It’s a bold move to give your music away with no strings attached. But that’s exactly what U2 are doing with their new album, Songs of Innocence; and this is not just a free stream but a full download of the record. After a lengthy gestation the album was unexpectedly released on iTunes on 9 September without any of the customary build-up associated with an impending release date from a major artist, and will be available for free download for all iTunes users until 13 October.
This is a new and interesting tactic in an industry that has failed to come up with an effective and consistent business model since the advent of digital downloads. Perhaps it’s an admission that many are going to download the music illegally anyway, a reality that many music executives have ignored at their peril. But with their previous effort, 2009’s No Line on the Horizon, failing to cut through in any capacity, it shouldn’t really surprise that U2 were prepared to try something new (albeit underwritten here by the Apple juggernaut).
It’s also true that U2 have never been an act to stand still. One of the reasons that they have been one of the most enduring rock outfits is their capacity for reinvention. While continuing in a similar vein as their work since ‘comeback’ record All That You Can’t Leave Behind, this new album manages to sound both familiar and fresh at the same time. While there is an accustomed feel to songs like “Iris (Hold Me Close)” and “Song for Someone”, tracks like “Sleep Like a Baby Tonight” and “Raised by Wolves” see the band experimenting with sounds, pushing into unchartered territory. Meanwhile, the affecting album closer, “The Troubles” sees Bono singing in duet with Swedish singer Lykke Li.
Perhaps the biggest surprise of the album is that, although working with producer Danger Mouse, it’s not the pop-electro elements that are prevalent here; instead the band has a harder sound, evident in opening track “The Miracle (Of Joey Ramone)” and carried through on numbers like “Volcano” and “Cedarwood Road”. With the exception of the opening section of “Song for Someone” they have completely eschewed the signature searching ballad that has been a feature of most of their other offerings. The hardness is reminiscent of their early albums, emanating from a band that formed before they knew how to play their instruments and cut their teeth in punk rock.
As with the slightly retro sound of the album, the lyrics find the band looking back at the past, a tone that’s set by the opening track which celebrates the adolescent discovery of rock music’s power and joy back in the 70s. There are references to the geography of the band’s formative years on “Cedarwood Road” and allusion to the history of Irish political violence on “This is Where You Can Reach Me Now” and “The Troubles”. But on these two closing tracks such issues are given a more personal perspective in place of the didactic tone of the band’s younger days.
In recent years it has become fashionable to be dismissive of U2. This is, in part, due to the image of Bono as an opinionated, self-styled saint. But when they deliver an album like this that really works, we are reminded of how good they are at making music and why they are one of the most important acts in popular music.
And you might as well have a listen – it is free after all!
Download the album on iTunes here.
Reviewed by Matthew Trainor
Feature image from www.u2.com