Sound — 5
Just this past year alone, watching musicians try different marketing techniques to effectively release their music has been captivating. There, of course, was Wu-Tang Clan's standout idea to make a secret album and treat it like a relic, with the only copy having a price-tag of several million dollars, as well as having that album touring museums for special listening parties; which has succeeded in being both unique and absurd. Then there's the more practical trend of surprise album releases: first executed by Beyoncé last year, which warranted massive results (though Wolfmother and Kid Cudi would try the same approach with their newest albums to much lesser avail), and even Thom Yorke unveiled a surprise release of his new solo album for $6 via a BitTorrent bundle, which surpassed a million downloads in just one week.
But what's made the largest of waves recently, of course, is what U2 has done. For a while, everyone had known that they were gearing up for the release of their thirteenth album, "Songs of Innocence," but the band literally made headlines when it was revealed in Apple's annual product launch that every iTunes account would be receiving U2's new album absolutely free. This alone spurred a plethora of reactions - mostly millennials looking at the newly-acquired album on their iPhone with befuddlement, asking "Who's U2?" - but as information further unraveled, there was even more to talk about with this grand stunt of an album release - from U2 evidently making something along the lines of $100 million in this deal with Apple, to doggedly rushing to release the LP version of "Songs of Innocence" earlier than its originally -scheduled October 14th release date so it would be eligible for the upcoming Grammy Awards, and U2's bassist, Adam Clayton, claiming that the band is already close to finishing a follow-up album.
If it seems like "Songs of Innocence" is more about the publicity than the actual music, that's because it is. As U2 have traversed into their 30s and double-digit albums, their prime has well passed, and anyone that's experienced U2's music before knows what to expect from them at this point. On the other hand, U2 also know how to compose music with enough cognizance to have it turn out feasible, so the supposition that "Songs of Innocence" would be abysmal due to it being given away is ill-conceived. Amongst the intended majority of adequate, not-great-but-not-terrible pop rock cuts, U2 do mix things up a bit, which results in hits and misses. The best two tracks on the album are the ones on the very tail end: the funky dance-rock "This Is Where You Can Reach Me Now" both distinguishes itself on the album after the thirty-and-some-odd-minutes of standard U2-sounding tracks that came before it; and the closing track, "The Troubles," turns out to be the most interesting ballad U2 have made in a long time - primarily banking on smooth, jazzy bass and the most self-realized string melodies on the album, as well as featuring guest vocalist Lykke Li to duet with Bono.
In the cases of when the sound tinkering misses, the trippy vocal chops in "Raised by Wolves" sounds like a knockoff of a Trent Reznor production technique, and the stronger whirlpool of vocal loops in "Iris (Hold Me Close)" doesn't help the song from feeling like a five-minute drag on the album. U2 attempt to enhance the cookie-cutter "California (There Is No End to Love)" with synths at the chorus, but overdo it like a person that spent too much time in the tanning bed, and the synth-driven slow-burner "Sleep Like a Baby Tonight" only manages to feign soul with a sub-par bluesy guitar solo and the return of Bono's strained uber-falsetto that made listeners originally wince in the infamous "Zooropa" track "Lemon." But aside from the distinctively good and bad, "Songs of Innocence" is mainly made up of safe-betting pop-rockers - from the energetic "The Miracle (Of Joey Ramone)," "Volcano," and "Cedarwood Road" to the easier-going "Every Breaking Wave" and "Song for Someone"- that is expected from U2. They're rock songs that are done right, but are tame and nothing beyond ordinary.
Lyrics — 7
Following conceptual suit with the title of the album, Bono's lyrics in "Songs of Innocence" are mostly recounts of experiences from his youth. This manifests in both positive memories - like Bono's first significant music inspirations in "The Miracle (Of Joey Ramone)" and "This Is Where You Can Reach Me Now," meeting his wife for the first time when they were just teenagers in "Song for Someone," and his first visit to California in the considerably benign "California (There Is No End to Love)" - and, of course, painful memories - like reflecting on his mother's untimely passing in "Iris (Hold Me Close)," and his days of teenage anger growing up during Ireland's chaotic era in "Volcano," "Raised by Wolves," and "Cedarwood Road." While it's this concept that's had Bono deem this album "the most personal record we've written," being album number thirteen, not everything here is a brand new topic - of course Bono has written songs about his mother and wife prior to now, as well as plenty of songs about the history of strife in Ireland. But aside from the overlap, the concept works, and with the ending track, "The Troubles," Bono takes the negative feelings he has towards his past and casts them away for a proper outro.
Overall Impression — 5
Despite their impressive longevity and discography size, U2 is arguably not the face of rock and roll, and there are plenty of other high-profile bands that are more ubiquitous than U2 today. And as U2's music has been predictably static for the past decade - neither soaring to great heights nor sinking to dismal lows - "Songs of Innocence" would have simply come and gone in the natural flow of new music releases, had it not been for its pompous release. Musically, "Songs of Innocence" is just average, but its music didn't need to capture the zeitgeist; the larger-than-life marketing strategy it utilized already took care of that. And consequently, "Songs of Innocence" will be remembered by all of the stories about its marketing buzz, and not about the compositions it contained.