Saturday, September 13, 2014

The end of Rock'n'Roll as we know it: U2's Songs Of Innocence

The control room of Studio 5 at Tyne-Tees Television in Newcastle was heaving. Members of The Tube crew, various associates of that week's studio guests (Rik Mayall and Ade Edmonson, Robert Cray, Mick Hucknall) and me, crammed in for what was, undoubtedly, An Event.

In silence, and with hairs upright on almost every neck in the room, the screens faded from black to Bono in monochrome: "See the stone set in your eyes, see the thorn twist in your side. I'll wait....for you." The Event had begun.

Malcom Gerrie's weekly music show on Channel 4 had secured the worldwide premiere - on Friday, March 6, 1987 - of the first single from U2's soon to-be-collossus, The Joshua Tree, which was released the following Monday.

Live Aid, two years before, had already elevated the band into the upper echelons of pop's elite, but The Joshua Tree would take them even higher. Achtung Baby, the gargantuan Zoo TV tour, and the Zooropa album would follow, cementing their position as The Biggest Band In The World ™. Then came Pop, with Discoth√®que and its quasi-Village People video, and Staring At The Sun and If God Will Send His Angels. And then?

U2 remained The Biggest Band In The World ™, but on scale alone. The tours got bigger - the U2 360° tour concluded in 2011 was the highest-grossing concert run in history, with 7.2 million tickets sold worth $736 million - but the creativity levelled off. As have the album sales - The Joshua Tree sold 25 million copies worldwide: No Line On The Horizon, their last, barely touched 5 million. For some that would still be a tidy return, but not for U2.

Which raises questions around the sort-of surprise arrival, this week, of Songs Of Innocence, the band's 13th album. Unlike the heart-pounding drama of that Friday afternoon in Newcastle, the appearance of U2 at Apple's iPhone event in Silicon Valley on Tuesday and the subsequent free giveaway of the album to iTunes subscribers was as much a statement of how the music industry today - beholden to technology - as it was the launch of an album by one of the biggest acts of the last 30 years.

Picture: David Paul Morris/Bloomberg
The days of multi-million-selling records is probably long behind us, and I don't just mean sales of 'physical' format albums, either, which means it probably makes sense to give it away and hope to recoup the cost through ticket sales and merchandising. Songs Of Innocence will actually go on sale in October, but given that there are somewhere in the region of half a billion iTunes subscribers worldwide, it's a doubt as to who will actually go out and buy it.

Apple and U2 have palled up before, launching a special charity edition iPod ten years ago; then - with Steve Jobs still at Apple's core - there was more than a hint of middle-aged technology executives trying to look cool. Tuesday's was no different, and no amount of awkward-looking badinage between Tim Cook and Bono can mask the fact that this was, at the end of the day, just a marketing exercise.

Even now, it's hard to know who the carefully stage-managed stunt aimed to benefit. Perhaps U2 hope it will stimulate back catalogue sales; perhaps it really is just an expensive (as in $100 million  expensive) attempt by Apple to look clever (thus masking the fact that neither the iPhone 6 or the Apple Watch are all that much in the way of breakthroughs). But, really. Is this the same rock band that so brilliantly mocked mass marketing barely a decade or two ago?

There are, inevitably, serious questions to be addressed as to how and why Songs Of Innocence ended up in my iTunes library without my agreement, since it's in there, I might as well give it some some consideration.

Is it any good? Actually, it is, but it takes time to get to that part. In their blurb U2 say that that the eleven new songs constitute "a kind of musical autobiography" charting "their earliest influences from 70s rock and punk to early 80s electronica and soul".

So quite why the opening track, The Miracle (Of Joey Ramone), sounds more like Adam & The Ants' Kings Of The Wild Frontier than anything the Ramones unleashed is puzzling. The second track, Every Breaking Wave, California (There Is No End To Love), certainly brings the U2 story full circle in so far as it sounds more like Coldplay than U2, replete with "whoah-oah" stadium singalong moments and the now generic bass-and-guitar thuddery over-adopted by the junior group. Indeed, the idea that Coldplay want to be U2 has now been answered. Perhaps they should just merge, like some humungous corporate M&A exercise, and call themselves ColdU2play?

I'm sure there are those who will delight in these first two tracks, but for me, they seemed to perpetuate the lack of real adventure of the band's most recent outings. And as for the idea that they dip back into their musical influences...none that I could tell.

But, like me in the morning, perhaps this album just needs time to wake up and drink some coffee. The first tinges of caffeinated interest appear three tracks in with the ballad Song For Someone. Yes, a ballad. While lacking the melodrama of One or even Without Or Without You, it does at least engage the listener, rather than deflect through lack of interest, and draws you into the narrative Bono (as, one suspects, lyricist-in-chief) is trying to address, "themes of home and family, relationships and discovery", as the band's website explains.

Family and history certainly figure in the reflective nature of Iris (Hold Me Close), a heartfelt tribute to Bono's mother, and Cedarwood Road, which recalls his Dublin childhood with a somewhat sepia-tinted melancholy as he concludes by noting that "a heart that is broken is a heart that is open".

The chief complaint about U2's recent output has been the lack of conscious reinvention that marked their transition from The Joshua Tree's Americana to Achtung Baby's dystopian Berlin. Songs Of Innocence won't do much to change the perception that the Dubliners have become bland in their latter career, but there are some genuine moments of reassurance. Volcano - and try avoiding the word "erupts" with a title like that - erupts with the sort of industrious rock U2 once were known for (or at least adapted from Echo & The Bunnymen...), while Sleep Like A Baby Tonight trundles through sonic experimentation, the like of which the band has shown precious little time for since their 1990s zenith.

It's here that you notice that U2's signature sounds - The Edge's trademark guitar delay and Adam Clayton's often under-appreciated bass - have been reigned in. U2 albums always seemed to be more Bono's than the other three's, but the reflective nature - or, perhaps, the melange of producers (Danger Mouse, Adele's Paul Epworth, Ryan Tedder, Declan Gaffney and lifelong U2 collaborator Flood) - has contrived to smooth out the harder edges of their canon.

The final track, The Troubles even includes a guest vocal. Not their first (BB King guested on When Love Comes To Town) but in keeping with television's recent obsession with all things cold, dark and Nordic, U2 add Swedish singer Lykke Li, who is not cold and dark, to my knowledge, but is Nordic, to add some tonal variation to Bono's own singing (which takes off into Thom Yorke territory). Despite the title suggesting another attempt by Bono to commentate on Northern Ireland, the song itself is actually an amalgamation of thoughts on the women in his life, in particular wife Ali and mother Iris.

The overall impression of Songs Of Innocence is an album not rushed (it's taken two years to complete) but forced out because U2 have something to say. My question is whether anyone is listening. If they are, I can't help thinking that they - as I am - are wishing the band had something more dynamic to offer. Bowie returned with a surprise single and an even better album. U2 have returned with more of what they left us last time.

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