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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

U2’s new album is groundbreaking but no masterpiece

Published: September 12, 2014
Section: Arts, Etc.

In addition to massive hits like “Beautiful Day” and “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For,” Irish pop-rock band U2 has become known for its attempt to catch the public’s eye—be it through heavy activism, constant involvement with the media, extravagant live performance tactics, theatrical composition or appearances in film. In examining U2’s career since its rise to popularity in the early 1980s, a pattern regarding its regular media-friendly activities appears: U2 tends to complement its releases with dramatic promotional behavior in order to attract attention that would not be easily achieved by simply depending on its somewhat conventional music and general sound.

On Tuesday, Sept. 9, U2, in typical form, headlined Apple’s highly anticipated keynote event at which the new iPhone was unveiled. After performing a brand new single, “The Miracle (Of Joey Ramone),” the band announced that it would be releasing its recently completed 13th studio effort, “Songs of Innocence,” at that very moment, free of charge for any owner of Apple’s iTunes application. As of this past Tuesday, approximately 500 million people now own the record.

While the music world has recently become accustomed to spontaneous releases (thanks to Beyonce Knowles’ 2013 “Beyonce”) and free, downloadable albums (Radiohead’s 2007 “In Rainbows” and Jay-Z’s 2013 “Magna Carta … Holy Grail”), no artist has ever released a record on such a gargantuan scale. “Beyonce” was not free, which limited sales, “In Rainbows” was offered on Radiohead’s website for free, and “Magna Carta … Holy Grail” was offered to users of a specific Samsung cellular phone. However, “Songs of Innocence” was forced into the hands of any person who owned a copy of iTunes, one of the biggest music browsing programs in the modern age. As Rolling Stone Magazine’s “Exclusive: Bono Reveals Secrets of U2’s Surprise Album ‘Songs of Innocence’” so nonchalantly states, “And five seconds later, the album was unleashed in the largest album release of all time.”

While U2’s marketing strategies remain unprecedented, fans can always count on the band to remain totally consistent in their musical sound—to an almost monochrome degree. Like every U2 album before it, “Songs of Innocence” is filled with swirling synths, the Edge’s bouncing guitars and romping rhythm sections, sounds specifically crafted for arena performance. Bono’s tender lyrics burn slowly into anthemic and howling choruses by the end of every track, driven by drum crescendos and echoing power chords. Many songs start simply and explode into an organized cacophony of sound, as is the norm with U2 songs.

Each track on the album seems to flow into the others, a set of songs rather than a group of individuals slapped together. All 11 new tracks seem to complement each other, though this vibe takes away from the individuality of any one song. As is the case with many of U2’s recent releases, each song is listenable and a fine piece of music, but somewhat forgettable. While “The Miracle (Of Joey Ramone)” is technically the lead single, none of the songs stand out enough to be single-worthy. While listeners will have no problem listening to the record from start to finish, they will probably put “Songs of Innocence” at the back of their U2 collection, far behind records like “War,” “The Joshua Tree” or even the newer “How To Dismantle An Atom Bomb.”

All that being said, the album does contain some moments that really feel like a classic U2-ism. The album starts with the aforementioned lead single, which harkens back to one of U2’s most successful hits, 2004’s “Vertigo.” It also resembles a song by Queen. “The Miracle (Of Joey Ramone)” pays homage to one of Bono’s idols, Joey Ramone of the revolutionary punk band The Ramones. This song has everything one would expect from a U2 track and thus perfectly pulls listeners into the record. Complete with a catchy “woah-oh” filled chorus, a huge riff and the band’s classic escalating style of composition, “Miracle” would find itself right at home amidst the light shows and fiery explosions of a U2 concert.

The fourth song on the record, “Song for Someone” takes a brief respite from the upbeat stadium rock. This tune allows the band’s frontman, Bono, to croon like a true romantic, until the song gradually builds up to a summery guitar crescendo. This is one of the most enjoyable moments of the album. “Song for Someone” is as triumphant as it is sorrowful, a description not uncommon of songs penned by Bono and The Edge. The album takes a bit of an experimental route on the next few tracks until reaching “Cedarwood Road,” one of the record’s finest. The tune, which references the street on which Bono was raised, rages forward with a set of heavily layered guitar riffs that give way for the singer’s gentle poetry.

“Songs of Innocence” is the perfect album for this type of marketing experiment. Firstly, only an A-list band, on the level of U2, would be able to successfully promote their album in such a manner. If a smaller rock band suddenly forced a record into the iTunes libraries of people from all walks of life and musical preferences, no one would blink an eye, and most iTunes users would probably delete the album quickly. However, because the name U2 has almost become a brand in its own right, people have no objection with giving the album a quick listen.

Furthermore, since “Songs of Innocence” is really quite listenable, iTunes users are not annoyed by the free music. However, since the album does not quite qualify as a masterpiece, the album may not perform magnificently with regard to sales. Now, “Songs of Innocence” will go down in history as the biggest musical release of all time. Such a feat is incredible for a merely satisfactory rock album, but it says an immense amount about the role of media marketing in our society.