There is something inherently presumptuous about a band thinking you want its new album. So badly, in fact, that you can have it for free. Right now. You don’t even have to track it down. It will magically appear in your online music library after a simple click of the mouse. No money, no problem.
That’s how U2’s fans acquired the Irish rockers’ new album on Tuesday afternoon. “Songs of Innocence” came with no advance warning, no anticipation, no interviews with Bono or the Edge about its content. The surprise release was part of Apple’s press conference to announce its new products, and made the album instantly — and exclusively — available to anyone with an iTunes account. That’s a half-billion people around the world. (Interscope Records will release it in physical and digital formats on Oct. 14.)
That giveaway was a generous gesture — some might say arrogant — but it’s also a commentary on how we consume music, and a reminder that the record industry is pretty much in the sewer. No matter how good it is, an album can hardly stand on its own merit anymore, at least not if it’s going to be a commercial juggernaut. It needs a hook, an innovative idea that will ensure its arrival isn’t just a new release, but rather a News Event.
That’s exactly the coup Beyoncé staged late last year when she released her self-titled album, from out of nowhere and just beyond most deadlines for critics’ year-end Top 10 lists. Poof! There it was, wrapped in a bow with videos for each of its 14 songs. In the same spirit, Radiohead made headlines by allowing fans to pay what they wanted for a download of 2007’s “In Rainbows.”
Lady Gaga goosed sales of 2011’s “Born This Way” with a limited promotion in which Amazon sold digital downloads of the album for 99 cents (for two days only). And Jay Z struck a deal with Samsung last year in which users accessed a new app for a free download of his latest album, “Magna Carta Holy Grail,” a few days ahead of its official release. In all of those cases, the experiment paid off to a handsome sum.
U2 cut through the hoopla by essentially saying, “Hey, here’s our new album. Dig in.” That’s in line with how the band has made music going back to the early 1980s; it’s for the masses. If the business model for “Songs of Innocence” smacks of cold, corporate calculation — and even the album cover, an image of a white paper record sleeve with basic notes stamped and scrawled on it, has an air of disposability — the music is anything but. It has a direct intimacy that U2 hasn’t bared on recent releases.
Yes, it’s big and shiny and sometimes bombastic, but it also takes chances and pushes forward the band’s legacy. Danger Mouse, who has worked his magic with Gnarls Barkley and Broken Bells, is credited as the main producer; other collaborators include OneRepublic’s Ryan Tedder (Beyoncé, Maroon 5) and Paul Epworth (Adele, Coldplay). They seem to understand what makes U2 special: that interplay among the Edge’s shimmering guitar work, the one-two punch to the gut by drummer Larry Mullen Jr. and bassist Adam Clayton, and Bono’s majestic vocals, which somehow sound both close to the heart and scaled for a stadium.
Credited solely to Bono and the Edge, the lyrics look back on their history while sidestepping any sort of easy nostalgia. Bono penned the liner notes, which shed considerable light on the songs. He remembers his initial struggle to preserve his punk-rock roots: “. . . at one of our earliest shows, someone shouted, ‘more punk in the Monkees.’ They were right.” But then the Ramones, specifically Joey, made Bono realize he could sing “like a girl” and still be himself. “The Miracle (of Joey Ramone)” manages to honor both the hero in the title and U2’s ascent to becoming one of the biggest bands in the world.
With its warm, ricocheting opening chorus that riffs on the Beach Boys’ “Barbara Ann,” “California (There Is No End to Love)” waxes poetic about U2’s first trip to Los Angeles as a startling and splendorous flipside to Dublin. “Iris (Hold Me Close)” is perhaps the most signature U2 moment, right down to the flickering groove it rides on the Edge’s guitar and Bono’s poignant memories of his late mother: “Hold me close/ The darkness just lets us see/ Who we are/ I’ve got your light inside of me.”
And then there are sonic experiments so strange, so hypnotic, that they reveal new shades of a band you thought you already knew. “Cedarwood Road,” a remembrance of the street where Bono grew up, has some of the edgiest (no pun intended) fretwork the band has exhibited on record in a long time, a swampy vamp that sounds like it slithered out of the floorboards of a dank old cabin.
“Sleep Like a Baby Tonight” is a five-minute crawl through pulsating synths, steely guitar lines, and the skyscraping heights of Bono’s falsetto. It has Danger Mouse’s production fingerprints all over it, as does “The Troubles,” the closing ballad shot through with spectral backing vocals by Swedish singer Lykke Li and Bono’s philosophical assertion that, “You think it’s easier/ To put your finger on the trouble/ When the trouble is you.”
The irony is that U2 has captured our attention with a gimmick when, really, the album alone could have done the job.