First, this isn’t really a first. Thousands of bands release free digital albums all the time. Even in the realm of major commercial artists obviously we had Radiohead “giving away” In Rainbows almost 7 years ago as part of a “pay what you want” thing… and as for selling it to a corporate sponsor for them to give away, Prince had his Twenty Ten CD given away with a newspaper in the U.K. a few years ago. AC/DC, the Eagles, Justin Timberlake, Prince and several others have cut exclusive deals with the likes of Target and WalMart. Jay-Z had an (intrusive) app to deliver his free album (sponsored by Samsung). And Beyonce and others have done the suddenly announced/released “IT’S HERE NOW” album drop.
U2 selling this to Apple for them to then “give” to us is a bit of a hybrid of those previous releases. I guess the main difference is that they actually PUT IT ON YOUR COMPUTER. Lots of major artists give away tracks for free, or offer streaming previews etc… plenty of free tracks that most people can’t be bothered to “go get” (by clicking a mouse several times).
This is Bono coming to your house and standing in your yard holding a boombox over his head.
“Hold me close like I’m someone that you might know” he sings as he crawls into your inbox.
The cynical among us will say we’ve already talked about U2 enough, or entirely too much, over the last 25 years or so… and “who cares,” and that any critical discussion about That New Free U2 Album is just falling for Bono’s trick and giving them the publicity they want. OK. Rock bands might not be the most important subject in the world (to you guys) but within the realm of “The Arts” and “Pop Culture,” if we’re going to chronicle every time Justin Beiber pisses in a bucket, then perhaps it’s okay to give 15 minutes of fame to discussing the new U2 album and its method of delivery.
I mean, leave it to U2 to somehow pull off a “surprise album” that’s been years in the hyping.
Doing it this way saves them from any potential embarrassment of it “flopping” and/or the reality that even U2 isn’t gonna sell millions of copies like the old days. By any measure, conventional sales figures of this album would have looked bad by U2 standards even if still in line with rock-bottom expectations of music sales in 2014. So this gets them publicity and they get to look like they gave it away for free…
This is how U2-level artists deal with the new Music (Lack-of) Business, and of course we shed few tears cuz they’re already rich…. and obviously there’s a few levels of artists trying to get their music heard (from the novice garage bands, to the mid-level professional but still anonymous artists on up to the superstar stratosphere). So now even the U2s of the world have to pull stunts just to get heard and “play for free” (even if their new album giveaway was actually subsidized by a large corporation). It’s just funny that even they have to do this shit.
After the first several listens, I’d say there’s some interesting tracks and some more late-career filler with a few pretty good kinda “raw” moments as well… and a few more examples of Bono going for the Big Huge Sweeping Sentiment lyrics… but it’s still too soon to have a strong opinion. (Ultimately it sounds destined for “not-horrific, better than their last one, but still just OK” status.)
There’s a wide variety of musical styles here, oftentimes many of them squeezed into the same song. “Cedarwood Road” opens with a nice crunchy riff signaling the stripped-down sound of their early work and still manages to wind itself into the sweeping lush choruses of slick latter-day U2 anthems (and back again). “Volcano,” “Raised By Wolves,” and “This is Where You Can Reach Me Now” are more evidence that U2 still has a pulse, a subject that was up for debate upon the release of their last album No Line On the Horizon (which now makes more sense as a title representing a flat line… ZZzzz).
This one sounds more like a U2 album (albeit a “new” U2 album). No, it doesn’t sound like War, but most importantly it also doesn’t sound like it’s TRYING TO SOUND LIKE the perfect blend of The Joshua Tree and Achtung Baby. While most cite those two as U2’s very best, albums like How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb and parts of No Line suffered because they seemed like such obvious imitations of U2’s peak former selves. That trick actually worked on All That You Can’t Leave Behind in 2001, but not so much on the subsequent releases. Granted, who better to make an overtly U2-like (U2-lite) album than Bono and Edge and those other two guys. Unfortunately, the delivery method and “business model” are more interesting than the music.
On Songs of Innocence, they take a few minor chances (still within their wheel house, even though I hate that expression). Nothing too crazy, no noisey avante-garde shit, no foolish gimmicks or guest rappers. There’s some variation and texture to everything. Parts of it are as lush and shiny (and borderline over-produced) as some of their shmaltziest work, but most of it sounds surprisingly live and natural (and again the word “raw” comes to mind). There’s clarity in the mix, and Edge’s guitar consistently cuts right through when he finally gets to do Edge things, but unfortunately it doesn’t happen often enough on this album.
It would also be very easy to make a case for this album being a collection of over-warmed horseshit and boring soft-rock built for the stadium masses. And I’m sure those snarky reviews are out there. I bet some of them use the word “pap” or “Coldplay.” And part of me listens to “Song for Someone” and it sounds like an SNL skit parodying emotional pop songs (I mean, the chorus goes “This is a soooooooonnnnnnnng….. for someone….” It’s kinda hilarious.
But it sounds like U2 moving forward, not U2 trying too hard to sound like old U2, and not U2 trying to get all futuristic or working too hard to be hip. They will always swing for the fences; they will always manage to have at least some cheese dripping around their, uh, edges… and we’ll always prefer their classic albums over whatever else they do.
Now it’s just a matter of which clever title pun to use as a closing line, All That They Can’t Leave Behind, or Still Haven’t Found What They’re Looking For? U2 will still Say Anything for attention? I’d say there’s still some fire, but most of it is forgettable.