Friday, September 12, 2014

U2 releases “Songs of Innocence”

Before I start, I think we should all pause to honour the many brave individuals who have taken to social media in the past few days to let everyone know they hate U2. Swimming against the tide is a very tough thing to do; I just hope their reputations can recover. But we should thank them as well – it’s not often social media in 2014 can take you back to 1988.

The reality is U2 have been hated for most of its existence. The period it went from being known by enough members of the public to then being hated was pretty short – perhaps from the time it took The Joshua Tree to sell squillions of records till the moment people saw the horrendous megalomaniacal mess that was Rattle and Hum.

U2 have never been cool. The release of Achtung Baby in 1991 and its follow up Zooropa, plus the incredible Zoo TV Tour did give them a bit of a nudge towards coolness; but fortunately for all concerned, the release of Pop in 1997 allowed everyone to go back to hating them and not having to worry about such an opinion being out of whack.

I’ve been a U2 fan for far too long really – since probably around 1984 when I think I first saw footage of them singing Sunday Bloody Sunday at Red Rocks. I was 12 at the time and not really a big enough consumer of music to be able to say I was all the way with U2. Back then I was just young enough to think Duran Duran’s The Reflex was about as good as music got.

But within a year or so U2 was it for me and so it has remained. Songs of Innocence

Back when they released their last album, I was someone who actually did blog and so I did a ranking of all the U2 albums. It would have been perhaps correct at the time to suggest U2 were done and they would be able to retire to the Greatest Hits concert circuit.

And yet the release of Songs of Innocence as part of the iPhone 6 launch sees them actually more relevant than they were 5 years ago.

Of course such a statement is absurd: U2 are not relevant. We know this because in the approximately 7,846 instant reviews of the album on every single newspaper/magazine/news website we have been told how they are not at all relevant.

Judging this album is tough because of the way it was released. It’s free and inserted into your iTunes library whether you liked it or not.

I can understand why some people don’t like that, though most of the objections are pretty stupid. The ones about privacy are easily the dumbest. I wonder if these people have ever had Windows automatically updated on their PC? How about apps on the iPhone, ever noticed how they also get automatically update now? Yes people, IT companies whose product you have agreed to use can change things on your computer.

But perhaps the thing I have most liked on Twitter is people making jokes about worrying the person next to them on the bus might see their iPhone/iPod has a U2 album on it.

Here’s a news flash, no one gives a shit about anyone’s record collection anymore.

When I was at uni I knew a bloke who had an amazing LP collection. It was jaw-dropping the great and obscure albums he had, and it was a source of pride and respect. Now I probably have almost as many albums as he does – and if you subscribe to Spotfiy so do you.

Sure everyone was given this album for free, but albums have lost pretty much all the currency they once had, and certainly your record collection has.

You got an interesting album on your iPhone? Wow, how long did you have to go round town to find that? Oh I forgot, you just clicked “purchase”. Well done you.

At this point I should acknowledge how old and get off my lawn I might sound – don’t worry in 15 years you’ll be saying the same about… err you know that band that is the biggest thing now… oh ok, not really. Bands like U2 don’t really exist anymore, unless they are carry overs from the 1990s.

Heck in 20 years time music might no longer be what it is now. Surely some computer programmer is working on an app that takes all your favourite bands and mixes their songs together in this weird mesh and jumble that spits out a computer generated songs which people will at first think is a travesty and then find bizarrely seem to work.

And bands like The Rolling Stones, U2, Led Zeppelin will make squillions from it.

(If no one has thought of this, I’m claiming copyright here and now)

At this point you can talk about how magnificent music is now, how we’re not reduced to the old mono-culture (geez, I loved using that word when I was young as well, it sounded like it meant something). And then we turn our eyes with glazed boredom to the charts and see it’s as mono-culture as it ever was.

Wow, Taylor Swift, Redfoo, Nicki Minaj, G.R.L., Paloma Faith. Talk about the full gamut…

As Redfoo said recently in response to his critics:

“People write ‘His song is so annoying, it’s No.1, I hear it every day, I hate that guy’. Relax guys! They complain about me using autotune, when I bet there are 20 songs on their iTunes that use autotune.”

Well, quite.

And so when we turn to reviews of U2 we find it has not just become a review of the album but a review of generations – perhaps in a way that has never occurred before.

Let’s go back 20 years and think of reviews of The Rolling Stones’ Voodoo Lounge.

I scarce wonder if anyone cared one way or the other – by this time even Rolling Stone magazine knew there was little interest in them. There was no need to tear them down to try and demonstrate how the younger generation had surpassed them – there was already U2 (already gettin’ a bit old), Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Radiohead, Rage Against the Machine etc etc.

There was in fact still bands making rock albums that mattered. There aren’t anymore. That doesn’t mean there aren’t the occasional good rock albums but none really that are going to take over the world.

And maybe that is good, but don’t blame my generation that the biggest concert acts are people who last wrote a good song before you were born.

And look, it’s not all bad. You’ve got Kanye riding a motorcycle with Kim Kardashian – live it up!

It’s not hard to then see the generational divide in the reviews of Songs of Innocence – mostly there are the oldies like David Fricke for Rolling Stone who gave it 5 stars (even I think that’s a bit much), then there are the younger one’s who are wondering what the hell is this whole thing with 4 guys with guitars a bass and drums.  And then there are those who seem above all just desperate to show they don’t like it.

One of the best of these is from Elmo Keep, and yet even in-between the fairly standard disparagements (yeah corporate band, yeah mention of Coldplay…) even she notes of “Songs for Someone” “that “This is kind of a great song”, and then of “Volcano” “This is also a pretty great” and of “Sleep like a baby tonight” “Where did this amazing Kate Bush song come from? Why isn’t there a whole record full of this stuff? Why isn’t there a whole record full of this stuff? Oh, there is, Zooropa.”

And thus we get to it – the most common reaction from those who have grudgingly found songs they actually like on the album, but really (really) don’t want to have to admit it, the “regardless of anything, they’re not as good as they used to be” view.

Well, yeah. Just how long have you been listening to music?

No band in their 35th year is ever as good as they were in the 5th.

It’s a bit like reading the commentary on Federer at Wimbledon and the US Open – the praise of his play, but the acknowledgment that he’s no longer the player he was from 2003-2007.

Sportsmen and women have primes and so too do music acts.

This doesn’t always have something to do with quality – it’s about that period where you can matter in a way that is never going to happen ever again.

The Roger Federer of 2014 would likely beat the Roger Federer of 2005. That sounds absurd, but the reality is Federer is the number 2 player in the world – tennis has not gone backwards in quality, to stay at the top you need to keep improving. But no one is going to watch Federer play a match this year and think he is doing things with a tennis racquet that have never been done before. 

Music is similar. Popular music is and always will be a young person’s game. You need to make an impact before you are 30. I think some of the songs on Dylan’s most recent album are among his best – “Roll on John” is one of my all-time favourite Dylan tracks. But no one was thinking that song or album was going to change our world like any of his early work did. 

In fact an artist’s music, if it is going to make an impact, pretty much needs to do so within that artist’s first 8 to 9 years.

U2 are a unique band. They are the same 4 guys who have been recording together now for 35 years. They haven’t had a member end up dead in a swimming pool or mysteriously choke on something that may or may not have been his own vomit. They haven’t lost a member who has had enough of touring. They haven’t decided to go their separate way because a lead member wants to explore different music.

And yet while their longevity is unique, their pattern of making it big is not.

Below is a chart of the yearly album releases of U2, The Beatles and The Rolling Stones. Due to size I couldn’t include more acts, but the full table is here.

From first release to last, The Beatles were run and done in 8 years. They were perhaps smart to end it then, because it is around the mark of when the decline generally begins. (My favourite bit of trivia – they were recording Rubber Soul before Help was even released, and on both albums only one song went for longer than 3 minutes, there’s something to be said for not mucking about)

To keep making good music – music that will register in the cultural consciousness – is bloody hard once you enter your second decade of recording.

Years U2 The Beatles The Rolling Stones
1 Boy (1980) Please Please Me / With the Beatles (1963) The Rolling Stones (1964)
2 October (1981) A Hard Day's Night / Beatles for Sale (1964) The Rolling Stones No. 2 / Out of Our Heads (1965)
3   Help! / Rubber Soul (1965) Aftermath (1966, UK) 
4 War (1983) Revolver (1966) Between the Buttons / Their Satanic Majesties Request (1967)
5 The Unforgettable Fire (1984) Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band (1967) Beggars Banquet (1968)
6   "The White Album" (1968) Let It Bleed (1969)
7   Yellow Submarine / Abbey Road (1969)  
8 The Joshua Tree (1987) Let It Be (1970) Sticky Fingers (1971)
9 Rattle and Hum (1988)   Exile on Main St. (1972)
10     Goats Head Soup (1973)
11     It's Only Rock 'n Roll (1974)
12 Achtung Baby (1991)    
13     Black and Blue (1976)
14 Zooropa (1993)    
15     Some Girls (1978)
17     Emotional Rescue (1980)
18 Pop (1997)   Tattoo You (1981)
20     Undercover (1983)
21 All That You Can't Leave Behind (2000)    
23     Dirty Work (1986)
25 How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb (2004)    
26     Steel Wheels (1989)
30 No Line on the Horizon (2009)    
31     Voodoo Lounge (1994)
34     Bridges to Babylon (1997)
35 Songs of Innocence (2014)    
42     A Bigger Bang (2005)

Consider that by their 9th year, U2 were doing Rattle and Hum, having already permanently entered the music firmament in their 8th year with The Joshua Tree.

By their 9th year The Rolling Stones were releasing what many consider their best – Exile on Main St.  If the Stones had pulled up stumps right there, I seriously doubt anyone would care. What, we’ve lost “It’s only Rock’n’Roll if I like it”? Well that’s ok. No “Emotional Rescue”? Can I get a “hell yeah!”?

If you go to the full chart you see by his 9th year Dylan was already putting out Self Portrait – his pinnacle of Highway 51 Revisited and Blonde and Blonde having come in his 4th and 5th years of recording.

Pink Floyd’s 9th year saw Wish You Were Here released. Led Zeppelin were perhaps the fastest to get to their peak – getting out their first 4 albums in three years – although they were an odd band – forming as they did after all members had already done significant music elsewhere. 

REM released Out of Tine in their 9th year; Radiohead put out Amnesiac, and whatever you think of In Rainbows and other releases that came after, it’s hard to argue they haven’t declined in the cultural sphere since then.

It’s easier somewhat for single artists – like Dylan – to keep going into their second decade, but even they need to make an impact early. Springsteen for example by his 9th year had put out Born to Run and Nebraska; similarly Bowie still had Heroes and Lodger to come, but by his 9th year had set his foundation as an artist that mattered with Hunky Dory, Ziggy Stardust and Diamond Dogs.

Once you get past that first 9 years, yes you can put out good albums, but it becomes damn hard to make an impact.

U2 did Achtung Baby in their 12th year and rather astonishingly All that You Can’t Leave Behind in the 21st. By that stage REM were putting out very forgettable albums like Reveal, Pink Floyd were putting out A Momentary Lapse of Reason, Springsteen was thinking Human Touch and Lucky Town were good ideas, and even someone like Madonna in her 21st year was trying her best with American Life.

Everyone, band or artist, once they get to their 15 or 20th year is no longer generating new fans in the traditional sense. When I was in my teens I became a fan of the The Rolling Stones, but it wasn’t because I heard “Dirty Work” or “Undercover” that were being released at the time; it was because I came into contact with those songs they had released in their first 9 years.

So it will be with U2. If any kids become fans of their music, it likely won’t be because of Songs of Innocence – it’ll be because they hear The Joshua Tree or War or The Unforgettable Fire

It’s not surprising that U2 have declined in importance, it’s surprising they stayed relevant for as long as they did (have?)

Much has been made of Apple using U2, and it saying something about their target audience. For me it says two things. Firstly that there is perhaps only one other band/artist that could have done it: Beyonce. Seriously think of anyone else who would have the impact – not just the masses and masses of instant reviews (for good or bad), but also in the media.

And the way it was done shows that U2 are still actually trying.

This is of course not the first time a computer company has made use of a band to launch a product. Microsoft launch Windows 95 with The Rolling Stones being paid a shirtload of money to use “Start me up”

At the time The Stones were in their  32nd year (compared to U2’s now 35th) and they used a song that was 14 years old. It would be like if U2 was used to launch the iPhone 6 with “Beautiful Day”.

Instead they put out a new album, and against all the odds it has music worth listening to.

They haven’t turned into those bands who decide to tour playing some 20 year old record in its entirety or who like the Stones pretty much just play greatest hits (great as those hits may be).

They are a weird band, because their output is more like a single artist – like Springsteen who plays his greatest hits and whole albums, but also keep putting out new, and at times interesting, albums even if (yes) “they aren’t as good as they used to be”.

And so to this album: what do I think? The past three days I have pretty much had it on repeat play, and I haven’t bothered to hit skip all that often – something I couldn’t say about their past 2 albums.

I like the opening track, “The Miracle (of Joey Ramone)” but maybe I like it because I know name checking Joey Ramone shits people the same way Bono back in 1988 said he was stealing back Helter Skelter from Charles Manson. It has a nice guitar lick; probably wish it had a bit more of it.

“Every Breaking Wave” is very U2, better than No Line on the Horizon’s “Magnificent”, which isn’t saying much, but it’s a bit safe for me.

“California (There is no end to love)” is the most annoying track for me. It starts of interestingly with the repetition of “Bar… bar… Barbara… Santa Barbara”  but then doesn’t really do much for me from then on. Oddly when reading the many reviews, there is very little agreement on which are the best tracks, and some considered this to be one of those that will get concert crowds going. I don’t see/hear it. If there is a criticism that a song sound too much like Coldplay then this one is it. 

“Song for Someone” is just beautiful. Had it been released 25 years ago, in the time since it would have featured in about 1.5 trillion weddings. 

“Iris (Hold me close)” about Bono’s mother (who died when he was 14) is another very U2 song. As Elmo Keep noted, it must be damn awful to get to point where your sound is so distinctive that your new songs can sound like old songs you wrote. But that said, it’s a good song – nice chorus.

“Volcano” is a bit too wannabe Vertigo for my liking. I don’t mind it, and it is a million times better than No Line of the Horizon’s “Get on Your Boots”, which I struggled to listen to more than once.

The second half is my favourite half – a bit like how I prefer the second side (back when there were sides) of Achtung Baby. This is the side where Danger Mouse has the most influence, and it’s all the better for it

“Raised by Wolves” is the song I’ve probably listened to the most, it has a lot of interesting things going on (oddly I’ve seen reviews complain the album songs being too much the same, while others that they’re too confused).

“Cedarwood Road” feels like it should be better than it ended up. The lyrics I think let it down, because the music is great – especially The Edge’s guitar work.

“Sleep like a Baby Tonight” Is the best song on the album for mine. It wouldn’t have been out of place on Achtung Baby or Zooropa. Do I wish the whole album was like it? Maybe, but I’ve already got Achtung baby and Zooropa, I don’t need a replay. But the chorus here is lovely – even Bono going falsetto is bearable. I’ve always liked it when U2 go dark – eg Love is Blindness – and this mines that territory brilliantly.

“This is Where You Can Reach Me” is apparently a kind of an ode to The Clash. Now I love the The Clash (I don’t think you could be a real U2 fan and not) but to me the song isn’t so much an ode to The Clash as an ode to Us during the time it recorded “War”. And I’m happy with that.

“The Troubles” has U2 ending as they always do, with a slow song. And like (in my opinion) the best song on No Line on the Horizon, “Cedars of Lebanon”, this song’s title tricks listeners into assuming it will be some political heavy rant. Instead it’s a very inward looking song. Here they bring in Swedish singer Lykke Li to assist with vocals and it works perfectly.

Her singing

Somebody stepped inside your soul
Somebody stepped inside your soul
Little by little they robbed and stole
Till someone else was in control

is rather haunting. And sure people will say, yeah thanks U2 for inserting your album inside my iTunes account, and letting us know someone else is in control.

But that’s U2 for you, annoying you while also giving you some good music.

And after 35 years, it’s damn amazing they still are able to do either.