By Blake Jennings, Staff Writer
U2 is a band that has been on the verge of musical self-satire for a while now. Bono especially has always seemed keenly aware of the caricature that people have carved out for him—as that flag-waving, purple-shades-wearing, philanthropic mast-head of excessive arena-rock and self-importance.
U2 has always suffered from taking themselves a bit too seriously, but they’ve never been a band afraid to poke fun at themselves.
At times U2’s newest album Songs of Innocence feels like a subtle parody on everything people love and loathe about U2: the overtly political messages, the sentimental lyrics, the grandiose beltings of rock god Bono and the pristine and epic guitar panoramas of The Edge.
The new album sounds less like a band evolving and more like a band trying to solidify their status as alt-rock titans.
Unsurprisingly, Songs of Innocence is an album ruled by stage-stomping anthems, all tackling topics typical for U2: love, social politics, Ireland and even Joey Ramone.
Over the past few decades, U2 have turned the art of crafting larger-than-life arena-rockers into a meticulous science, and it’s almost impressive to see how effectively the band’s formula works over the course of their discography.
Unfortunately this science turns stale on parts of Songs of Innocence, with tracks like “Breaking the Waves” and “Iris (Hold Me Close)” featuring U2 at their most watered-down and uninteresting. They’re the faded, weak shadows of far better U2 songs, lifted up only by hollow production, predictable crescendos and excessive singing.With the entire first half of Innocence leaving little to write home about, it’s almost surprising to hear how impressive the second half of the album is.
“Cedarwood Road” is one of the album’s best songs and one of the best tracks U2 have released in years. It’s a heavy, earthy track full of thriving, jangling acoustic guitars and yearning vocals that echo back to The Joshua Tree. This track leads into “Sleep Like a Baby Tonight,” a sweet lullaby swelling with sumptuous synthesizers and twinkling guitar lines. Some of the lyrics and Bono’s faltering falsetto toward the end, but the track manages to cast its own special spell nonetheless.
The triumphant and rousing military chants of “This Is Where You Can Reach Me” is also a moment worth noting, as well as the soulful haunting melodies of the album’s final track “The Troubles.”
It’s as if the first six tracks find U2 giving in to the overwhelming mediocrity of most popular music, and the rest find them breaking into something more authentic.
One aspect that remains consistent is how well Bono’s voice continues to hold up. The man is into his 50s, yet he sings just as passionately as he did 20 or 30 years ago.
For most long-time U2 fans, Songs of Innocence will fall somewhere toward the back-end of the group’s catalogue in terms of quality. For me it fits somewhere snuggly between the underrated Pop and 2004’s How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb. It’s far from the best U2 album ever released, but its later tracks are enough to remind longtime listeners of why we fell in love with the group in the first place.
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