The difference between good U2 and bad U2 is the difference between a group that desperately wants to be the biggest rock band in the world and a group that arrogantly assumes that not only are they the biggest rock band in the world but that that’s a self-perpetuating title. Songs of Innocence — the album that Apple dropped into every iTunes account in the world yesterday–is so arrogant a record that it’s effectively invented a new genre: compulsory rock.
It’s not a bad record, naturally. U2 have certain inalienable gifts, beyond the stylistic tics of the Edge’s guitar tone and Bono’s scenery-chewing emoting. (As has been the case for the past couple of decades, the band’s rhythm section has no audible identity of its own: you could swap their grooves out for the ones on any other mainstream rock record of the moment, and in fact “Song for Someone” might as well be a Coldplay album track.) When they set themselves to it, they can write some grandly elegant melodies, and the best one here belongs to a lighter-waver called “Every Breaking Wave,” which U2 were playing live as early as 2010.
“Every Breaking Wave,” as it happens, is the one clear survivor of what Songs of Innocence was originally supposed to be: U2 have been straining to produce a new album ever since they suggested in 2009 that the No Line on the Horizon sessions had yielded enough for two albums, of which the second would be called Songs of Ascent. But then Bono started referring to Songs of Ascent as an “ambient” album, and then they were working on a rock record, and a club record, and an album of Bono and the Edge’s songs from the Spider-Man stage musical, and basically none of those records ever made it to the world.
That’s a pity: U2’s breakthroughs usually come when they’re pushing themselves into unfamiliar or uncomfortable territory. Instead, Songs of Innocence is a musical retrenchment and a Roots Move, a nudging reminder that they came out of Dublin in the era of car bombs, so they did. Seven of its eleven songs refer, more or less explicitly, to events of their youth, or their early days as a band. There are allusions to their punk rock origins: “This Is Where You Can Reach Me,” nominally a tribute to the Clash’s Joe Strummer, also paraphrases Spizzenergi’s late-‘70s art-punk single “Soldier Soldier.” (There’d be no way to know that “The Miracle (Of Joey Ramone)” had anything to do with the Ramones, though, if not for its title and Bono’s liner notes, which are conveniently also sitting in everyone’s iTunes “purchased” folder.)
Still, the days when U2 were a scrappy quartet that could bang out Boy and October and War in the time it took them to extrude this album are long gone: the little guitar riff that stands in for violence in “Raised By Wolves” could almost be a sample from “New Year’s Day” (and so could its closing piano passage), but in 2014, every sound on their record is buffed and puffed to the dimensions of modern global acceptability, augmented with extra percussion. There’s not the slightest hint of uncertainty or vulnerability or risk on Songs of Innocence, none of the band’s former willingness to push the boundaries of what “U2” could mean. Instead, there’s the noxious suggestion that the early days they’re recollecting here are important because they gave birth to the biggest rock band in the world.
Douglas Wolk is a freelance journalist and critic who writes about music, comic books and other things for TIME, The New York Times, The Washington Post, Rolling Stone, and a bunch of other places. He’s also the author of Reading Comics: How Graphic Novels Work and What They Mean (Da Capo, 2007) and Live at the Apollo (Continuum, 2004). He also wrote the Judge Dredd: Mega City Two comic series, recently collected as a graphic novel.