By Peter Fiorilla
Demonstrating a clear lack of musical imagination in its newest album, “Songs of Innocence,” U2 shows it has more ideas about how to distribute music — this time in a way that grabbed the attention of the world, with an unexpected invasion onto the devices of all Apple users — then how to make it.
“Songs of Innocence,” U2’s first studio release since 2009, was originally intended by polarizing lead singer Bono to deviate from the group’s unusually strict musical style, according to Pitchfork Media. And the album does put the slightest of twists on the U2 formula, as Bono sings at length about the regrets and experiences he had growing up in Dublin, Ireland.
For fans of the band — and no matter how mockable U2 is, they have many fans — there is a healthy helping of new content via the lyrics, which have a novel-like continuity throughout “Songs.” U2 still puts together albums with narratives and a shared theme in a time when everyone else is busy lumping together 11 distinct viral hits, which means this dinosaur of a band can actually feel refreshing at times.
In a pop music culture in which it’s easy to be singularly cynical or sexy, Bono also goes against the grain with his intent of spreading an uplifting message. Throwing out lines like, “we know that we fear to win / and so we end before we begin” throughout “Songs,” Bono encourages his listeners to fight through personal adversity and find their own unique voices. This is an album which, for better or worse, is trying to convince you it can authentically mean something to everyone, and if you compare it to the other mega-pop hits of the year — think Iggy Azalea and Ariana Grande — then it almost achieves depth.
It takes more than some generic lines from Bono to make a worthwhile album, though. His message and story aren’t compelling enough to stand on their own, and his public persona guarantees the lyrics were a huge turn-off for many people before he wrote them. But rather than creating genuinely fresh or countercultural music to complement the lyrics, blazing its way to the top of the charts like it did in the 1980s, U2 seems content to rest on its laurels and churn out yet more wishy-washy mediocrity.
This is because “Songs” goes back to the same vanilla, alternative sound that — in combination with the generically inspirational lines from Bono — have both given U2 widespread appeal and made them an easy target. Among the harshest detractors of the band’s style are music critics, and it’s easy to understand why. “Songs” has no signature spark, no shock to the system or left hook to make it stand out.
The music is not terrible, per se. It’s poppy and smooth, and often sounds like an electronic dance party held underwater in a sea of synths and disco lights. The production is impeccable, albeit almost overly so — the album can feel sleek and over-produced, taking away the raw edge that made U2 likeable in its heydey.
Yet there’s nothing interesting about the music, either. Each of the 11 songs adheres to the conventional verse-chorus structure U2 has abused for the last four decades, and at its worst, which is most of the album, “Songs” sounds bereft of ideas, an electronic dance party that probably should have ended 20 years ago.
That means for U2 fans, “Songs” is a so-so release that will take you only as far as your love of Bono. For everyone else, the delivery of the album will be the pinnacle of its achievement. Now that you’ve been reminded U2 exists, the band has made little effort to convince you they still matter.