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U2 - Songs of Innocence

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After a couple preliminary listens…

 

Meh.

 

I can’t say that I find anything on this album even remotely as interesting almost everything on No Line on the Horizon, and I found that album a little underripe. Comparatively, Songs of Innocence feels very overcooked. 

 

I write a lot of music for my work, and I can attest to the fact that there is a point one reaches, especially on projects where you feel under immense pressure to produce good material, where you write and rewrite and rewrite, and suddenly you realize you are so overexposed to your own music that the only effect you can possibly have on it at that point is detrimental. 

 

I could be very wrong, but most of this music feels to me like it reached that point some time ago. Where the music should feel at leisure, it comes off to me as disoriented and disjointed. Granted, there are moments of seeming cohesion, where it feels like things are coming together, but ultimately it never quite seals the deal.  

 

The worst thing about this album is I simply don’t care enough about it. I can’t be bothered. And I really wish that I did care. Because there is no rock band in the world I want to see succeeding more in their craft than U2. When they're on, they change the world. Right now though...they called this Songs of Innocence, as if they implicitly felt they needed to remind us that they’re still the whimsically hopeful, genuine, full-of-yearning songsters of All that you Can’t Leave Behind and How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb. I just don’t buy it, at least for now. It all just feels too tired and overdone. 

 

I understand that everyone goes through periods of burnout. They deserve to have a small hiccup every couple decades or so. I just hope that it's a fluke and that Songs of Experience reclaims their greatness. I thought "Ordinary Love" was fantastic, so I'm taking that as a promise of better things.

 

However (and I never thought I’d hear myself say this), comparatively, at least in my book, Coldplay is writing cohesive, winsome, catchy stuff, and has shown up U2 at their own game—at least for this round of album releases.

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I'm falling in the "meh" camp as well. There are moments when my ears perk up and tell me to pay attention, (from "Volcano" onwards, mostly)  but on the whole I doubt I'll be playing any of these songs a month from now. I'm open to the album growing on me, but there's too much other music that I'd rather be listening to.  And I'm a bit disappointed with calling the album Songs of Innocence, because U2 doesn't have the right sound to evoke William Blake. 

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I'm falling in the "meh" camp as well. There are moments when my ears perk up and tell me to pay attention, (from "Volcano" onwards, mostly)  but on the whole I doubt I'll be playing any of these songs a month from now. I'm open to the album growing on me, but there's too much other music that I'd rather be listening to.  And I'm a bit disappointed with calling the album Songs of Innocence, because U2 doesn't have the right sound to evoke William Blake. 

Hmm, interesting thought. I'm not sure I would go so far as to say that they don't have the right sound. There is a mystique, an appreciation for that sense of sehnsucht, that even in the good-natured rock-and-roll brawling, they always seem to grow tired of the temporal and want to talk about the eternal. There is a transcendental streak underlying much of what they write, and it's the part of them that has kept me coming again and again for more. For every "Get on Your Boots" or "Breathe", there is "Moment of Surrender" or "White as Snow". I would say that musically, they know how to adorn their songs in such a way that it magnifies that sense of spiritual longing.

 

That's why this album is so disappointing; that sensibility is utterly lacking, at least to my ears. In that sense, you're entirely right—when you name your record after a collection of poems by one of the most mysterious and enigmatic writers in western literature, you kind of have to earn it. I think they could have, but certainly not with this collection of songs.

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That's a good call; saying U2 doesn't have the right sound is too broad a statement. They do indeed weave in spiritual longing in their music, and thanks for reminding me about "Moment of Surrender" - great song. 

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In terms of winning over new U2 converts-- or perhaps just revitalizing interest among older fans-- the free release stunt seems to be working: 24 older U2 albums and compilations have risen to the Top 200, including some soaring sales numbers for The Joshua Tree and U218.

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Music is such a personal thing. I can't think of a more obvious reminder of that than the reactions to the release of the album... not to mention the responses to (and, better, the interpretations of) the actual music itself. You could write a book about what's happened in the last week.

 

Nevertheless, I'm up to almost 15 listens now, and I'm finding more and more to appreciate:

 

- in the way that each song sounds like both a live band, at the center, and an experiment in layers, contrasts, celebrations of past sounds, and innovations;

- in the way the lyrics play with past lyrics ("Staring at the Sun" comes up quite clearly, as do "With or Without You" and "Vertigo" and "Discotheque"), and expand on Bono's preoccupation with love songs that work as particular individual love letters as well as psalms and prayers;

- in the way it captures a sense of genuine joy, over and over again, without lyrics that sound like they've been devised merely to hype up an audience (with lines like "Oh, you look so beautiful tonight");

- in the lyrics that explore new territory ("Every Breaking Wave"'s focus on the tendency of a person or a culture to chase trends endlessly, to increasing dissatisfaction; stories from others in the band's early community; distinct, poignant images from Bono's childhood, like the one of his mother burying him in the sand at the beach);

- in the way that recent recordings often blended layers of sound into a bland haze, whereas here I can focus on one instrument at a time, listen by listen, and appreciate how clearly the harmonies and dissonances are working;

- in the way they seem to have finally heard their fans' desire to hear Adam Clayton's bass given a proper place of prominence again, and similarly in the way that the microphones seem to have been placed inside Larry Mullen Jr's drum set, instead of wired to the computers in which they're being processed;

- in the way that this shows us what creativity and energy is still possible from veteran rockers who are now 54-years-old. (Some of the reviews seem to be punishing them for not still be 28-year-olds. Me, I can't believe how much they've sustained the energy of 28-year-olds.) 

 

Everything that bugged me about the low points of NLOTH and HTDAAB... those points seem to have been addressed here.

 

I'm sympathetic to the notes from those who miss the sort of slower, more mystical tones of some of U2's '80s stuff. This is clearly a record designed to get hooks in early and often. I find that mildly aggravating. But bands need to be allowed to evolve and change, and Bono has often spoken with some chagrin about their past releases, even The Joshua Tree, as representations of artists who were still trying to find confidence and eloquence. Maybe what works for us as a profound sound of searching represents for them a restlessness to find what rang true for them. This sounds to me like a band that found what it wants to be, that this is who they are now, and that even so they are still exploring. 

 

I certainly don't expect others to agree. This is just my personal interpretation and experience. But after several releases' worth of conflicted feelings, I'm very happy to feel like the band and I are on the same wavelength again. And in a month of heavy personal losses and burdens, I am grateful beyond words for the way this album is giving me songs to sing with joy and defiance, at the top of my lungs, as I drive around in the sunshine this week.

Edited by Overstreet

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I agree with much of Jeffrey's praise for the album; just as surely, I agree that all of this can be subjective, and I think the pleasures of this album, in particular, are so tied up in our own personal experiences with U2 that some long-time fans will be underwhelmed, and not without reason.

 

I've seen some say that it's the best U2 album since Achtung Baby; others more conservatively rank it as the best since Pop. I'm not in either camp-- but will happily say it's my favorite since All That You Can't Leave Behind.

 

As for this comment from Jeffrey...

 

 

I'm sympathetic to the notes from those who miss the sort of slower, more mystical tones of some of U2's '80s stuff. This is clearly a record designed to get hooks in early and often. I find that mildly aggravating. But bands need to be allowed to evolve and change, and Bono has often spoken with some chagrin about their past releases, even The Joshua Tree, as representations of artists who were still trying to find confidence and eloquence. Maybe what works for us as a profound sound of searching represents for them a restlessness to find what rang true for them. This sounds to me like a band that found what it wants to be, that this is who they are now, and that even so they are still exploring.

 

I will add that yes, I think this album is a very distinct thing from their 80s album. I saw a Facebook comment the other day stating that this is "the most 80s U2 album since the 80s." I don't hear it that way. I think this is a band that's retained many of the lessons learned in the 1990s. Today's U2 is seemingly uninterested in the atmospheric build-up of "Where the Streets Have No Name"-- a sound they were perfectly happy to replicate on such recent cuts as "City of Blinding Light," but not here. This is a band uninterested in the faux-rootsiness of "Trip Through Your Wires" and "I Still Haven't Found." This is a band uninterested in the leisurely melancholy of "A Sort of Homecoming."

 

This IS a band that seems intent on recaptuting some of the straightforward jubilance of Boy, and in retaining some of the anthemic character of The Joshua Tree, but they've also retained their 90s flirtations with different rhythms and textures, and with pure pop hooks. "Sleep Like a Baby Tonight," for instance, sounds to me like the kind of pop they favored on ATYCLB, but filtered through some of Zooropa's trippiness.

 

What I mean to say is, this album seems to synthesize a lot of different strands of U2 without ever sounding like any one album or era in particular, at least to my ears-- and I think that's a significant feat.

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This is the best piece that I've read on U2 and the new album thus far, and gets at why I think the album connects with some and not with others.

 

http://www.newyorker.com/culture/cultural-comment/church-u2

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I love U2. They still make me openly weep at times. I rewatched Red Rocks recently, and was deeply moved by the sheer power and simplicity of the tunes, the youthful exuberance of the performances and the sad fact that almost all of the kids in that crowd that rainy evening, are approaching their 50's or 60's now. I didn't like their music in the 90's very much. Was never a huge fan of Zooropa or Pop. But I have liked a lot they have done since. And I think the last two albums, Bomb and Horizon, while fairly inconsistent (particularly the latter), contained smatterings of some of their best writing. I actually think there are small shards of greatness on both efforts. So, while I will probably always favor early U2 (I think they wrote more exhilarating music, before they actually knew how to play or formally write songs very well), I still think they make compelling music in their 50's. "Moment of Surrender" at the Rose Bowl concert is every bit as histrionic and moving as "Bad" and is probably a better-written tune. 

 

Having said all that, the new album really isn't very good. Who am I kidding. It's pretty awful. It's worse than safe-it's boring. And I go on record as doubting any defenders here will stand beside this dreck when it comes time for their year's end list. (Not even a week later and the heated praise here has already cooled down a few notches) 

 

Critics talk about hooks in pop/rock music. It's actually not hard to write a hook and when we're talking about a band of u2's creative stature, memorable, hum-able choruses alone have never been their total focus. Ariana Grande's new album is full of hooks. Hell, Nickleback has them in spades.

 

The issue here is whether those hooks are any good. In the context of the U2 universe, a "good" hook would be a hook that sounds fresh-- one that perhaps traverses some slightly curious sonic ground... a chord progression or melody that is familiar enough, but that comes at the listener from an oblique angle; some coloring outside the lines via tempo, rhythm, melody... There's not much of that here. Songs of Innocence feels like a wasteland. Virtually across the board, every melody, every progression is nondescript and by the numbers. This is exacerbated by quarter note bass drum pulses (a very weak late-game attempt at dance music again, or just plain laziness) With the rhythm section out to lunch, the spotlight is shifted to the Edge who has tried for the past three albums to ween himself off of his delay racks, with moderate success. Here, his occasional  overdriven, "death by audio" power chording reaches for Jack White and ends up somehow sounding more Doobie Brothers. "Every Breaking Wave" and "For Someone" follow the predictable path of every generic, faux-earnest pop band out there. Most of the time, musically speaking, there is little here that would tell the listener this is one of rocks all-time giants. For Monster, Pete Buck once said that the band deliberately used every derivative four-chord "rock" progression they could think of. Songs of Innocence, unwittingly seems to borrow the same template, sans the "rock" part, with greatly diminished returns. Song after song passes, with hooks for sure-- but none of them tasty, none of them that strike at anything deeper. Chris Martin has to be incensed over the stylistic hijacking of "Iris" and "Volcano". "Cedarwood Road" has the album's only really distinct guitar moment, a nice dovetailing turnaround riff that drops us seamlessly into a pleasant U2 minor key tome-- nothing spectacular, but it's the albums most effective moment. 

Edited by Greg P

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It's not the hooks, for me. It's a confluence of melody, band chemistry, the layering of sound, vocal performance, and meaning. But hey, happy to be a defender you'll doubt from now on. smile.png

Edited by Overstreet

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It's not the hooks, for me. It's a confluence of melody, band chemistry, the layering of sound, vocal performance, and meaning. But hey, happy to be a defender you'll doubt from now on. smile.png

 "Confluence of melody"? Every pop album has melody. Whether those melodies are "good" is the important thing here and that distinction is not as subjective as one might think. The melodies and supporting harmonic structure are tired and thin-- very much unlike the best of U2's work    

 

As for vocal performance, I would agree. Bono sounds wonderful for a mid-50's dude. Those pipes are still in fine form. It's just that he's forced to teeter back and forth between the most limited melodic material U2 has ever produced. 

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If I were to characterize my own reasons for enjoying this album-- beyond what I've said before-- I guess I would just say that U2 sounds more engaged here than they have in a while. That's a subjective thing, perhaps, but I think No Line-- for its many virtues-- sometimes sounds listless, the beating heart of the songs buried under the layered production. Atomic Bomb has heartfelt writing paired with exacting, calculated production choices, which undercuts their warmth and jubilance, at least to me.

 

I dunno if the hooks on this album are technically sophisticated or not-- Greg suggests that they are not, and who am I to disagree?-- but I hear more joy behind them, more conviction, than I have on the last two U2 albums. The music itself may well be calculated and fussed-over, but it doesn't often sound that way to me; there is, at least, an illusion of kinetic energy and off-handedness that I find appealing, and when you're talking about a record I think the illusion is far more important than the intent or the reality.

 

They sound younger than they have since "Beautiful Day," quite honestly-- and it does my heart good to hear it.

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My expectations were, admittedly, in the gutter--as in I was convinced U2 was done and that they wouldn't even release another album.  I honestly thought they had probably thrown their hands in the air and given up but were just too afraid to announce it.

 

This album took me totally by surprise. It doesn't sound like something that has been labored over for five years. It doesn't sound like the songwriters were suffering from writer's block, or any of the other rumors/excuses that have been trotted out over the past five years. The songwriting is personal and meaningful. There are no thinly veiled CCM songs ("Magnificent," "All Because of You") and no "big idea/save the world" songs about Africa and Aung San Suu Kyi. As a decades-long fan, there's something very satisfying and interesting about hearing the emotional world of Boy filtered through the eyes of 50-something U2.

 

So is my love for this album simply a surprised reaction to my uber-low expectations? Maybe. But when I try to separate from that, I still find that there is much to appreciate about it. I think it's a very strong statement from U2 at this point in their career. Like Josh said, it does my heart good to hear it.

 

As to whether the melodies and hooks are "sophisticated" enough, I'd say that question is VERY subjective. Debates like this always end up going back to The Beatles and everyone just gets cranky.

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So is my love for this album simply a surprised reaction to my uber-low expectations? Maybe.

 

Deep down, I suspect this is the reason for much of the early fan adulation surrounding the release. But even so, I don't get it. It's a decent Coldplay album.

 

As to whether the melodies and hooks are "sophisticated" enough, I'd say that question is VERY subjective. Debates like this always end up going back to The Beatles and everyone just gets cranky.

 

 First of all, Josh used the word "sophisticated" in response to my comments about the songwriting/melodies/structures, and I never used that term. For good reason too.

 

U2 has never really written traditional pop melodies. In fact their best, most beloved tunes are often sort of melodic non-sequitors-- I think this comes from their early punk/underground influences and from an emphasis on spontaneity and perrformance in their music (as opposed to say, tin pan alley-style songcraft) A good melody for U2's style of music (and again, this criticism of them has a slightly different criteria than judging say, a Beyonce or Christopher Cross melody) is one that catches the listener by surprise-- a subtle awkward turn, an urgent unfamilarity, a line that doesn't quite resolve, OR an unexpetced resolution admist harmomic tension, playing slightly outside the scale/key, balancing dissonance, etc...

 

On the new album we get none of this. We get predictablity. A solid stream of really tired melodic cliches. Blandness. Sameness. We get Owl City. Bruno Mars. Coldplay. And-- I said this before with a heavy heart-- Hillsongs. Ugh.

 

Horizon and Bomb both faltered and have their very specific strengths and weaknessses, from a songwriting perspective. But both efforts were night and day removed from Innocence, which is the high/low point of their musical banality.

Edited by Greg P

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This is the best piece that I've read on U2 and the new album thus far, and gets at why I think the album connects with some and not with others.

 

http://www.newyorker.com/culture/cultural-comment/church-u2

 

Have been meaning to come back to this. It is indeed a worthy article, with some thoughtful reflectons, though I question the claim that U2's Christian faith, at this point, is "semi-secret."

 

There is also this:

 

 

U2 have continued to write songs of doubt (“Wake Up Dead Man,” off “Pop,” is especially good). But they are no longer wild, ludic, and unhinged in the way they talk about God. There used to be something improvisational and risky about their spirituality—it seemed as though it might go off the rails, veering into anger or despair. Now, for the most part, they focus on a positive message, expressed directly and without ambiguity. The band’s live shows have a liturgical feel: Bono, who regularly interpolates hymns and bits of Scripture into his live performances, leads the congregation with confidence.

 

On one level, I miss this dimension of Bono's songwriting, as well: Few artists that I know of have been so willing to self-identify as Christ followers and as people of faith while simultaneously writing about the darker side of religious belief, about doubts and internal conflict, etc. And "Wake Up Dead Man" is one of my favorite U2 songs-- its sentiment one that I suspect we'll never hear from Bono again.

 

The sense I get, though, is that his writing is very much in line with the stage he's at in his own life-- and I don't fault him for that. No Line on the Horizon is one of the clearest examples I can think of of an album written from a place of Christian faith and also rooted in deep contentment-- not because Bono suddenly has no doubts, but because he's arrived at a place where he can rest in his faith, and even find some comfort in the questions that it raises. I might argue that the new album-- whatever its creative merits, or lack thereof-- continues some of this thinking.

 

Honest Christian maturity is frankly not something that one hears a lot of in pop music, including CCM pop music-- so I appreciate it whenever I hear it, which is largely on U2 albums.

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Honest Christian maturity is frankly not something that one hears a lot of in pop music, including CCM pop music-- so I appreciate it whenever I hear it, which is largely on U2 albums.

 

 

Preach.

 

My appreciation for All That You Can't Leave Behind has diminished somewhat over the years, but I think it's thematically significant in that it is a more hopeful response to Pop's dark night of the soul. These albums represent the ebb and flow of faith and doubt that we all go through. I'm not sure where Songs of Innocence would fit on this spectrum, but like the other albums, I think it's coming from an honest place and I like that.

 

In other news, Joey Ramone's friends and family have some nice things to say about the first single:

http://www.mtv.com/news/1932397/joey-ramone-family-friends-u2-tribute-reaction/

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U2 is on the cover of Time magazine again. And this preview article suggests that the next album, Songs of Experience, will usher in a new digital music format that could "save the music industry." Oh man. Way to enable the U2-haters, Time magazine. As if the band's Messiah complex wasn't overdeveloped already!  ;)

 

http://time.com/3393297/u2-apple-new-digital-format/

 

u2_timeintcover0929.jpg?w=1100

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The article suggests that the groundbreaking new format U2 is developing with Apple has some kind of an AV component-- which strikes me as staggeringly miguided. But what do I know?

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Come on, these are the visionaries who brought us Spider-Man: Turn Back the Night, or whatever the hell it was called. How dare you question them?

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My favorite music writer, Tom Erlewine, gives the album 3 out of 5.

 

 

Often, there's a nagging sense U2 could've pushed themselves a little harder sonically—"Raised By Wolves" benefits from the coiled paranoia created by its frenetically circling vocals and guitars—but that would've required risk, which they've been avoiding since Pop's garbled roll-out. Instead, Songs Of Innocence showcases how U2 desire to have things both ways. They camouflage their nostalgia in the sound of modernity, they play gigantic music about intimacy, they want to expand their horizons without leaving home. They want to be everything to everyone and, in attempting to do so, they've wound up with a record that appeals to a narrow audience: fellow travelers who either thrill at the spectacle or dig for the subtleties buried underneath the digital din.

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I can agree with some of this from Erlewine:

 

Often, there's a nagging sense U2 could've pushed themselves a little harder sonically ... but that would've required risk, which they've been avoiding since Pop's garbled roll-out. Instead, Songs Of Innocence showcases how U2 desire to have things both ways. They camouflage their nostalgia in the sound of modernity, they play gigantic music about intimacy, they want to expand their horizons without leaving home. They want to be everything to everyone and, in attempting to do so, they've wound up with a record that appeals to a narrow audience: fellow travelers who either thrill at the spectacle or dig for the subtleties buried underneath the digital din.

 

 

But ...

 

There was some serious risk on No Line on the Horizon, and those moments were the highlights for me (even if the production blunted their edge, no pun intended).

 

And notice how he, like almost every critic, has a different idea about which songs are the highlights? "Song for Someone" and "Raised by Wolves" are two of the three tracks I'm not really crazy about. (I haven't heard anybody say "California" is a favorite). Often when there is little or no consensus on the highlights, that's a sign that an album is complicated and that we'll go on chewing on it for a long time. 

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There was some serious risk on No Line on the Horizon, and those moments were the highlights for me (even if the production blunted their edge, no pun intended).

This is exactly why I consider No Line on the Horizon the superior album. No doubt it is uneven and underdeveloped in moments; there are tracks I invariably skip ("Go Crazy Tonight", "Stand Up Comedy"). But there are also moments of transcendent beauty and clarity ("Moment of Surrender" being the finest example, but also "Magificent" and "Fez (Being Born)"). It attempts to get past the superficial noise and grasp at existential truths under the surface; occasionally it succeeds. I am immersed in a narrative that, while in moments requires the listener to ascent an incline of bloated and tedious musical expression, ultimately leads to scenic overviews of stunning beauty.

 

There is nothing on Songs of Innocence I consider detestable or essentially unpalatable. It is simply that I feel like a bystander. I don't really feel compelled to look much closer than the surface. There are a couple tracks that show promise, but while they get to the doorstep of intrigue, it feels like they stop short of pushing it open into anything substantial. To me, SOI's greatest offense is that it doesn't offend my status quo enough to get me to care. 

Edited by Joel C

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Actually, this is how I've felt about U2 throughout their career. Always loved The Joshua Tree, never quite connected with War. Though Achtung Baby was brilliant, but Zooropa too enigmatic. Really enjoyed Atomic Bomb, never quite gained a love for All That You Can't Leave Behind. As much as I think they're one of the great rock bands, their brilliance comes in waves for me.

 

More than any band I know, I get the sense that instead of having a unified fan base, U2 has (and always has had) several disparate camps who approach their music with very different agendas (which is maybe what you're getting at, Jeff, when you talk about no consensus on the highlights?). 

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Bono mentioned in the Time magazine interview that Larry Mullen's son would be on the album cover, and now there's this. Whoah.

 

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Most U2 fans I know want the band to "return" to something. I want a sense that they're pursuing something. On those occasions after Achtung when they've really stuck their necks out, they've been soundly punished by their fans and the press. And they took those beatings too personally. But still, in one sense or another, they remain a band in motion.

 

They may not be moving, this time, in the mysterious ways you love best (this isn't a reinvention of lyrical style, guitar style, or a diversion from their bad habit of crowd-stoking). But in some ways they are still stretching and trying new things. Heck, they dumped the producers they could not do without this time and tried others — primarily the fellow responsible for Gorillaz and Gnarls Barkley and Broken Bells and the Black Keys... and what do you know? This album often sounds like U2 produced by that guy... an album preoccupied with hooks, layers, and somewhat simplistic melodies and hooks, just like, well, Broken Bells.

 

Is it up with my favorites? No, but that shouldn't matter to you. Nor should it matter to me where you rank this one. I'm interested in the moments that work for you. (I love "And a heart that is broken / is a heart that is open" so much I get a little shaky when it occurs. I cringe at "California," although I think Bono sounds so fantastic throughout.) I understand why some of us here love No Line on the Horizon so much. For me, the production on that album stifled the life of several tracks, and I felt an unsettling compromise, an overeagerness to recreate past crowd-energy highs. But I won't disagree with anyone who says it had some of their boldest, most beautiful songwriting. I don't view our differing album-rankings as an argument so much as a way to compare and contrast our personal relationships with the music.

 

I'm excited by the way they've "progressed" this time; maybe next time they'll move in a way that works for you. It's alright. It's alright. Alright.

Edited by Overstreet

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