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Our music reviews are published each month

Music Reviews

By David Werther

Our most recent music review is below. All previous music reviews may be found in the Comprehensive Index of Music Reviews.

U2, Songs of Innocence (2014)

           U2 — in partnership with Apple — released Songs of Innocence to half a billion people: an album release on a scale never before envisioned. At a minimum, 38 million people have given Songs of Innocence a listen. What’s not to like?

           Plenty. Or so some argue. There is the sheer haughtiness of U2’s assumption that hundreds of millions would care about what the band had to say. Add to that the fact that — as some see it — the album format has been dead for years; this is the age of single-song digital downloads. From this perspective, U2’s grand release is at best a pyrrhic victory, a record-breaking release of a passé music format.

           I dissent. From the complainers’ perspective, U2 thinks the world is eagerly awaiting their latest word. But, there is a different vantage point. What if the band does not suppose that hundreds of millions can hardly wait to hear what it has to say, but rather that the band can hardly wait to share with a half a billion people music that it has spent years perfecting? There is a huge difference. By way of analogy, Bono and the band did not bring the message of ending extreme poverty to the developed nations because they thought these nations were eagerly awaiting the opportunity to cancel debts and give billions of dollars to impoverished people. Rather, the band carried that message because it wanted to share the good news of the biblical picture of the year of Jubilee.

           And, in response to the carpers’ claims that albums are passé such that U2’s grand release is nothing less than irrelevance to the hundredth power, these critics have failed to see that Songs of Innocence is a new kind of album, a new genre. Let me explain. In the early days of albums, these recordings were settings for a song or two that had already been released as singles on the radio. In other words, one or two songs written to stand-alone for radio play, constituted the heart of the album, and the whole was rarely more than the sum of the parts. Fast-forward to Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and beyond, and albums become integrated song sequences in which the whole is greater than the sum of its parts and songs are not necessarily written to stand-alone.

           U2’s Songs of Innocence is none of the above. On the one hand, U2 wrote each song so that it could hold up on its own, without the sort of “atmospherics” characteristic of an album like U2’s The Unforgettable Fire. As Bono put it, “We wanted the album to have songs that would stand up when played on acoustic guitars or piano, not relying on the Edge, Adam and Larry’s atmospheres or dynamic playing.”* On my hearing, each and every song on the album is potentially a single. On the other hand, the songs are related thematically, reflections on youth and early musical influences. So, while Songs of Innocence is a collection of compositions, each of which can hold its own apart from the others, it is, at the same time, an album in which the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. This is a work that lends itself to the age of single-song digital downloads without abandoning the thematic unity of great albums; Songs of Innocence is anything but passé, it is a new vision of what an album can be.