U2: Songs of Innocence – first listen review

There are “oh-ohs-ohs” that will sound huge ringing out across stadiums the world over when the band inevitably tour next year, some crunching guitar and then Bono starts singing: “I was chasing down the days of fears, chasing down a dream before it disappeared.”

It sounds as if U2 feel comfortable in their skin as their 13th studio album kicks into life with a track called The Miracle (Of Joey Ramone), even if the record’s gestation has been fraught.

The Irish band’s last album, No Line on the Horizon, was released over five years ago, and while it received a five star review from Rolling Stone magazine, there was no string of hit singles. To some, the tentativeness to their approach was suggestive of the spiritual yearning that has characterised the best of their work, even while polarising others; to some, it simply sounded as if the band were beginning to lose their mojo.

Since then there have been rumours of protracted sessions with the producer Danger Mouse (best known for his work as one half of Gnarls Barkley), long-time manager Paul McGuinness jumped ship and now this: the by-now-familiar PR stunt of releasing the album with scant warning – call it “doing-a-Beyoncé” – which in this instance came on the back of an appearance at the new Apple Watch launch event in California on Tuesday.

In fact, Songs of Innocence has been “gifted” to a claimed half-a-billion-plus iTunes customers – a gesture that smacks of charity, although it should be noted that it’s Apple who seem to be bearing the cost, rather than the noted campaigner who fronts the band under review. Of Bono, it might be said that he has always seemed to know which side his bread is buttered, if not what time it really is.

Given this gambit – a tacit acknowledgement that records in this century are often little more than powerful promotional tools for live shows – it’s perhaps a shame that the band don’t risk more: Every Breaking Wave or Song For Someone – this is Classic U2, the Edge’s chiming guitar setting the scene for the endearing hopey-changey thing that has become the singer’s speciality. Elsewhere, the bass that fuels Volcano more readily brings to mind the band’s formative post-punk years (despite the refrain “you and I are rock’n’roll”), while Cedarwood Road carries more of a Led Zep chug but owes its title to the north Dublin address of Bono’s formative years.

Somewhere, you sense, there’s a clearer story that wants to be heard, something more directly personal or political, but all is opaque, at least on a first listen. Closer the Troubles doesn’t explicitly walk the same ground as Sunday Bloody Sunday; instead, here’s Bono singing: “I have a will for survival, So you can hurt me and then hurt me some more/ I can live with denial, But you’re not my troubles anymore.”

Only that song gets the breathy backing vocals and cinematic treatment that really bear Danger’s Mouse’s stamp. Given time, there’s every chance that other melodies would slip under the skin and lyrical themes reveal themselves further. But the initial impression is that this album sees the band not so much still looking for something that they haven’t yet found, but rather treading old ground without much of a sense of how to move forward.

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article was written by Caspar Llewellyn Smith, for theguardian.com on Tuesday 9th September 2014 23.32 Europe/London

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