In late 2010, U2 began recording a new album with producer Brian "Danger Mouse" Burton during downtime from their 360° world tour. They had little idea they were kicking off a four-year process, far and away the longest they'd ever spent on a single album. "The experiments and excursions we took with Danger Mouse at the start of the album recording were unashamedly unhinged and free of all critical judgement," says the Edge. via e-mail. "We were happy to suspend disbelief just to see where we could get to. Those early sessions were some of the most productive and fun U2 studio sessions I can remember."
According to Bono, who spoke to Rolling Stone over e-mail, the group ultimately recorded about 100 different songs. "We had great fun getting lost in the creative process," says the U2 frontman. "The thing that propelled us to reach deeper and aim higher was a new appreciation of the craft of songwriting." But he wasn’t completely happy with the material produced in the early days. "We realized that some tunes are just better than others, some lyrics just more coherent, some soundscapes just more compelling," he says. "We found ourselves bored with material that just felt good or unique."
The Edge felt the same way. "At a certain point, as the songs were coming into focus, we could see that certain qualities, hallmarks of our work where not represented," he says. "This meant we needed to go off and write some new songs and rework a few that were almost finished."
Former Interscope Records head Jimmy Iovine served as the group's sounding board through much of the recording process. "When they first played me music I didn't hear songs that were going to include people that weren't U2 fans," he says. "I heard lyrics and ideas that could, but not songs."
He told them they had to dig deeper: "I was straight up with them. I said, 'In order to make the record you want to make, you have to go to a place where you don’t live now. And it hurts. It's dark and painful, but you have to go there. Can you put yourself back in the place you were at 25 or 35 and the world was coming at you 100 per hour and you don't give a shit?'"
In order to get there, Bono began writing songs about his difficult teenage years in Dublin and the music that changed his life, most notably the Clash and the Ramones. "I went back and started listening to all the music that made us start a rock band," he says. "It gave us a reason to exist again. That’s how this album started."
Bono also attempted to simplify his songwriting. "We wanted the album to have songs that would stand up when played on acoustic guitars or piano," he says, "not relying on Edge, Adam and Larry’s atmospheres or dynamic playing. We’re putting out an acoustic session with the physical release to try to prove this point."
At a certain point, Danger Mouse had to step away to focus on Broken Bells and his many other ongoing projects. "We took the opportunity to work with people like Ryan Tedder and Paul Epworth," says Bono. "[They] were equally strung out on the old fashioned notion of 'songwriting.'" Flood, whose tenure with U2 dates all the way back to The Joshua Tree, was also brought in to help. "It takes a village to make a U2 album," says Bono, "whether its The Joshua Tree or All That You Can’t Leave Behind, we have always needed all hands on deck."
Eventually, the group found themselves with a collection of songs they felt stood up to their best work. "We had achieved a lot in terms of establishing a fresh perspective but we also wanted the album to contain some elements of what you might call the Big Music," says the Edge. "It’s a good sign that if you asked me what songs came together last I would really have to think about it. The album has a cohesion in spite of our strange process."
With the end of recording in sight, the band turned to an issue almost as serious: how to make a big, U2-level cultural impact at a time when album sales are at a record low and rock radio is diminished. "We wanted to reach as many people as possible," says U2 manager Guy Oseary. "We brainstormed and brainstormed. Apple has hundreds of millions of iTunes accounts – giving it away just made sense."
There have been reports that Apple agreed to pay $100 million or more in marketing, which a source close to the band believes is incorrect. "I have no idea where they are getting that number from," says the source. "I think it's wrong." The amount the band was paid directly by Apple remains even more of a secret. "There’s no such thing as a free album," says Bono. "It costs time and energy to make. It was free to people because Apple paid for it. It was their gift." ("There was a payment made to the label by Apple," is all that Oseary will say when pressed for more info.)
Perhaps predictably, considering that the album went out to half a billion people, reaction to Songs of Innocence has been all over the map: everything from elation to curiosity ("Never really been a big fan, but that Songs of Innocence [is] kinda dope," said one tweeter) to bewilderment ("Either someone hacked my iTunes or I'm buying U2 albums in my sleep," wrote another) and even to anger. After the release, Apple received so many complaints that it put out a software tool that allowed users to delete the album from their iCloud accounts. But the band's camp points to the fact that 17 of U2's albums appeared in the iTunes top 100 chart in the days following the release. "There's not much rock in the zeitgeist," says Iovine. "So what the band were trying to do is defy gravity. And whatever tools you can use to do that, you should use."
There’s also another album in the works called Songs of Experience. "Early on it became obvious that we were working on two separate albums," says the Edge. "The majority of the unfinished songs are worthy of becoming part of Songs of Experience and some are already as good or better than anything on Songs of Innocence. The Songs of Experience album will be released when it's ready. I hope it won't take nearly as long." Bono is unwilling to predict when the album will be ready. "As is obvious, I'm not very reliable on predicting release dates," he says. "Ask Edge."
For now, the group is beginning to turn their attention to getting on the road and playing their new music live. "The tour is still in the planning stage so it's too early to describe what it will be like," says the Edge. "I think we will start small. We certainly can't get any bigger than the last tour."
In the meantime, nobody with the band is apologizing for aiming high on the release of Songs of Innocence. "By this point, seven percent of the planet has gotten the album," says Oseary. "It might be too big, but we like to think big." Bono, when asked about the response to the record via e-mail, puts it even more simply: "If you don't want it, delete it. Here's the link."