U2 - Songs Of Innocence - Review

Songs Of Innocence - The official u2tour.de-Review


Boom! With a bang, five and a half years of waiting came to an end on 9 September 2014 when U2 released their unannounced and unexpected new album Songs Of Innocence as part of Apple’s launch of the iPhone 6. Many had been hoping for a new song or an announcement for the new album – but that U2’s latest longplayer would become available to millions of iTunes users was a surprise not just for their fans. Suddenly U2 were the big talk in town again – even if the stunt generated many positive as well as negative reactions along the way. But a successful launch it was, with U2’s previous albums back in the global iTunes charts within days of the release of Songs Of Innocence.

Within hours of the digital release, web and print media were flooded with reviews of the album. Here at u2tour.de, in contrast, we decided to give the album a bit of time, and publish our review four weeks later to mark the release of the album in its physical formats. Would our opinion of the songs change over time?


Whereas the digital album featured the white vinyl cover and handwritten title, the physical release was deemed to deserve its own, different cover. And another surprise, if not provocation, was the cover showing Larry embracing his teenage son, both shirtless. Reactions were split, from "homoerotic" to "beautiful, protective". But the band’s ambition was probably all the same – to be talked about again, not just because of the album’s ingenious release stunt. But the cover fits the album and its origins too, signifying the band’s embrace of its own youth. The album’s spelling of the title shows the same intent – written as Son gs Of Innocence, not Songs Of Innocence, pointing to a double meaning of Sons / Songs Of Innocence.


The digital release featured a PDF booklet of 24 pages with lyrics and production details, as well as (a novelty for U2) a very personal account by Bono, explaining the album’s and songs’ background. In interviews following the album release, the band already emphasised that Songs Of Innocence is a personal, intimate album, and both cover and booklet complement this, inviting the listener to enter their world.


Too many cooks in the kitchen? The last few years saw much criticism of U2 trying to produce a new hit single through the use of many different producers for the album, including Ryan Tedder, previously of OneRepublic. Other names involved were Danger Mouse, Paul Epworth, Declan Gaffney and Flood. But even if one can probably hear one or the other producer in the new songs, it hasn’t led to the feared messy style – there’s no obvious weakness across the album overall.

So let us look at the songs individually:

01 The Miracle (Of Joey Ramone) - Dirk

Ooooh Ooooh Ooooh Ooooh. After the debacle of Get On Your Boots for the last album, the band probably wanted to get everything right this time. Maybe the song’s production became a bit too ambitious as a result? Well, while The Miracle isn’t an immediate classic like Beautiful Day or Vertigo, it's still miles better than Get On Your Boots. Rightly placed at the beginning of the album, I can imagine it being the opener for the new tour, though with repeated listening the song can’t quite keep up with the rest of the album.

All those ooohs may be U2’s signature sound, but in The Miracle it becomes a bit too much! Otherwise the guitars are roaring, but Bono’s singing is too high for my liking, sounding compressed. The chorus has a strong melody – I woke up at the moment when the miracle occurred – is a line I can’t get out of my head, even if the rest is nothing special. Great to sing along to, even if not a great hit single.

02 Every Breaking Wave - Sebastian

Yes, the song seems to have the same bass as With or Without You, particularly at the beginning. And yes, the song has developed and changed from when it was first aired four years ago during the 360 Tour, even if the song already had potential then. But, no, it would be unfair to be disappointed by the final version of the song.

Every Breaking Wave is probably the album’s most melodic song. When was the last time that a U2 song was stuck in your head after the very first verse? The melody drifts like a wave on the sea, while Bono uses nautical metaphors to give the song a unified whole, from beginning to end. The sea’s infinity (Every breaking wave on the shore / tells the next one there’ll be one more), man’s struggle with it (Every sailor knows that the sea / is a friend made enemy) or the voice of reason among the noise (I thought I heard the captain’s voice).

The imagery is the one we know from U2’s big themes – the fight with the unknown, the wisdom of age, the infinity or loneliness of being – and thus fits into the album’s overall concept. And Bono carefully refined the lyrics, such as the small change from I thought I heard the master’s voice (2010) to captain’s voice (2014). Captain just fits the song and theme better.

The chorus is completely changed from the song’s 2010 version, but is the part that leaves me most disappointed, sounding too forced and separate from the rest of the song. While it is meant to be catchy, and features more of The Edge (rather than Adam) it’s the verses themselves that make the song. It remains to hope then, that the deluxe version of the album, which features an acoustic version of the song, will contain the best parts of both the 2010 and 2014 version of the song. Update: It doesn’t.

03 California (There Is No End To Love) - Hanna

An overly meaningful ringing of the bell leads into a male choir with explicit Beach Boys references – Barbara, Santa Barbara being a clear homage to their Barbara Ann. The song next skips into a nearly artificial-sounding surfer sound, until Bono’s ecstatic California breaks the opening. Songs Of Innocence’s journey is leading us to California, and talks about U2’s first trip across the Atlantic in the early 1980s.

In contrast to the isolated and bleak Dublin, in California the band is overwhelmed by new impressions and endless opportunity – the "American Dream" has rolled out its red carpet for U2. Already at Los Angeles airport, the four young men from Ireland are overwhelmed, afterwards reporting that they felt like in a movie, only better.

During their stay Bono took a pilgrimage to Brian Wilson’s house, the mastermind of the Beach Boys with the unmistakable falsetto voice. Already during their first band sessions as The Hype, Bono had to admit that his voice would never sound like that of the typical punk singers of the 1970s ("I sang like a girl") and now found confirmation in Brian Wilson’s own singing because "Brian sang like a girl too". Next to The Ramones and The Clash, the Beach Boys played a significant role for U2’s musical education. "I loved the Beach Boys, they brought rhythm for the body, harmony for the mind [...]”.

With California, U2 want to recreate this sound. The song, produced by Declan Gaffney (who also was assistant engineer for No Line On The Horizon and mixed Get on your Boots), is light and poppy – easy listening for long car journeys, sunny country roads, and heavy rotation on radio stations. Many fans aren’t all too pleased. No depth and too artificial, is an often-heard verdict.

Still, with every repeat listening California is more fun, full of euphoria about the discovery of a hitherto unknown, utopian world (geographically, spiritually and musically). Complemented by Edge’s refreshing guitar solo, and the obligatory ohohohs, Bono’s chorus over and over insists "All I (need to) know is there is no end to love." But what sounds light hearted turns out to be the hard earned lecture of reality and its darker sides: "There is no end to grief. That's how I know there is no end to love.”

Best Lyric: There is no end to grief. That's how I know there is no end to love.

04 Song For Someone - Andy

Song For Someone initially reminds one of Sometimes You Can't Make It On Your Own: the acoustic guitar, Larry’s drums... and still, it’s musical miles between the two songs (one confession upfront, for me Sometimes is the better song). The song starts calmly, with an, umm, charming opening "You've got a face not spoiled by beauty." Right. Let’s ignore that one.

The music fits the lyrics perfectly throughout. Edge is easily recognised in the second voice, and makes the song a typical U2 number, which wouldn’t have been out of place on other U2 albums over the last decade. Particularly the second chorus ("I was told I'd feel ...") is well made, and works well with the typical (and most typical for the album) Edge solo that follows it.

The highlight comes last – the fading of the instruments, while Bono intones "And there is a light / don't let it go out". Maybe it’s not a compliment if the song’s best part is its end, but let’s be honest, Bono started it with that lyric in my face!

Song For Someone is likely to feature on the tour, probably during the typical halftime acoustic set. It’s got charm, is lose and relaxed, and easy to listen to. Maybe played live, the song is a grower, but for now it’s the first song where I’m likely to reach for the skip button.

05 Iris (Hold Me Close) - Navid

Any journey into U2’s past cannot get past Iris Hewson. Iris (Hold me Close) is the fourth U2 song dealing with the early death of Bono’s mother, and lyrically probably the most personal "Iris says that I will be the death of her / It was not me"). The guitar is classic U2 sound, as is Adam’s bass. Put together, however, the sound is unusual and at times has similarities with Coldplay's Ghost Stories. Some fans say Chris Martin is audible in the background (though he isn’t listed in the credits, it’s a possibility after he was spotted visiting the band during sessions at the Electric Lady Studio in New York).

A few seconds into the first verse, one is already longing for a big chorus, though the chorus, when it comes, is long and mutes the tension of the song’s opening. Finally, when Larry enters the song, and no later than "I've got your life inside of me", I feel like shouting out the song’s emotions. Laid on thickly by U2, but probably alright in this case. The song’s bridge ("I dream / Where you are / Iris standing in the hall") is lyrically and musically the high point, and makes way for a lovely ending. Only Edge’s until then clean guitar sound could be heavier in the coda, at least for my liking. A song with strengths and weaknesses, but overall solid.

Iris (Hold me Close) is what it is, a collage of memories of Bono’s early youth and a touching homage to his mother, paired with emotional lyrics and a bit of pathos. "I owe Iris. Her absence, I filled with music” Bono writes in the booklet. You did, Bono, and that’s good.

Best Lyric: I thought that I was leading you / But it was you made me a man / Machine.

06 Volcano - Andy

"After grief comes rage ... the molten lava that turns to rock if it can". Reading the liner notes, it quickly becomes clear why Volcano follows Iris (Hold Me Close) on the album (and, I wouldn’t be surprised, on the tour too). Things quickly heat up, Larry wakes the listener from their slumbers, and Adam’s booming bass from Iris continues in even more distorted fashion. We’ve reached track 6 on the album, and somehow it’s the first (and in the end only) track that sounds like good, old, dirty rock’n’ roll. A few alterations of Bono’s voice á la Zoo Station and Edge has fun with the guitar. Lyrics like "Hold me close and don't let me go” turn into "You can hurt yourself tryin’ to hold on / to what you used to be / I'm so glad the past is all gone.” Serious stuff …

When we reach the chorus, it simply rocks. Well, at first, one chuckles hearing Bono singing "Vol-ca-no", but the music is great, and after repeated listening Bono is forgiven too. Adam’s bass and Edge’s guitar interplay in the chorus fits perfectly, and hasn’t been done better since the Red Hot Chili Peppers on Parallel Universe (if in a completely different tempo).

The song is a perfect rock’n’roll package, and likely to be a hit live – not least because of its sing along parts from 02:08, when we near the song’s climax. Suddenly, this all sounds familiar. Wait, isn’t that the Glastonbury riff? But before we can figure it out, Edge enters the fray with a bang.

Well placed in the album’s tracklist, and bringing much needed variety, the song brings a smile to the face (and is better than Glastonbury).

Volcano-Tour 2015? Why not. "Do you live here or is this a vacation?" is a line many of us will probably hear more than once next year waiting for U2 outside arenas across the world.

07 Raised By Wolves - Caro

Thematically, this, the most unusual song of the album, is closest to Sunday Bloody Sunday, Please or also Bullet The Blue Sky. A U2 album without a protest song would be hard to imagine, after all, and so the seventh song of innocence is Raised By Wolves.

The song describes a Friday in Dublin. On the afternoon of 17 May 1974, three car bombs detonated in Dublin’s city centre and in Monaghan in the north of the country, killing 33 "good people".

The song starts with dark, nearly threatening barking, placing the listener in the middle of the scene after the explosions. It describes the brutality of the attacks, the violence of the scene ("a red sea covers the ground"), confronts the listener with the blood on the street and houses, and gives details of the attack ("1385-WZ" was the license plate of the stole car in which the second bomb exploded).

The lyric "I don't believe anymore" moves us from verse to chorus, sounding innocent, despondent and naive in response to the situation described, particularly in the context of the religious tensions over Northern Ireland at the time. Also the chorus’ lyric, reminiscent of a bad dream ("If I open my eyes / You disappear") points towards a lack of comprehension and acceptance of the situation.

This truly isn’t a song about innocence, despite the album title, quite the opposite. The perpetrators of the attack were never identified, and the victims’ families are still fighting for the publication of all associated government files.

08 Cedarwood Road - Caro

So, so, any well informed U2tour.de reader would say, finally a song about the street where Bono grew up. Shortly after his birth in 1960, Bob and Iris Hewson bought the house at Number 10, in Ballymun, in northern Dublin. Cedarwood Road, then as now, is a calm suburban road, with typical grey houses and well kept front gardens. So much for the context.

When the song turns to friendship ("And friendship once it's won; It's won... it's one"), it probably looks at fellow boys Gucci (Number 5) and Gavin Friday (Number 140), who grew up on the same street and, since their first meeting with Bono, have been a constant part of his life and artistic development.

The song describes growing up in Cedarwood Road. The "warzone in my teens" is probably emotional rather than physical, as is the hidden pain ("The hurt you hide, the joy you hold") of a teenage Bono, facing the death of his mother at the age of 14. The relationship to his father difficult, he found support with friends, and the Lipton Village.

Still, Cedarwood Road isn’t a sad or angry song. Indeed, it sounds powerful, as the point from which grew strong friendships. This also finds expression in Edge’s guitar, kicking off with a rough riff at the beginning, maybe the hardest of the whole album (and reminiscent of Breathe from 2009). But the song is melodic, too, and sticks in the head. Inevitably, Cedarwood Road live in Dublin will be an emotional moment.

Best Lyric: Paint the world you need to see.

09 Sleep Like A Baby Tonight - Oliver

U2 regularly pick difficult themes, from the conflict in Northern Ireland to the war in Bosnia or the military dictatorship in Myanmar. With Sleep Like A Baby Tonight, however, U2 approach an even more difficult, sensitive topic – psychological and physical violence against children and teenagers in church institutions.

How difficult that can be shows the controversy over Peter Mullan’s movie The Magdalene Sisters from 2002, depicting violence in church homes for teenage girls. Not until two inquiries in 2009 was the extent of violence and abuse uncovered, and Ireland in shock. Many senior members of the church (including five bishops) hat to resign over attempts at cover-ups or even their own involvement. Some described the church institutions as "Houses of Horror".

The musical translation starts innocently. Breakfast with tea and toast and a look into the daily newpaper. The headline "You dress in the colours of forgiveness and Purple robes are folded on the kitchen chair" indicates a priest, but the chorus remains peaceful. But it’s just an illusion. Edge’s guitar from 01:30 changes the mood, makes it dark and claustrophobic, and in the lyrics, multiple signs take us to a more broken reality. With Bono’s voice keeping its calm, if not narcotic mode, we nearly miss the lyrics. "Hope is where the door is. When the church is where the war is. Where no one can feel no one else's pain" makes us guess at what terrible secrets are hiding behind these walls. A guitar solo at the end gives us opportunity for reflection, and speculation.

The song successfully captures this sensitive topic, also because it only hints at particular events. The listener isn’t reduced to being a voyeur but can decide if and how to approach the topic, or just stick with the music. I doubt we’ll get to hear this song on the radio much, but I consider this one of the most important songs U2 have released in the last 20 years. Sadly, its topic is likely to remain current for many more years to come.

Best Lyric: Hope is where the door is. When the church is where the war is. Where no one can feel no one else's pain.

10 This Is Where You Can Reach Me Now - Sabine

U2 have always been a political band, both in music and real life. This is where you can reach me now approaches this topic, and is dedicated to Joe Strummer, singer of The Clash, who died in 2002, and always has been a role model and idol for Bono. In the booklet Bono describes the significance of The Clash for U2’s own identity as a band and how the whole band was "revolutionised’ after attending their first The Clash gig.

"Joe Strummer was some soldier … his guitar a weapon, his mouth almighty", Bono writes in the booklet, and "we weren't sure exactly what they (The Clash) were fighting for/against but this was a public service announcement with guitars on behalf of the soul and we signed up". This is where This is where you can reach me now comes in. "Soldier soldier, we signed our lives away. Complete surrender, the only weapon we know" the song begins – fighting injustice, with peaceful means. U2 look back at their own history, not least the white flag of the War era. But maybe it’s a look not just back but also forward, and U2’s ongoing social conscience?

Produced by Danger Mouse the song starts with a march-like rhythm, mirroring the imagery of battle, before keyboards move the song into a different (more peaceful?) place. Musically the song is reminiscent of early The Clash sound, including their dub roots.

It is interesting to note, too, that the surprising and free release of Songs Of Innocence has parallels with The Clash – who for their double and triple albums London Calling (1979) and Sandinista! (1980), in spite of the resistance of their record label CBS, insisted to sell the albums at the price of a normal single album (i.e. Sandinista! with only a 20 per cent price increase). Maybe U2’s stunt with iTunes is more "punk" than we think?

In conclusion, a song which is likely to be well received live, and in which the band confronts their own political and musical inspirations.

11 The Troubles – Hans

On first listening, The Troubles was the track I was most taken by, maybe because I listened to the album at night, on headphones.

A threatening, dark mood, and the intensive voice of Lykke Li, remind us of a psycho thriller. The vocal interplay between Bono and Lykke of the pursuit of the victim by the attacker, emotionally if not physically. The effect is all the more intense because of the for U2 unusual instrumentation of the song, driven by guitar and, like in an italo-western, strings. The song is typical, however, for Danger Mouse’s previous work, and it’s a good thing no other producer got hands on this track – it’s a great conclusion to the Danger Mouse trilogy of songs on the album, and a true highlight. A shame, though, that Edge’s solo is being faded at the end. But maybe that’s been done intentionally, fitting for the opening of its successor album Songs of Experience.

I don’t expect to hear the song much live, but it’s a strong candidate for the outro, playing over the PA after the band has left the stage.

Best lyric: Somebody stepped inside your soul. (what else)

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