Published Sep 12, 2014There's a fine line between desperation and hope and, while they often write anthemic songs about the promise of the human spirit (or something), U2 has always been a very desperate band. At their most interesting, (around 1987's The Joshua Tree and through to 1991's Achtung Baby), they were still viewed suspiciously by music purists, as foreign geeks with naked ambition and obvious gimmickry (the Edge's treated, heart-string-pulling guitar progressions, his and Bono's lofty lyricism and overwrought vocals). They spoke so openly about their desire to be "the biggest band in the world," it made their music sound like an entry in a high school battle of the bands in which they wanted everyone in the gym to think that U2 were cool.
If U2 was ever cool or exciting, that spark has been absent for a good 20 years, and with Songs of Innocence, they've never sounded so ordinary or cloying. "The Miracle (Of Joey Ramone)" has prompted an appropriate amount of snark — it's the title more than the cup-a-chicken-soup sentiment of the song that is off-putting, but together, they're both worse. It's Bono's forced alignment with an indisputably great band (who knew when to call it a day) that isn't evident in anything U2 has done since 1981.
"The Miracle (of Win Butler)" might have been a more accurate title for "California (There is No End to Love)," which, yeah, sounds like an Arcade Fire knock-off, but with Katy Perry's phrasing. "Iris (Hold Me Close)" will work well in the sheds, its emotionally manipulative structure pushing, pushing, pushing to make us feel it all. "You are rock 'n' roll," Bono sings on "Volcano," with his idiosyncratic penchant to galvanize via irritating insistence and meaningless cliché.
In the end, Songs of Innocence raises a lot of questions. Why do so many song names have parentheticals? Indecision? Why did Larry Mullen stop giving a shit about drumming? At one point, he used to do some cool, intricate stuff and seemed to have an ear for interesting sounds. Now, he's generally interchangeable with any random talented drummer.
Why did they think forcing their record on people via Apple's iTunes store would go over well instead of being regarded as a virus or spam? Why send a decent song or two, like "Cedarwood Road" or "Sleep Like a Baby Tonight," into the world via a publicity stunt? Is U2 stuck in a perpetual backlash? Why are we talking about them? Because, more than ever, they forced us to. And it feels especially annoying because their new record is a lousy "gift." (Independent/iTunes)