No other rock band does rebirth like U2. No other band – certainly of U2’s duration, commercial success and creative achievement – believes it needs rebirth more and so often. But even by the standards of transformation on 1987’s The Joshua Tree and 1991’s Achtung! Baby, Songs of Innocence – U2’s first studio album in five years – is a triumph of dynamic, focused renaissance: 11 tracks of straightforward rapture about the life-saving joys of music, drawing on U2’s long palette of influences and investigations of post-punk rock, industrial electronics and contemporary dance music. “You and I are rock & roll,” Bono shouts in “Volcano,” a song about imminent eruption, through a propulsive delirium of throaty, striding bass, alien-choral effects and the Edge’s rusted-treble jolts of Gang of Four-vintage guitar. Bono also sings this, earlier in a darker, more challenging tone: “Do you live here or is this a vacation?” For U2, rock & roll was always a life’s work – and the work is never done.
Songs of Innocence is aptly named, after William Blake’s 1789 collection of poems about man’s perpetually great age of discovery – childhood. For the first time, after decades of looking abroad for inspiration – to American frontier spirituality, Euro-dance-party irony and historic figures of protest such as Martin Luther King Jr. and Nelson Mandela – Bono, the Edge, bassist Adam Clayton and drummer Larry Mullen Jr. have taken the long way ’round to metamorphosis: turning back and inward, for the first time on a whole record, to their lives and learning as boys on the way to uncertain manhood (and their band) in Dublin.
Bono’s lyrics are striking in their specific, personal history. In “Cedarwood Road,” named after a street where he lived, the singer remembers the fear and unrequited anger that drove him to music and to be heard – and which won’t go away. “I’m still standing on that street/Still need an enemy,” he admits against Clayton and Mullen’s strident, brooding rhythm and the enraged stutter of the Edge’s guitar. “Raised by Wolves” is a tension of metronome-like groove and real-life carnage (“There’s a man in a pool of misery . . . a red sea covers the ground”) based on a series of car bombs that bloodied Dublin one night in the Seventies.
In “Iris (Hold Me Close),” Bono sings to his mother, who died when he was 14, through a tangle of fondness and still-desperate yearning, in outbreaks of dreamy neo-operatic ascension over a creamy sea of keyboards and Clayton’s dignified-disco bass figure. “You took me by the hand/I thought I was leading you,” Bono recalls in a kind of embarrassed bliss. “But it was you who made me your man/Machine,” he adds – a playful shotgun reference to his youthful poetic conceit in Boy‘s “Twilight” (“In the shadows boy meets man”) and his wife Ali. The teenage Bono once gave her Kraftwerk’s The Man-Machine as a gift while they were dating.
For U2 – and Bono in particular – the first step on the road out of Dublin was the sound of a voice, and they name it in the opening track, “The Miracle (of Joey Ramone).” U2 have always been open in their gratitude to New York punk and the Ramones in particular, and this homage to unlikely heroism – that kid you least expect to take on the world and win – is suitable honor: a great, chunky guitar riff and a beat like a T. Rex stomp, glazed with galactic-Ronettes vocal sugar. “I woke up,” Bono sings, “at the moment when the miracle occurred/Heard a song that made some sense out of the world.” U2 also pay due diligence to the Clash in “This Is Where You Can Reach Me Now,” dedicated to Joe Strummer, and there is a strong hint of the Beach Boys’ allure – their standing invitation to a utopia far from the Dublin grit and rain – in the Smile-style flair of the chanting harmonies in “California (There Is No End to Love).” “Blood orange sunset brings you to your knees,” Bono croons in an awed register. “I’ve seen for myself.”
These are the oldest stories in rock & roll – adolescent restlessness; traumatic loss; the revelation of rescue hiding in a great chorus or power chord. But Songs of Innocence is the first time U2 have told their own tales so directly, with the strengths and expression they have accumulated as songwriters and record-makers. This album was famous, long before release, for its broken deadlines and the indecision suggested by its multiple producers: Brian Burton a/k/a Danger Mouse, Paul Epworth of Adele fame and Ryan Tedder of the pop band One Republic. Those credits are misleading. Burton, Epworth and Tedder all co-produced “The Miracle (of Joey Ramone)” and contributed keyboards; that’s Epworth on the additional slide guitar in “Cedarwood Road”; and Burton arranged the chorale in “Volcano.” But the extra hands and textures are thoroughly embedded in the memoir. There is no time when the telling sounds like it was more than the work of the four who lived it.
And it is a salvation, U2 believe, that keeps on giving. “Every breaking wave on the shore/Tells the next one that there will be one more,” Bono promises in the tidal sun-kissed electronica of “Every Breaking Wave.” And “The Miracle (of Joey Ramone)” comes with a pledge to every stranded dreamer who now hears Rocket to Russia, Give ‘Em Enough Rope or some U2 for the first time and is somehow, permanently, changed. “We can hear you,” Bono swears. “Your voices will be heard.”
Just find one of your own. Then shout as hard as you can.