U2 shows signs of life with nostalgic ‘Songs of Innocence’

Allison Stewart Special to The Washington Post. If the past nine months have taught us anything, it’s that the surprise album drop can really change the conversation.

It’s easy to forget: Before her self-titled album hit iTunes like a depth charge last December, Beyonce released a few would-be singles that never landed, and there had been rumors that the singer, struggling to put together a follow-up to her comparatively modestly selling “4,” had recorded and scrapped an entire album.

“Beyonce” quieted any early rumors of career trouble merely by the astonishing fact that it existed. The surprise release of U2’s often remarkably good new album, “Songs of Innocence,” may do the same thing. Before the album’s simultaneous announcement and release at Tuesday’s Apple product launch, U2 hadn’t put out a studio disc in five years. The band hadn’t been relevant in a lot longer than that, and its members were mostly glimpsed in a variety of exotic locales, like Portofino or the Oscars, wearing the stunned expressions of men who had returned to the office after a long vacation and found that Coldplay was doing their jobs instead.

“Songs of Innocence” hasn’t been met with the same universal goodwill that greeted “Beyonce.” (This paper’s Chris Richards labeled the album “dystopian junk mail.”) But it’s already changed the way we talk about U2. The album’s crash release (all iTunes customers will get it for free, and it will have a nominal physical release next month) means the band can save themselves from what Taylor Swift is going through right now: the endless buildup to an album’s release, with its steady drip of interviews and public exposure and soul-crushing early-morning radio station interviews, followed by speculation about first-week album sales.

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This manner may be the best way to hear it, in a slight state of shock, uncoupled from commercial expectations (if the album flops, there really won’t be any way to tell) or artistic ones. Unlike “Beyonce,” “Songs of Innocence” doesn’t have the gravitas of a superstar album; it’s a nostalgic sampler of things U2 used to sound like. It’s a musical acknowledgment that U2 has broken faith with its audience somewhere along the way, that things were better when Bono spent more time in the studio with producer Steve Lillywhite than in Davos, Switzerland, with Al Gore. It’s penance.

It starts off all wrong, with the sweet, forgettable “The Miracle (of Joey Ramone),” a soccer stadium chant of great mildness that doubles as a eulogy for the Ramones, and for the young men U2 used to be. It’s followed by a handful of songs about a time long ago that the group spent in Southern California that neatly encapsulate one of the main themes: The Past Was Better. It’s territory that isn’t vital enough to the group’s mythology to be worth mentioning now and overly trod upon at the same time. Everything about California has already been said by Joan Didion or Lana Del Rey.

The album brings out the best in producers who haven’t done great work in years (Danger Mouse) or ever (Ryan Tedder). Things begin to pick up speed with “Iris (Hold Me Close),” a throwback to the band’s chiming, sweeping anthems of the early ’80s. Like most of the best songs here, it covers familiar autobiographical territory (the loss of Bono’s mother, or their childhoods in war-ravaged Ireland on “Raised By Wolves” and “Cedarwood Road”) in greater, more wrenching detail. It pays homage to, but isn’t enslaved by, the band’s best work from the past. Most songs borrow from somebody’s back catalogue — either their own or any number of ’70s glam-rock bands or the Clash.

The best tracks, most of which can be found on the album’s galvanizing back half, also look forward: “This Is Where You Can Reach Me Now” mixes lite-disco with a faint whiff of “Gimme Shelter”-era Rolling Stones. Lykke Li shows up on mournful closing ballad “The Troubles” (its title no small thing for a band from Ireland) and sounds so ethereal and utterly at home, it’s a wonder the usually guest-feature-averse band didn’t invite her sooner. The blistering “Volcano” recalls both “Vertigo” and, utterly unfairly, bands such as the Walkmen, who colonized U2’s sound during its absence. That’s one of the dangers of not releasing an album for five years: You’re going to end up sounding like all the people who sound like you, just by sounding like yourselves.

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That “Songs of Innocence” was inconceivable just earlier this week is part of what’s remarkable about it, that someone flipped a switch somewhere in Cupertino, California, and U2 is suddenly ubiquitous — literally inescapable for iTunes users — in a way it hasn’t been since “Rattle and Hum.”

As an album and as a marketing exercise, “Songs of Innocence” falls somewhere in between “Beyonce” (a giant killer of an album, released in stealth) and Jay Z’s “Magna Carta . . . Holy Grail” (a craven corporate tie-in that sounded exactly like what it was). You’ll read a lot over the next few days about U2’s new release being little more than a loss leader for its inevitable tour, or providing the final coffin nail for the album as an art form. You might as well forget about the album; it’s already gone. But there may be life in U2 yet.

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Stewart is a freelance writer.