbed cynicism. They dare to sing about—and to—god, in a time of our disdain for deities. They dare to try to touch us in a simple, straightforward manner—dare to try to make us dance, dare to try to make us sing along, dare to try to make our hearts swell. Songs of Innocence is actually music for adults—which is why their continued relevance and success is so galling to the purveyors of hipster credibility.
The U2-loathing seems strongest ironically in the legions of former “fans.” U2 is DEAD! Because…because SOMETHING! This cyclical death-declaration is a tiring ritual, one I’ve privy to for more than two decades. U2 is DEAD!—said the people who had camped overnight for tickets to the Joshua Tree tour, when Achtung Baby dropped and Bono donned that red ruffle tuxedo shirt. U2 is DEAD!—they said when the band looped Larry Mullen’s drum tracks on Pop. And again in 2000—U2 is DEAD!—they said, decrying U2’s return to fundamentals as sign of artistic and moral decay when the band stripped down and turned their back on the techno-production of the 90s.
It’s a tough crown to wear—rock deity—because so many want you to fail. The death of our heroes saves us from having to get old with them. And I get it—Bono was my Jesus once, U2 my Vatican. I worshipped Joshua Tree as a rapturous teenager, Achtung Baby was my first foray into adulthood. And then I grew up and gave up on the unadulterated band worship, lest I kill the thing I loved.
While there are plenty of targets to choose from, I will heap particular scorn on Hampton Stevens’ farcical hit-piece in The Daily Beast (“U2 Generously Gives Us a Lousy Album, Sucks at the Corporate Teat”). Stevens’ petty posturing is emblematic of the current pervasive U2-animus. A “lousy” album? The Stones’ Dirty Work was a lousy album. Songs of Faith and Devotion: Live was a lousy album. That first Underworld album (minus Underneath the Radar) was a lousy album. Songs of Innocence is not only not lousy, it’s damn good. Is it mellow and contemplative in spots? Certainly, although no more so than 2009’s underrated No Line on the Horizon. But to declare it a “lousy” album is to kill hyperbole.
Stevens’ critique wouldn’t pass muster in my Freshman Comp class on even my most lenient day of teaching, so lazy is his lackadaisical dismissal of Songs of Innocence. Stevens offers specific, cogent praise for a few tracks—but his broad critiques—“tired,” “indifferent,” “bored”—are offered sans example. Because there aren’t actually any examples—these are just the projections of what Stevens apparently feels to be true, what must be true and clearly self-evident. As Louis CK would say—these are Stevens’ “believe-ies”—those warm and fuzzy self-reinforcing truths that need no explanation. We know in our gut U2 must be Dead, because what would it mean if they weren’t? What would it mean if they made a solid, meaningful record in their fifties?
The ridiculous self-deception reaches its height in the closing paragraph, when Stevens says “For most bands, Songs of Innocence would be a success.” Then why not for U2? This article was a “review”—I’m being overly generous to Stevens here—that was crafted around a preconceived notion. This took me back to something I read twenty years ago in an alternative weekly—a humorous (and still-apt) description of how to be a music critic: “Drink a six-pack. Stare at the album cover for half an hour. Think about how much your ex liked the lead singer. Write a review.” Or in Stevens’ case, think about how annoyed you are about the Apple-U2 deal, think about how much you loved War, and then obsess about how anything with more sonic production value than U2 circa 1983 clearly sucks in comparison. Come up with a pithy click-bait title—“U2 Generously Gives Us a Lousy Album, Sucks at the Corporate Teat,” and then fix your facts around the policy, as Jack Straw might say. Stevens attempts to wrap up his travesty with this final flourish: “Despite lyrics equating rock n’ roll with the Holy Spirit, (Songs of Innocence) very rarely rocks.” Wait, that is your distilled argument? That because U2 didn’t try to recreate the sonic teenage energy of Boy thirty years later, this new album is a failure? Sorry, but you’ll need a complete rewrite if you want full credit…
It’s one thing to question and criticize the roll-out of U2—2014; the audacity of depositing, free of charge—and without request—an album into every iTunes account in the world. That’s a discussion for another day. But Songs of Innocence deserves a listen on the merits of the music.
So listen to this album.
Or just one song—if you listen to only four minutes of music today, listen to the exquisite sonic excursion that is Every Breaking Wave. A marriage of Love Comes Tumbling with Electrical Storm, as lush and perfect as Daft Punk’s Instant Crush, Every Breaking Wave is U2 at their best—surging melancholy with an undercurrent of hope, aspirational guitar, a soaring chorus that will make even the most hardened atheist a temporary believer, make a life-long bachelor propose marriage, make you want to track down and embrace every estranged friend you’ve left along the way. The kind of song that will make the hair stand up on your neck the first time you hear Bono hit that note in the final surging crescendo, that classic Bono vocal-to-god moment.
I could go song-by-song, and spend another 1500 words detailing the merits of all the tracks on Songs of Innocence. But this isn’t a review of the album—this is a review of the reviewers. I understand how hard it is to separate a U2 album from U2 the Global Empire. But the band deserves that much—that we listen to the music without preconceived prejudice, that we listen with the same humility and openness we would want our own art afforded.
So listen if you dare—because the dirty little secret that’s been buried on the angry interwebs this week is that this free U2 album is better than most albums you’ve paid for this year…