Reviewed by John Cheek
Amazingly, it's been over five years since the previous U2 studio album. There's been the anniversary re-issue of 'Achtung Baby' since then, but apart from a couple of downloadable singles, nothing else. For those of us long-time fans, 'Songs Of Innocence' comes as a relief, but more than that, it seems like a call-to-arms: an act of rebellion. The journalist Paulo Hewitt once reminisced about how, as a teenager, he'd walked into a record store to buy The Jam's debut single. The girl serving almost threw his purchase at him in disgust: despite their mod threads, The Jam were associated with the new punk rock movement at the time which was causing tabloid outrage. Hewitt remembered how good it felt to partake in such subversive cultural activity as buying a pop record. Nowadays, admitting to purchasing and enjoying U2 product seems to come with similarly outrageous connotations. The group which once had such great crossover appeal and critical respect is now the band the cynics love to hate. Ill-informed claims of tax-evasion, dislike of 'do-gooding' in the third world by the band's singer Bono, or just backlash against their enormous worldwide success, U2 have become uncool on almost every level. That was before the decision to give away the album for free to half-a-billion iTunes consumers a month before the official album release. The hysteria which greeted such a gift, with allegations that the recipients had been "cursed", highlights how radical and contrary it is just to engage with 'Songs Of Innocence'. Therefore, whilst I could comment on how a charismatic frontman is in great voice, or how the rhythm section of Clayton and Mullen is about as perfect as any could be, this record (in context) is all about how it makes the listener feel. Clearly, to listen to U2 at all is now a crime to some. What is it that makes listening such an illicit activity? What will be discovered there? 'Songs Of Innocence' is a collection of sounds which are familiar to anyone who has dared to checkout their last two long-players; sounds which also carry a hint of the debut, 'Boy'. Moreover, lyrically, many of the themes hark back to their days starting out as a new group in new wave Dublin. Apparently, Bono wondered why anyone would want another U2 record - it led to them reflecting on why they wanted to be a band, back then. Hence, amongst Kraftwerk, Clash and Ramones' influences, we have songs about punk being like a religious experience for them - and songs about religious experiences at the start of their Christian journey. Hints of Red Hot Chilli Peppers, Killers and Coldplay help provide a contemporary sheen, but with "Cedarwood Road", again we have insight into how Bono fledgingly studied the Bible at a teenage friend's house, at number five. With several tracks jostling for the position of standout, "Song For Someone" - a lament and a psalm of praise to Jesus - is notable for many reasons, not least the twist in the final verse with the singer casting himself as Judas: "If there is a kiss I stole from your mouth." 'Songs Of Innocence' is a punk record in the truest sense of the word. It will be pilloried by many, jealous that U2 show no signs of stopping; or just not caring for the cover-art which, on first-inspection, appears homo-erotic but actually shows Mullen embracing his own son, resplendent with crucifix. Likewise, the music: listen without prejudice.
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