I don't want to live in a world where U2 are well and truly irrelevant, and yet I fear I've been living in that world for quite some time. Or at least working there; what we learned yesterday, when Bono and the boys gave away their new album, Songs of Innocence, for free via iTunes to a half-billion people, is that the internet, at least, doesn't much give a shit.
In the real world, dismissing U2 out of hand as sad, doddering, hapless old men of no consequence is not the look, even in 2014. They remain in the very top tier of arena-rock bands, which admittedly is mostly an indictment of the tier, larded as it is with joyless scolds and vapid knuckleheads and guys too busy filming their own HBO series. The farm team is considerably worse. So be grateful. Once every decade or so, U2 do something genuinely transcendent; once every half-decade or so, they tour, as they will in 2015, and U2 live is still a fearsome, many-splendored thing in spite of itself, themselves, yourself. You need this band around, if only to kick around.
They got kicked around yesterday. The Songs of Innocence rollout was abrupt, bizarre, fantastically inept. First and foremost, it was tacked awkwardly onto the tail end of the universe-halting iPhone 6/Apple Watch announcement, immediately rendering a new, free, instantly available album from the ostensible Biggest Band in the World a mere afterthought. Bono's scripted onstage rap session with Apple boss Tim Cook was beyond excruciating ("Wasn't that the most incredible single you ever heard?"), the actual delivery system positively Orwellian. (The album is in your iTunes library right now! Yes, you! Via the same cloud that may have catastrophically failed Jennifer Lawrence! Deleting it is surprisingly difficult!) The new U2 record arrived as spam, foisted upon you by the spam filter itself. It made everyone involved look creepy, and desperate.
All of which only underscores that U2 in the 21st century behave far more like a bloodless corporation than a living, breathing, human rock band; what's worse is that Songs of Innocence, as a piece of music, is explicitly designed to humanize them. Get a load of the brutal pivot between the third and fourth paragraphs here, from their fobbing it off on 500 million bewildered iTunes users to Bono insisting, "We wanted to make a very personal album," one that documents the band's "first journeys geographically, spiritually, sexually" (yuck).
And so you get songs about Bono's heroes—see tame, soon-to-be-Apple-ad-ubiquitous lead single "The Miracle (of Joey Ramone)"—and Bono's dearly departed mother and Bono's first trip to California and Bono's childhood home. It's all vaguely catchy and self-consciously "soaring" and largely antiseptic in the style of every U2 album since 1997's reviled but daring and fascinating Pop. "This is a sonnnggg," goes the aching chorus to "Song for Someone" (about Bono's wife), and that's what every song here does: Goes, This is a sonnnnng, more or less. It's remarkably poor background music, released in a manner that insures it will only serve as background music, as you suss out whether you're buying an iPhone 6 or an iPhone 6 Plus, and/or Googling "delete iTunes cloud."
Verily, Songs of Innocence merits the dreaded rock-critic cliché "rewards repeated listens"; stick with it and the second half emerges as a strange and semi-feisty beast, "Volcano" and "Raised by Wolves" reaching back to the halcyon half-snarl semi-punk days of Boy. "Sleep Like a Baby Tonight" is a weird, wobbly pop-art experiment marred only by its title and the unwelcome intrusion of Bono's Sexy Falsetto. The rest of it is indistinguishable from the C+ filler you'll find on any latter-day U2 record, from No Line on the Horizon to How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb. At least the album title is shorter.
Innocence isn't terrible, but its introduction to us was terrible, and in 2014 that's basically the same thing. Songs of Corporate Guilt. The only aspect of this record anyone will be talking about 10 years hence—hell, it's the only aspect anyone's talking about now—is the Involuntary iTunes Bum-Rush thing, and how that stacks up against other industry stunts, from Radiohead's to Jay Z's to Beyoncé's. But U2 will never command the critical respect of the first, never top the cold-blooded corporate-synergy acumen of the second (though it's close), and never touch any aspect of the (since overhyped, but still considerable) majesty of the third. Every record now wants to be Beyoncé, but that album, unleashed upon the world on a weekday midnight in December, a) was an actual, unexpected, delightful shock and b) is still fire. Whereas this is mostly and merely smoke, released on what was already the smokiest day of the year.
Rob Harvilla is Deadspin's culture editor. Yes, there is one. He's on Twitter.
Image by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images News.
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