"Does the world need another U2 record?" -- Bono.
Very little was known about U2's 13th studio album, Songs of Innocence, throughout the recording process. Only a handful of details were available about this record: Danger Mouse, Paul Epworth and Ryan Tedder were producing it, and that it was taking a painfully long time to come to fruition. Prior to Innocence, U2 last released a studio album in February 2009, when they released No Line on the Horizon. U2 stunned the world by releasing the album for free on Sept. 9, sending the musical world into a tizzy -- proving that U2 are still relevant. Undoubtedly stung by the lack of social impact Horizon left, the Irish band, now in its fourth decade, went back to square one.
Songs of Innocence thematically returns to where it all began for U2 -- the streets of Dublin in the 1970s. Innocence's opening track, "The Miracle (Of Joey Ramone)," recounts the experience of where it all started for Bono -- listening to the Ramones, and finding his inspiration for his eventual career and life. "Miracle" rollicks along, with The Edge borrowing a guitar sound from Jack White, while Larry Mullen Jr. and Adam Clayton provide a powerful and fitting rhythm section.
While Innocence starts off punk, it quickly gives a tip of the cap to The Joshua Tree. "Every Breaking Wave," the album's second track, was dropped from Horizon at the 11th hour, but made its way onto Innocence. With a late 80s feel, "Every Breaking Wave" wouldn't be horribly out of place on The Joshua Tree -- especially since it feels like a cousin to "With or Without You."
Innocence is one of U2's most personal records, accentuated most by "Iris (Hold Me Close)," which is an ode to Bono's mother, who passed away when the singer was just 14 years old. "Iris" is one of the album's stand-out tracks, with a driving bass line that could have been written by 1990s U2, coupled with guitar riffs that could have a home on The Unforgettable Fire.
Danger Mouse's DNA can be found throughout the album, but his grip on "This Is Where You Can Reach Me" is undeniable -- the pulsating bass, sparse guitar and synthesizers could easily be mistaken for a Broken Bells song.
Perhaps no song demonstrates more that this is indeed going back to where it started for U2 than "Raised by Wolves," which sounds musically like it could easily fit on the band's debut album, Boy. "Wolves" recounts a day in Ireland in the 70s in which a car bombing killed 33 people -- and what it was like for a teenager to grapple with the reality of the day.
The album's title is indeed misleading -- and certinaly intentionally. Instead of a return to joyous roots, Innocence illustrates the troubles U2 had growing up in Ireland in the truest sense; the actual Troubles are referenced in multiple songs, as well as Bono's angst, sorrow and anger over his mother's death. No, these aren't songs of innocence, rather, Songs of Innocence are songs of innocence being lost -- and moving past it.
That's not to say Innocence is devoid of joy. "California (There is no End to Love)" is one of two songs where you can feel that patented U2 joy seeping through both the music and Bono's vocals. With a bit of a nod to the Beach Boys, "California" confronts grief and pain straight on as Bono sings, "There's no end to grief," but, in typical U2 fashion, the next line and chorus flips the entire song on its head. "That's how I know, and why I need to know, that there is no end to love," Bono sings in what is likely to be one of the album's singles.
Most of Innocence is an homage to the band's inspiration in the 70s and 80s, but "Sleep Like a Baby Tonight" feels like it could belong on one of U2's three 90s album -- Achtung, Baby, Zooropa, or Pop. Despite the song's title, "Sleep" features one of Bono's darker lyrics, tackling the Troubles, and one of his most haunting chorus melodies in recent memory. Once again, Danger Mouse's influence is all over this song.
Indie music fans may be surprised to hear Lykke Li singing with Bono on "The Troubles," the album's closing track. While the album confronts the Troubles of Ireland, "The Troubles" confronts the protagonist's own personal troubles growing up, and provides one of the album's most memorable melodies.
There's no doubt that, despite the success of U2's 360 Tour, the band was stung by the lack of hits (read: zero) from Horizon in 2009. When the Billboard chart is filled with pop, fake hip-hop and country, it begs the question -- can a rock band, especially one 40 years into its career, produce a hit or stay relevant? While Innocence may not have a top 10 Billboard hit on it ("Discotheque" was the band's last top 10 hit), it's a cohesive collection of rock and roll songs that looks toward the future while nodding to U2's past both thematically and musically.
By literally giving away the album for free to 500,000,000 iTunes users, there's no reason not to listen to Innocence unless you made your mind up about Bono and U2 a long time ago. No, Songs of Innocence isn't as good as The Joshua Tree or Achtung, Baby, but it is as good of an album as even the biggest U2 fan could have asked for them to put out in 2014.
If U2 needs five years to record and produce an album as good as Innocence, then, yes, Bono -- the world does need another U2 record.