Songs of Innocence – A Review

So, I should open this review with some sort of summation, right?  A quick 2-3 lines that will tell you everything you need to know.  Here goes:  give me six hours, and I could take this album and re-score any classic early-80’s film, something like Less than Zero or 2 Live and Die in LA.  It’s an album made by the kids who recorded War without knowing what they were doing, only now, nearly 30 years later, they very definitely know what they’re doing.

And yet, at the same time, it’s clearly a child of their 360-era introspection into the Achtung Baby recording sessions…not so much the album, but all of the brilliant detritus that would, for another band, define an era, but for U2 is just the not-quite-forgettable afterthoughts of a creative singularity.

At some point, I’m sure, I’ll have some thoughts on the lyrics and the production…this is just an immediate reaction to the songs themselves after 24-ish hours with them.

Track by track breakdown:

The Miracle (of Joey Ramone)

There’s a significant Vertigo vibe here, in the best possible ways.  The opening “Oh-wa-oh”s into a pulsing, driving verse is just begging for the crowd inside whatever is going to pass for “the heart” during the next tour to be leaping along at every beat.  When the chorus kicks in, pure major power chords, it’s like U2 is throwing their dick on the table, an unambiguous “Hey, you know what a pop rock song sounds like?  No, you don’t. And now you do.”

What I enjoy the most is how they seem effortlessly to turn the verses (from the 2nd on) into what most of us would consider the “break it down now” section of the song, and the last few times we hear the chorus, it gives us just a few clear pieces of the puzzle, leaving us to fill in the other elements we’re expecting to be there around a wicked guitar riff and colon-kicking drum beat.

This will destroy when played live.

Every Breaking Wave

It’s a bit difficult for me to assess this song, since I first heard it as a single-acoustic-guitar version on the 360 tour, and this album version is different enough to make me shake my head in confusion when it takes a different turn than what I’m expecting.

But what I can say…during the verses it keeps the core of what made those early explorations so exciting, the incredibly potent-yet-unexpected metaphors driving home truths that elevate beyond the basic words used.

The new chorus is interesting, but slightly more U2-owns-stadiums/arenas-by-the-numbers than I might like.  It’s epic, in all the right ways, but…here’s the problem.  No band in history has done the “all 90,000 of you are going to sing along whether you like it or not” better than U2.  And this chorus is like a strike thrown mathematically down the very center of the strike zone.  It’s impressive, and there are maybe half a dozen people (let alone bands) who could come up with something so epic and sing-along-able…but they’ve done it before, and once you’ve set such high standards for yourself, it’s inevitably a letdown when you just do the same impossible thing again.

Plus—again, speaking as someone who fell in love with the version we first heard several years ago on tour—it’s a bit hard to listen to the best lyrics from that version (“The sea knows we’re on the rocks and drowning is no sin/And you know, my heart is the same place yours has been/And we know the fear of winning, so we end before we begin”) buried into a rushed, non-melodic bridge into the concluding choruses.

Still, I’ll love this one live.

California (There Is No End to Love)

I’m a native Californian.  I love the Beach Boys and the Beatles.  I wanted to love this song.

But I don’t.  I really like it, but it feels slightly disposable.  Like an In N’ Out Double Double:  it’s by far the best possible fast food hamburger…but still, at its heart, it’s fast food.

There are songs on almost every album that I enjoy but that don’t sink their long-term claws into me.  Songs that I will listen to, years later, when in the context of the album, but will skip when they come up in a random shuffle, and never are intentionally added to a custom playlist.  Songs that are pure pop, but seem to lack that one key ingredient that will infest my soul.  Songs like “Who’s Gonna Ride Your Wild Horses” or “Walk On”.

This is one of those.

There’s a driving element to the beat that suggests it will go over well live.  But it’s not a song I’m going to reach back and make sure I play regularly a few years from now.

Song for Someone

The first and most immediate thing that strikes me about this song is the backing vocals in the verses by the Edge.  It’s the sort of thing they normally don’t get on the album and eventually add in the live show, elevating the song to another level.  That they’re here, in the album version, is impressive, and perhaps proof of their insistence that they wanted to get the best possible versions of these songs down before releasing them.

The rest of the song is the kind of thing that U2 does better than any band before, with, or after them…a soaring chorus that will rip open hearts and possibly provoke the deeper introspection that will change minds.

I really like this song, and easily see it replacing With or Without You in its customary place in the live set as the middle bridge of the encore…though I could also see it easily preceding WOWY, with the pulsing bass beat of that song rising during the final, naked vocals.

Iris (Hold Me Close)

It’s very difficult to put down in any succinct way what I think about this song.

The opening has very profound connections to the Achtung Baby outtake “Oh Berlin”.  And then the pre-chorus kicks in, and it’s a generic major-chord melody.  And then the 2nd pre-chorus kicks in, and it defies all expectations by dropping out almost all of the instruments and just lets Bono’s voice soar over a prototypical Edge riff.  And then the real chorus kicks in (or the “post-chorus-bridge”), and we’re back again into an Achtung Baby outtake.  And I have no idea at this point what the actual structure of this song is supposed to be or evoke.

I just know that I really like this song, and am looking forward to singing along to it live as much as any of the new songs (save maybe “Raised by Wolves”…that song is going to fuck my g-spot live).

Volcano

And this song might be the most direct and clear connection with War of the entire album.

A very simple, driving verse drives into a chorus that—absent a date given for the recording of the album—could serve as an elevated museum-quality example of 80’s New Wave.

And then the bridge comes, and they somehow pay homage to both Kanye West and themselves (and the epic live-only song “Glastonbury”), which doesn’t so much change the song as much as introduce a sudden bite of pepper into an otherwise comfort-food meal.

Raised by Wolves

One of the absolute standouts of the album.  A very hand-made/indie feeling intro leads into one of the most profound lyrics (both poetically and vocally) Bono’s ever recorded:  “I don’t believe anymore.”  Which is cut abruptly off by a riff straight out of 1983.

And then, the chorus kicks in, a vocal that is incredibly simple—no layered metaphors here, as the song’s title is repeated multiple times—and yet unearthly in its delivery.  Bono’s a baritone, not a tenor…and yet, that first delivery of the chorus sounds nothing like him, nor any other singer alive.  It’s a primal scream, an emotion made flesh, and everything after falls to heel in its wake.

Cedarwood Road

This song feels like a riff in search of a song, but not in a bad way.  The core riff is fucking epic, something that could be described as a riff that wants to “strut up and down the fucking street,” and everything else in the song serves it, as it should.

The vocals are unobtrusive, making sure to not try to steal attention from the guitar.  And the lyrics are a story, a companion, letting the riff sing out, complimenting it without getting in the way.

Sleep Like a Baby Tonight

Another song that echoes the Achtung Baby outtakes in the best possible ways.

There’s nothing else on the album that vibes like this.  It eschews the core rock band elements—guitar, bass, drums—in favor of a pulsing beat with a “we tied together a dozen fucked-up distortion pedals” guitar riff, weaving in and out of an electronic meditation.

And then, out of nowhere, Bono’s falsetto kicks in, and steers the song into the shoals of a Zooporian colony, just in time for an MBV guitar “solo” (quotes intentional) to drive us home.

I’m not sure I’ll understand the lyrics or musical intentions anytime soon, but I do know that I’ll keep listening over and over until I do.

This Is Where You Can Reach Me Now

The opening to this song is straight out of the Achtung Baby outtakes, until suddenly it isn’t, and what has to be deliberate echoes of “Gimme Shelter” start pouring out of Edge’s guitar.  And then a multi-layered melody, leading into what can only be described as a twenty-first century version of Monster Mash.

If that sounds weird, it’s a thousand times better in the execution.  This might be the most catchy track on the album, with melodies and harmonies that stick in your head like an immortal earworm.

The Troubles

Easily the best song on the album.  It has a hypnotic rhythm provided by the female vocals drawn against the deep pulsing bass drum.  The name suggests politics, but the lyrics are amongst the most personal, non-political Bono has ever written.  And the major-chord pre-chorus strikes way deeper into your soul than it has any right to.  The strings accompaniment elevates the melody exponentially, and there’s no way that this song doesn’t close every single show once they go on tour next year.

It has what might be the most profound, relevant lyric Bono has ever written (“I’m naked and I’m afraid/My body’s sacred and I’m not ashamed”), and when the Edge kicks in for an outro solo, there’s nothing left to do but close your eyes and rock your head back and forth along with him.


All in all, I’m not sure what I think about this album.  It doesn’t have a clear “Rolling Stone Top 20 Songs of All Time” track, nor does it have a clear, defined identity…and yet, every song feels like it should and does naturally lead into the next one.  There’s a thesis here that unfolds with each successive listen.

There’s only one thing that happens to “Innocence”, especially when viewed through the lens of age:  loss.  And as much as the album is, per its title, about Innocence, the real through-line is the loss of such, and the agonizing ecstasy of retrospection on those moments when you first noticed it was gone.

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