U2 ‘Songs Of innocence’ album review/think piece

Apple has released a tool to remove U2’s new album from its customers’ iTunes accounts six days after giving away the music for free. There was a lot of anger on the net about the U2 album being spammed to unaware people- now you can remove it from your inbox…



‘Songs Of Innocence’
album review

What is this new U2 album that has suddenly appeared after 5 years of fretting and sweating and worrying? This sudden release, this sudden giveaway that reflects the new tactic of My Bloody Valentine and David Bowie of suddenly appearing out of the blue with the ‘long awaited’ new album.

We had sort of forgotten about U2.

It’s like they were so massive that they had disappeared like a big cloud high in the sky. U2 were somehow everywhere and nowhere at the same time.

Being the biggest b(r)and in the world comes with its own pressures…and that’s as true of U2 and their long term bedfellows Apple who have been giving away the new U2 album on their new launch.

Apple and U2 are in the same boat. Everyone knows their names but they seem to be from another time and are trying to stay at number one in the ‘market place’. Apple seems a bit lost after the Steve Jobs years and U2 seem to be too cautious, too far removed from the white heat of instinctive creativity that makes for all great rock n roll. There is that feeling that all their best days are behind them (that sounds like a U2 album title!). Instead of just doing it, it sounds like the end of a conversation about how do the band and the brand reinvent for the 21st century. It’s a question that seems to have preoccupied U2 and Apple more than what they were once good at in the first place.

Them original Apples- the Beatles were the smartest band ever on this one and bailed out when it started getting wonky.

The question now is – is U2’s new album their equivalent of Apple’s new wristwatch or is is going to be like the imperious iphone once was?

U2 are giving away their new album on itunes for free, a digital ticket to ride onto the new Apple launch bandwagon and, oddly, like Apple they are a ‘brand’ that has seen better days. A ‘brand’ that is from the past and is losing its way and is, like all of us tarnished by time and familiarity breeding content- which is worse than contempt. These are brands that need to reinvent themselves consistently to find their edge (ha!). The question is has it worked?

Hitching a ride on the new Apple release must have looked like a great idea at that U2 board meeting to discuss their 5 year plan for their new ‘product’.

We can guess that all the modern buzz words were brought up in the meeting like ‘Apple’, ‘product’, ‘iPhones’, ‘digital platform’…chins were stroked and everyone looked very earnest. U2 were to be made to look very modern and very generous as their new album was to be given away to millions of itunes users- an act of biblical generosity equalying Radiohead- who once gave away their In Rainbows album and at one stroke making music worthless and making themselves look like rebels against the corporate world that had already made them millionaires and making it almost impossible for smaller labels to sell their heard earned music.

U2’s ‘people’ look pleased. The board meeting has gone well. Apple are now ‘on board’. The ‘kids’ with their gadget will all have U2 to listen to. The band had entered the modern world, everything looked bright and shiny. The new album had the right names splashed all over it like Danger Mouse- producers who looked so hip that it hurt. We are surprised that they didn’t credit ‘market research’ on the sleeve notes!

The band were placed back into ’the market’ and everyone was relieved. They had made the veteran look modern and the band who were perceived as being stale and out of touch were to be made to look hip and modern and Apple were paying!

Everything was good until someone asked ‘Has anyone heard the album…’

And that’s the tragedy of the exercise.

Not because the album stinks- it doesn’t. It sounds like U2 by numbers, which is apt considering their name. The whole debate that goes around U2 – the whole Bone/saving the world/dodgy tax stuff/free album giveaway overlooks the fact that this was once a rock n roll band, a rock n roll band that grew out of punk and post punk and who at one time made pretty good records – the market research and the campaigns and the pressure to be the ‘biggest band in the world’ have clouded the waters.

And the album itself, well, it’s ok…it has the U2 sound… Bono is hollering, the band are playing their rock lite that is still allowed on the radio (and that’s pretty damning as well know that radio is terrified of rock), the hip pop culture reference points- like on debut single The Miracle (of Joey Ramone) with its clever reference point to the godlike Joey but maybe in spirit closer to the The Ramones t shirt than the brudders themselves. The song is not a bad bump n grind grunge riff and Bono still has that pure stadium filling voice but it’s somehow sterile- it sounds fretted over, too worried about. You just want them to cut loose but they just…can’t.

Hating U2 is rock journalism at its laziest- they are big and we are nobodies..we take cheap pot shots at them like fleas nibbling on the tough hide of an old elephant staggering to its grave and they just don’t care. We stand accused of being elitist- just bigging up small names and ignoring the gigantosuaruses. I want to love them. I’m the same age and grew up through the same stuff and know what they are trying to do- I get the reference points in the The miracle of Joey ramone single—-oooh look there is Joey Ramone, there is Mick Jones, there is Joe Strummer! The real gods! U2 have had their moments. They have been good and they still threaten greatness but mainly in interviews.

The album itself is U2 by numbers, the band can play this kind of stuff with their eyes shut and it sounds like they did. It sounds like an album fretted over for five years, worried as the monolithic Dino band felt it was slipping away from the frontline. Of course they will still fill stadiums, of course they will be all over the radio like last time when the BBC had a U2 day and the single got to 30 something in the charts. But like all bands and, even like the giants before them, like the Rolling Stones- U2 are now a heritage act. They are the best U2 tribute band in the world and they do it very well but, as they themselves would probably sing, the fire is not inside any more- that’s just the way of the world.

As ever the first track sort of rocks and the rest of the album is stuff that would sound good in an expensive guitar- chugging balladic heart on sleeve rock that would sound good on football programme.

U2 are a hard band to love and hard band to hate- they are just there and the tragedy is that you kinda know they are better than that- that away from this fretted over work there is still a kick ass and highly intelligent band lurking in there somewhere. The album is not bad but that is the worst thing a rock n roll band can be- not bad….

Now lets get the Virgin Prunes reformed…

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Award winning journalist and boss of Louder Than War. In a 30 year music writing career, John was the first to write about bands such as Stone Roses and Nirvana and has several best selling music books to his name. He constantly tours the world with Goldblade and the Membranes playing gigs or doing spoken word and speaking at music conferences.


  1. They were a great band, and like all great bands you think maybe this time their back…The Manics came back ,finally with a great album, most of em knock out two,three goodish pop tracks and twelve B-Sides, Musicians are like Boxers, better when their hungry

  2. Thanks, John. Interesting take.

    ps – The Prunes reform most weekends courtesy of Jameson whiskey and the inability to converse normally.

  3. Radiohead did NOT give away their album. Theirs was a “pay what you want” concept, and guess what? Lots and lots of people paid a fair and honest amount. I did. And many more, still, bought the physical copy (in either the limited edition vinyl version, or the later release CD format). Another big difference is Radiohead is still making great, innovative music and are still relevant to music. U2? Not so much.

  4. point taken on Radiohead- but you could get it for virtually free making the price of everyone else’s album seem like a rip off- the fact they could afford to do this was never mentioned…

  5. The presentation and album is U2 at their finest. If the compliant is about Bono’s huge ego, well, yes, he has a huge ego and if he didn’t, there would have never been U2. They have been consistent throughout their career. Love the way it was released and love the album, may not be NLOTH, but it is U2 – no doubt.

  6. well said, sir. I believe you hit the nail on the head with this one. i had to revisit War, in its entirety, after hearing the first single off this album. It was a good cleansing process. Hard to listen to 40, or Surrender (or you name it on that and other early albums) and then hear their utterly uninteresting music of the last 15+ years. Exit, if you’re a struggling u2 fan like myself, listen to the brilliance of Exit on Joshua Tree. You will remember how good they were tho that also might make you a little sad.

  7. I often go back to Boy and War and listen to them just to remind myself that this is the same band that exists today. Every so often in a lyric or a riff, you hear the old U2 and think that there is a great album in them somewhere. Just need to make it for themselves, not the label or bloody Apple.

  8. Book of Luke Chapter 19. A rich young ruler walks up to Jesus. “Good teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?” And Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God. You know the commandments…” (and Jesus repeated them to the rich young ruler, who nodded in agreement.).
    The rich young ruler said, “All these commandments… I’ve observed from my youth.”
    Jesus replied, “One thing you still lack. Sell all that that you have and distribute to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven: and come and follow me.”
    When he heard this, the rich young ruler became very sad. He was exceedingly rich.
    Jesus looking at his departing back said, “How hard it is for those who have riches to enter the kingdom of God. For it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of the needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God. What is impossible with men is possible with God.”

    John – that’s an excellent observational analysis of the U2 “thing”.. Round of applause. But that phrase “Biblical generosity” got me going. If Bono is the “rich young ruler” … what is his relationship with the Jesus that he claims to follow? We will never know. But if Bono knows his Bible, then he’ll know what Christians are meant to do with extra cash. Give it to those in need.
    Does it occur to him that he’s not doing that? Like Kate Bush, is he saying, “If I only could, make a deal with God?”
    Giving away the music via Apple might make good business sense for this world.
    But its not Biblical generosity.
    Biblical generosity is far more uncompromising….. for those who are the “rich young rulers” of this world.

  9. How’s it going John,I stopped listening to anything U2 passed ‘October’ really because looking back ‘War’ was the start of the slow slide down the mountain.Having said that’The Unforgettable Fire’ was a great album with The Josh’ halfway down the mountain side to boredom.Will I be looking to listen to the new stuff,no I won’t but if I do happen upon it,I’ll give it a listen.Thanks John,Paddyboru1014


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