Marcio Jose Sanchez / Associated Press
U2 have just released what will soon be the most deleted album in history.
There it is, sitting in your iTunes Music Library whether you asked for it or not: Songs of Innocence, the heroic Irish rock band’s 13th album, which they surprise released for free in partnership with Apple at the consumer tech giant’s iPhone 6 (and Apple Watch) rollout in Cupertino, Calif., last week.
In a stroke of internet razzmatazz, Apple made the 11 songs instantly ready for download in the libraries of all 500 million plus iTunes users in 109 countries around the world.
So, is this Songs of Innocence (Interscope), with a title inspired by a 1797 collection of poems by William Blake (never fear, there will be a sequel called Songs of Experience) any good?
Yes, it is. We’ll get to that in a minute.
First, let’s talk about means of delivery, as it seems that in this post-Beyonce world, a blockbuster album cannot exist without a super-secret game-changing release strategy intended to win the 24/7 news cycle, at least for a day or so.
Songs of Innocence accomplishes that while ingeniously (or obnoxiously, depending on how you feel about the band) putting the music one no-cost click away from the ears of pretty much anyone in the world who might be interested in hearing it.
Even if half the people gifted with Songs instantly delete it, it’ll still be in the possession of a quarter of a billion people, a number roughly four times as large as those estimated to have purchased Michael Jackson’s “Thriller,” the biggest seller of all time. For the rock band that seeks to continue to be the last superstar remnant of a splintered monoculture that is, quite literally, huge.
And don’t think that U2 didn’t get paid. “I don’t believe in free music,” Bono said on Tuesday. Songs of Innocence is a gift not from the band, but from Apple, who paid Bono, the Edge, Adam Clayton and Larry Mullen Jr. an undisclosed sum, so they could give the album away. The partnership stretches back to the use of the 2004 single “Vertigo” in an iPod ad.
Enough with the biz, on to the music. Here’s the real shocker about Songs of Innocence: It makes for a surprisingly intimate listening experience, short on hubris and, dare we say, long on something that sounds like humility.
Maybe that’s because making it seems to have been an epic struggle. A new U2 album was expected this past spring, five years after No Line On The Horizon. Five producers worked on “Songs,” including Danger Mouse, Paul Epworth, Flood, Declan Gaffney and OneRepublic singer Ryan Tedder, whose hit-maker fingerprints are on the glossiest tracks.
The solution to the logjam for the now 50-something rock band was to write tight songs with clean, clear melodies — best exemplified by the “With or Without You”-ish “Every Breaking Wave” — that recall their original inspiration for making music growing up in 1970s Dublin.
The often sweet and refreshingly short — just more than 40 minutes — album kicks off with “The Miracle (Of Joey Ramone),” a chugging rocker in which Bono thanks his lucky stars for the appearance of a leather-clad punk singing “a song that made some sense out of the world.”
“I woke up at the moment that the miracle occurred,” the messianic singer sings, rhyming it with (here’s the humility) “I get so many things I don’t deserve.”
There’s another warm hearted punk tribute in “This Is Where You Can Reach Me Now,” dedicated to Joe Strummer, in which the Edge’s Stonesy guitar lines cast a hypnotic spell. Other songs look back on childhood trauma: “Iris (Hold Me Close),” is about Bono’s mother, who died when he was 14.
“Raised By Wolves,” revisits growing up amidst religious violence of IRA bombings but falters with a weak chorus that is likely guilty of exaggerating just how feral of a childhood the young U2ers suffered through. Less successful still is “California (There Is No End To Love),” which starts out as an awkward Beach Boys homage, with its kinda dumb “Bar-Bar-Barbara Ann, Santa Barbara Ann” chant.
The album sparkles elsewhere. There’s the fittingly explosive “Volcano,” in which Edge’s signature guitar shimmer is most effectively employed, and the Danger Mouse-produced, atmospheric closer “The Troubles” which would seem to also allude to Catholic vs. Protestant strife.
But the dark-hued song, with Swedish singer Lyyke Li repeating the ghostly mantra, “somebody stepped inside your soul,” looks inward instead, with Bono musing, “You think it’s easier, to put your finger on the trouble, when the trouble is you.” The song ends “Innocence” on a unsettling note, as “Experience” waits in the wings, ready to complicate what once seemed so simple and true.