Songs of Relevance

Like five hundred million other iTunes subscribers, I was recently issued U2's latest studio album Songs of Innocence. Which is why you're reading this, since I probably wouldn't have bought the record on my own.

It bears noting that I've been an avid fan of U2 since I was seven. They've long epitomized the best tradition of Christian rock, viz. a band that pursues artistic excellence while letting their faith influence their work, instead of building makeshift songs around sentimental religious cliches.

That said, the latest album, like its two immediate predecessors, is OK ("Every Breaking Wave" qualifies as a minor classic, but it's the only one of the new songs to reach that level). Any other contemporary band would be pleased to have produced so workmanlike a record.

But U2 is not any other band. They've won more Grammys than any other rock & roll artists. Their ambitious and long-running live tours have been attended by more people than any other musical act. They've written multiple songs that have perfectly reflected, and in turn shaped, culture. They are the last in a noble line that descends directly from The Police, The Who, The Beatles.

An OK album from U2 is equivalent to a failure from any other band.

Why has the Biggest Band in the World fallen into artistic stagnation? The current album's troubled production may give us a clue. Tentatively titled Songs of Ascent, the record was originally slated for a 2010 release. Conscious efforts aimed at exceeding the disappointing sales of their previous album eventually split recording sessions between three separate productions and four different producers. The travails surrounding Bono and Edge's involvement in the Spider-Man: Turn out the Dark musical, and the sudden departure of U2's original manager Paul McGuinness likely presented severe distractions.

The band reportedly voiced concerns while recording Songs of Innocence about their ability to stay relevant. They cited the lack of enthusiasm that greeted No Line on the Horizon as a sign that U2's music was losing touch with its audience. I posit that the first warning signs came earlier--ten years ago, with the release of How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb.

My argument requires a brief historical recap. U2 gained a reputation for constantly reinventing themselves throughout the 80s and 90s. During this period (which, not coincidentally, overlapped with the peak of their growth and creativity), the band managed the nigh-miraculous feat of conducting bold technical and stylistic experiments while retaining thematic integrity and brand recognition.

And then they faltered, unnecessarily, over the stumbling block that is 1997's Pop.

Many fans and critics misidentify Pop as a bad album when it's actually an unfinished album. Prematurely scheduling tour dates led to a rushed production, which made itself heard at release and during the first leg of the tour. U2 was pilloried, quite unjustly, for delivering a substandard product. (My response: check out live versions of the songs from Pop as performed during the latter stages of PopMart to witness the material's strength, untapped on the album, that was finally realized after the band had time to hone the songs onstage.)

Unfortunately, U2 took the unjust criticism of their third experimental album to heart. I like All That You Can't Leave Behind as much as anybody--more than some, in fact--but I don't buy the common wisdom that the album succeeded because it disowned Pop and hearkened back to the band's Joshua Tree glory days.

First All That You Can't Leave Behind doesn't owe as much to The Joshua Tree as most people say. To me, its greater lyrical maturity and production style sound more like Achtung Baby. Second, Pop's successor won over the public less by renouncing its predecessor than by happening to resonate with the popular zeitgeist in the wake of 9/11.

Which bring us back to How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb--the album that does overtly copy The Joshua Tree. It proves that U2 learned the wrong lesson from their two prior albums. They misinterpreted the backlash against Pop and the artificially exaggerated enthusiasm for All That You Can't Leave Behind as cues to stop experimenting, stop taking risks, and retreat into a "Classic U2 Sound" that they perceived as safe territory.

If U2 seeks a remedy for their declining relevance, they could do worse than ending their self- imposed exile to a musical fortress built on well-tread ground. Right now, the greatest risk is to avoid taking risks.


  1. It's an interesting take, makes me want to go back and listen to some of their older material again, beyond the one or two songs that are in my Shuffle mix.

    I quite like one of the songs, and enjoy two others, which puts it above most modern U2 albums. I guess I'm a War, Joshua Tree, Rattle and Hum fan.


  2. "I quite like one of the songs, and enjoy two others, which puts it above most modern U2 albums. I guess I'm a War, Joshua Tree, Rattle and Hum fan."

    Sounds like we're in total agreement.

  3. I've identified 4 species of U2 fans that fit under 1 genus.

    Species 1: The fans who only like U2's hits (from their whole career). Entertained but unsatisfied, hey sing "I stiiiiiiiillll haven't found what I'm looking for."

    Species 2: The fans who love all of U2's '80's and '90's work but hate all their 21st century work and desire a return to their old form. Stuck in musical limbo, they sing "I can't liiiiiive, with or without you."

    Species 3: (my species) The fans who love all of studio U2's albums and singles to some degree. With a whole sea of entertainment to choose from, we sing "lift my days, and light up my nights, oh!"

    Species 4: The fans who adore every outtake, retake, alternate take, and mistake that U2 has ever released or had bootlegged. Taking delight in every obscure letter of lyric and note of jam sessions, they sing "Grace finds beauty in everything."

    Genus: No matter what species we fit into, we sing "We're one, but we're not the same, we get to carry each other."

    1. Pretty accurate.

      Me, I went from Species 3 to "They have a new album out?"