In which I celebrate an uncelebrated curio
You thought you’d left this album in the dust, huh?
Apple product users will remember it as the one that automatically streamed when U2 released it nearly six years ago. As an involuntary addition to millions of music libraries, it was also largely unwelcome; people griped about wanting to delete it and generally didn’t give it a chance. The physical release a month later moved only 101,000 units.
I kept it. I figured a U2 album must be at least okay, even if I wasn’t a die-hard fan. Still, I didn’t listen right away, but absorbed it bit by bit over the course of years, returning every now and again out of a semi-conscious desire to know it better. All the signposts of my ‘getting into’ an album were present: the instant hook (“Volcano” followed by a gradual incorporation of the other tracks. Then on Twitter this week, I mentioned the long gestation of my relationship to the record, which was met with a request for a review.
So here I am, giving an album that is not new the mulling-over it deserves. (Or the mullin’-over…the Larry Mullen-over…)
My instinct was to associate the title with Songs of Innocence and Experience (the 1789 poetry collection by that guy William Blake), an instinct supported by the Innocence + Experience Tour in 2015 and the could-have-been-predicted follow-up album Songs of Experience in 2017. I’ve always liked Blake, so I appreciated the reference, not least because I understood it, which was already more than I usually got from this band.
Understanding has long been my problem when it comes to U2. It’s not that I don’t think they make good music or even that I don’t like it; I just have yet to figure out what any song is about. They’re all kind of about religion and kind of about Ireland and kind of about existence…(I admire Bono for refusing to be boxed in by conventions of concrete language, but at what cost?) In case you hadn’t guessed, I’m a lyrics person, so if I can’t engage with a lyric I need to do some work to make a connection. Now, given how U2 excel at instrumentation and arrangement, I’m often distracted from the lyric I’m unsuccessfully trying to parse apart by the ambient sound. A sound I feel like I can fall into and it will wrap itself around me. You know, ambient.
And this record brims with ambience. Each song has a groove that invites you to slip in before you realize it. You are, as “Every Breaking Wave” puts it, “helpless against the tide”—in fact, marine themes (ocean, beach, sand) pervade the whole, creating an undertow in which you can’t help but be dragged along. Additionally, the orchestration and sequencing give the impression of an ebb and flow, a rise and fall; instances of building (vocally/instrumentally/both) and of sudden release, exploding into revelation. We listeners are caught in the current. Heck, we may be drowning and we would never know.
These factors—combined with the lyrical through-line of giving in and giving up, bowing to the nonsense and the madness—ironically produce one of the most integrated and linear statements I’ve heard from U2. Here are the highlights.
Favorite track: “Volcano”
As I mentioned, this was my point of entry: friendly, accessible, a straight-up rock & roll song all the way up to the affirmation “you are rock & roll” in the bridge. The deep, propulsive bassline seized me from the beginning; the guitar, especially at the chorus, is brash and joyous in the dissonance it causes against the bass and vocal melody; the drums are heavy on the two and four. It’s danceable, helped along by the rhythm of the lyrics—a bit of a throwback to “Vertigo,” now I think of it. Coming at the album’s midpoint, this track is the axis upon which it revolves, and it’s bold and fun enough to shoulder that responsibility. I also just love the line (as linguistic and musical phrase) “Do you live here or is this a vacation?”
Favorite line: You’re breaking into my imagination / Whatever’s in there is yours to take. : “Song for Someone”
On an album full of ear-catching lyrics, of which this song boasts several—reminiscent of the Smiths, if only for the repeating plea not to let the light go out—this is the jewel. Part of the beauty of these moments is their brutality, their jagged edges, the violence bound up in them. Bono often draws subject matter out of the ugliness he has witnessed in his environment (the album closes with a number called “The Troubles”). In this case the aggression of the image is juxtaposed against a jarringly gentle delivery: the narrator adopts a stance of passivity, making no effort to resist even the invasion of his own mind.
Favorite chord progression: “California (There Is No End to Love)”
You know what a sucker I am. This is another high-energy track, with a driving, tripping drum line and lots of power chords. The “Ba-Ba-Barbara, Santa Barbara” intro is a nice tip of the hat to the Beach Boys; here ends any indication of the Wilsonian influence, though the overall effect is strangely similar—a sunny, breezy mix, the sonic equivalent of racing up the PCH. A listener’s interest is held by the equal-parts-major-and-minor chordal structure, the way the latter half of each verse differs just slightly from the former half, and the same with the refrain. I forgot how much I liked this song until I returned to it.
Other moments worth listening for:
- The chant-like chorus of “This Is Where You Can Reach Me Now”
- The melody, like a divine inspiration, of “Sleep Like a Baby Tonight”
- The mile-a-minute image effect of “Raised by Wolves”
- The central line of “Iris (Hold Me Close),” rising like…something out of the ether (not sure of the exact expression, but you know what I mean)
- The moment you stop trying to determine what “The Miracle (Of Joey Ramone)” has to do with Joey Ramone
- Basically everything, because Bono really lives up to his namesake phrase at fifty-four
Belated as this meditation may be, someone had to do it; the album has been detrimentally overshadowed by a perhaps ill-advised marketing strategy. I don’t believe it deserves to bear that mark forever. On the other hand, barreling into our lives the way it did might have been an attempt to render its lyrics literal and teach us the value of surrender. To paraphrase “This Is Where You Can Reach Me Now,” complete surrender must be the only weapon we know.
Image: cover of the Island/Interscope Records release, 9 September 2014