U2’s Songs of Innocence

Cyberspace moves at the speed of light, so U2’s new album release, Songs of Innocence, is old news. Nevertheless, I thought I’d post a review of this amazing collection. It would appear that U2 jettisoned their planned Songs from the Ascent compilation in favor of Songs of Innocence, their thirteenth studio album. In reality, though, they seem to be one and the same. The focus of the ascent has perhaps changed, along with the album’s title, which is taken from a book of William Blake poetry. These are not songs inspired by a pilgrim’s ascent to Jerusalem. But they’re “songs from the ascent” all the same. “We’re pilgrims on our way,” Bono sings in the opening track, The Miracle (Of Joey Ramone).

I loved this album from the start, with its blissfully rocked-out energy and it’s deeply personal lyrics; a cohesive collection touching on the early days of one of rock music’s most iconic bands as it rose to fame and fortune. Everything I’ve always loved about U2 is here – the power, the passion, the voice, the vision, the words, the music. These are the ideas, the events, the people and the places that inspired, influenced and gave shape to the formative years of U2’s extraordinary career; an intimate story-telling of their innocent past as seen through the eyes of an experienced present; songs from the ascent.

The Miracle (Of Joey Ramone)

The Miracle (of Joey Ramone) will be fabulous live with its catchy lyrics and Edge’s aggressive fuzz guitar. The chorus makes it a natural for a concert opening and it sets the stage for the band’s ascent to a place where their “voices will be heard.” They’re pilgrims on their way. In a sense, punk rock — literally personified by the Ramones — saved Bono’s life after the devastating loss of his mother at an early age. Discovering punk rock was a miracle that woke him up to the possibility of making sense out of the world through music. (Joey Ramone also showed him that it was ok to ‘sing like a girl’!)

Every Breaking Wave

A gorgeous classic U2 song somewhat reminiscent of The Joshua Tree’s With or Without You, everything about this song, my album favorite, is beautiful, especially Edge’s minimalist, lyrical guitar. Every Breaking Wave seems to address a decisive moment in Bono’s relationship with his wife, Ali — the struggle engendered by committing yourself to a career path that might end in defeat. Somewhere in our lives, all of us have probably played it safe, ending something before we began out of fear of failure. But sometimes you just have to jump in and let yourself be swept off your feet. After all “drowning is no sin.” Sometimes you have to take a chance and just give it a try. Fittingly, Every Breaking Wave segues into California (There is No End to Love), which opens with breaking waves.

California (There is No End to Love)

California tells the story of the band’s almost magical first trip to California, home of The Beach Boys, another of their musical influences. Beyond admiration of Brian Wilson’s song-writing chops and the shared experience of unsupportive fathers, Bono seems to have used The Beach Boys’ California to represent that moment when the lads allowed themselves to be swept off their feet and took a chance. (“Then we fell into the shining sea.”)

I love the opening sounds of waves and mission bells, but the Beach Boys vibe clicks best for me only after the music kicks in. Jumping in seems to have taken the lads where they needed to be (though Zuma Beach, in Malibu, is actually about sixty-five miles south of Santa Barbara.) Leaving home often gives you the opportunity to find your own name. “I’m more than you know; more than you see here; more than you let me be.” (Invisible)

Song for Someone

Once again, the chorus is something special in this one, along with Edge’s acoustic guitar opening. It should be a ‘small-stage’ quiet-moment acoustic duet in concert. Bono has always addressed Divinity and faith in his song-writing and the subject continues to inspire. Some great lyrics again. “If there is a light, you can’t always see and there is a world, we can’t always be. If there is a dark, that we shouldn’t doubt, and there is a light, don’t let it go out.” There’s a lovely connection here to Iris, the song that follows, with that song’s “I’ve got your light inside of me.”

Iris

A moving tribute to Bono’s mother, Iris, who died when he was only fourteen, Iris opens with angelic voices and Edge’s haunting, shimmering guitar. It comes and goes as if from another world, like a visitation. Mothers may routinely tell their children, with a laugh, “You’ll be the death of me.” Actual death rarely follows and of course a sensitive child would naturally take that to heart, however mistaken. Iris obviously had a profound effect on Bono’s life with her encouragement, her gentle spirit and her support. “Iris tells me I can do it all . . . . Free yourself to be yourself. If only you could see yourself.” Her death was an equally powerful influence. “The ache in my heart is so much a part of who I am.”

Volcano

Volcano is yet another song that will really rock the house in concert. It’s explosive, wild and energetic, with some ‘primitive’ tribal chanting and some great bass guitar work from Adam. Volcanic could certainly describe Bono’s state of mind after the death of his mother. He’s explosive; out in the wild; something in him “wants to blow.” Yet he still seems to be aware of his mother’s light inside of him; the light that tells him he can do it all. “You were alone; but now you’re not alone; you and I are rock and roll.” He already seems to know where he needs to be and what he needs to do. Musically, Volcano is connected to Raised by Wolves, which follows, by the similarity of the three notes of both choruses title words — ‘volcano’ and ‘raised by wolves.’

Raised by Wolves

The immediate focus of Raised by Wolves is a car bomb in Dublin on May 17, 1974 in which thirty-three people were murdered. The Troubles, the under-stated euphemism given to a broad period of sectarian violence in Ireland, has been an undercurrent and influence on the band for decades, beginning with Sunday Bloody Sunday, where they made their first political statement. I’m a bit ambivalent about those sniffing sounds and, of course, equating the human penchant for cruelty and evil, uncivilized tribal vengeance and such, is a definite slur against wolves. But sectarian violence of the Troubles sort has to shake your faith. “I don’t believe anymore,” Bono sings here. “The worst things in the world are justified by belief.” How true! And where is God in the real world, anyway? “If I open my eyes, you disappear.”

At any given time, large portions of our world seem to have been ‘raised by wolves’. ISIS comes to mind. Great lyrics and Larry’s pounding drums build tension and exemplify how ‘primitive’ humans often still are at our core.

Cedarwood Road

With Edge’s driving guitar and Larry and Adam’s pounding rhythms along the lines of I Will Follow and Electric Co., Cedarwood Road has an early U2 punk sound with a gutsier more aggressive fuzz guitar from Edge. Dedicated to Bono’s lifelong friend, Guggi, it gives credit to friendship and how, after Iris’ death, those Lypton Village friendships of Bono’s warzone teen years helped him handle living in a city where bombs went off on a fairly regular basis. Friendship “once it’s won, is won.” It may be a long way from north-side Cedarwood Road to south-side Killiney Beach, but in his heart, Bono never left. “I’m still standing on that street.”

Sleep like a Baby Tonight

My current least favorite of Songs of Innocence, Sleep Like a Baby Tonight is saved for me by Edge’s crackling, grungy fuzz guitar which just says enough. I can’t quite make this song out and Bono’s falsetto, as usual, does nothing for me. Perhaps it’s a comment on the influence of politics and power on the band’s social conscience. People in the purple robes of power, whether political or ecclesiastical, often appear to go through their days as easily as a knife through butter, with only an outward show of caring, when in reality they’re so sheltered from reality they only dress in the colors of forgiveness, never feeling anyone else’s pain. (MacPhisto must have lived this way.)

This is Where you Can Reach me Now

The liner notes of Songs of Innocence describe Joe Strummer, lead singer and co-founder of the Clash, and to whom this song is dedicated, as a soldier who’s weapon was his guitar; a man who signed up for the cause, which would appear to be taking on political and world matters in his music. U2 followed suit and signed themselves up to music and all you can say with it, just as the Clash did. The seagulls hark back to California; “You don’t lose if you don’t play,” echoes Every Breaking Waves’ “We end before we begin;” and Iris’s “Don’t fear the world, it isn’t there,” becomes “If you won’t let us in your world, your world just isn’t there.”

As supportive as Iris was, Bono’s father seems to have been rather the opposite. Is Bob Hewson “the old man (who) knows that I never listen, so how could I have something to say”; the “old man (who) knows how to cheat ambition. You don’t lose if you don’t play”?

The Troubles

The Troubles, with another excellent chorus, some soft strings, and more great guitar work from Edge, comes as a fitting end to this first part of U2’s story. Lykke Li’s voice is the very sound of innocence. These are not the Troubles of Irish history, but the troubles in the trajectory of the band’s career. There’s a sudden realization that little by little they’ve lost control of the plot. Expectations are high but they aren’t U2’s. Somehow they allowed someone else too much power. A friend made enemy. “Somebody stepped inside your soul . . . someone else was in control.”

You obviously can’t end U2’s story with someone else in control. They learned a great deal from the myriad experiences and influences of their formative years. But I remember something that was written about post-Joshua Tree U2. When they’d painted themselves into a corner, the band’s master-stroke was to blow the house up. So there’s so much more to come. I’m already looking forward to Songs from the Ascent, Part Two — Songs of Experience.

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  • Copyright © 2011-16, Dianne Ebertt Beeaff. All Rights Reserved.
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