U2’s last album, 2009’s ‘No Line On The Horizon’ might have been a flawed midlife crisis of a record but, like an actual midlife crisis, it contained some brilliantly fun flashes. Its follow-up, unfortunately, has only a handful of standouts. ‘Iris (Hold Me Close)’, about Bono’s mother, is by far the best track, a wistful and pining ode that recasts the band’s best moments in timeless sonics. “Something in your eyes took a thousand years to get here” howls the singer, and it’s one of the few moments on ‘Songs Of Innocence’ where he doesn’t sound like he’s trying too hard. The tender ‘Song For Someone’ manages to stay within the lines, as does ‘Every Breaking Wave’. It’s characterised by restraint rather than bombast and is another obvious highlight, concerned with relaxing into calmness rather than killing yourself trying to take every opportunity out there. It’s subtle and sensitive, and it shows that U2 are still capable of true wonder – but it’s all too rare. Closing track ‘The Troubles’, featuring Lykke Li’s breathy call-and-response vocals, creeps along with paranoid dread, but fatally misses the opportunity to blossom into something beautifully dark and instead just chugs along.
And like a rail replacement bus service, the weaker tracks seem to last fucking forever and go absolutely nowhere. ‘Volcano’ and ‘Raised By Wolves’ aim for the spectacular widescreen rock U2 are known for but fall flat; the latter dribbles on about blood, crucifixions and death incoherently, despite ostensibly being about a Dublin car bombing. The turgid ‘The Miracle (Of Joey Ramone)’ and ‘Sleep Like A Baby Tonight’ might have the best intentions but contain nothing notable whatsoever, and the best thing that can be said about ‘California (There Is No End To Love)’ is that, with its major melodies and simplistic imagery, it isn’t as bad as ‘This Is Where You Can Reach Me Now’, which just stinks.
Compare this album with the iPhone and Apple Watch revealed yesterday. Apple kept their side of the bargain by presenting desirable, functional and beautiful products that people will pay for; U2 essentially fulfilled the role of Weird Guy Flyering Outside The Gig after giving ‘Songs Of Innocence’ away via iTunes.
But it doesn’t matter what they’re giving away, the fact it’s free makes it seem cheap. And on this evidence they’ve devalued their own brand because, quite frankly, this is a serious mis-step that might win a week’s worth of good publicity, but could foreshadow a year’s worth of bad.