We Review The New U2 Album "Songs Of Innocence"!

Yesterday, U2 surprised music fans around the world by releasing their new album, Songs of Innocence, free to iTunes customers.  The announcement came during Apple's unveiling of their new iPhone 6 to an anxious worldwide audience, which is yet another savvy feather in the band's cap in a day and age where legacy artists are finding it harder and harder to get their new music to the masses.

It was obviously worth U2's time to bump up the release date of their new album from "sometime in 2015" to coincide with Apple's big announcement, but few people ever expected to see a band on the level of U2 give their album away.  Mind you, the band reportedly received a $100 million paycheck from Apple to do so.  Good money if you can get it.

So how is the album, you ask?

The conundrum of being U2 is that their immense popularity forces them to live up to fans' expectations while also remaining musically inspired.  As a result, past albums Pop and Zooropa were ambitious and heartfelt, but the band couldn't help rounding off the harsher edges for mass consumption.  In the process, the impact of the music wasn't what it should or could have been.  After all, did the Beatles pull any punches on "Helter Skelter" or "A Day In The Life"?  Of course not.  By not dumbing things down for the mainstream, they gave the world songs that we're still marveling at some 40+ years later.

Opening the album with a reverent nod to Joey Ramone, the first thing that hits you is the modern production; the vaguely gimmicky treatment of Bono's voice, the grid-like feel of Larry Mullen's tom tom rhythms, and The Edge's treated guitars.  While their heart is in the right place and they seem determined to strike the right balance between man and machine, the end result is a song that never really takes flight.

"Every Breaking Wave" is a better song at its core and dispenses with the superfluous production flourishes, but, let's face it, this is little more than a Chris Martin-level rewrite of "With Or Without You".

It's an odd thing to hear U2 singing a refrain of "Santa Barbara".  This, after all, is the same band who once sang of IRA bombings in their homeland and now seems to be doing a PSA for California tourism.

"Song For Someone", much like its title, is a song with a message, but isn't quite sure what it wants to be or who its intended audience might be.  Additionally, the slow musical build lacks the organic quality of an Eno/Lanois production.  Much as you can achieve roughly the same effect with the right Pro Tools plug-in's, there is something to be said for hearing an actual human performance.

Thankfully, "Volcano" arrives just in time to remind us that we're listening to an actual rock band capable of transporting entire stadiums of humanity to a whole new plateau.  I hate to keep harping on this point, but when the band strips away the layers of technology and just PLAYS, they actually manage to create something special.

"Raised By Wolves" offers a delightfully misguided detour before the band returns to the wonderful simplicity of "Cedarwood Road", with a soaring chorus tailor made for waving your phone in lieu of a Bic lighter.

"Sleep Like A Baby" begins with a retro synth line over which Bono does his best Stereophonics impersonation.  Is this "Dakota" played at the wrong speed?  Either way, we love it.

"This Is Where You Can Reach Me" is the most danceable moment on the album, and its funkiness will sneak up on you if you let it.  On one hand, it's the least U2-sounding track on the album, but it's also the one we keep coming back to for more.

"The Trouble" closes the album on a contemplative note, like something you might hear as the closing credits roll after watching some CGI-heavy depiction of the earth being demolished by an asteroid of our own making.

RATING: 7/10

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