U2 – Songs of Innocence (2014)

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Songs of Innocence begins almost as a travelogue for fans who’ve been with the group over its many incarnations — a primer, after five years away, on everything that’s brought U2 to this place.

“The Miracle (of Joey Ramone)” is epic but yet lean, a rattling ride back to their earliest sound — without the studio accoutrements of U2’s post-modern period. “Every Breaking Wave” is similarly reminiscent, as Bono sings with a quiet sadness over a strikingly unencumbered riff from the Edge straight out of their earnest Unforgettable Fire/Joshua Tree 1980s era. “California (There Is No End To Love)” plugs into U2’s most pop-leaning, pre-All That You Can’t Leave Behind 1990s sound, but with a dash of Brian Wilson-style sunshine, rather than mechanized disco.

Then, it seems, U2 gets down to business. “Song For Someone” arrives with a swirling gust of emotion, moving past the album’s retrospective feel into new depths. “I’m a long way from where I was,” Bono sighs, “and where I need to be.” His gospel inclinations tangle brilliantly with the Edge’s concentric mutterings on “Iris (Hold Me Close),” establishing a soaring new alchemy. “Volcano” returns for another pass at the nervy U2 sound of old, with Bono testing the upper end of his vocal range over a thrillingly propulsive groove. But then there’s a dark portent to “Raised By Wolves,” a tough maturity to “Cedarwood Road” (the name of the street where Bono grew up) and a slinking salaciousness to “Sleep Like A Baby Tonight.”

Songs of Innocence ends up sounding like nothing of the sort. Rather, it’s the sound of a band coming to terms with all of its former selves. In the same way that Bono returns, for instance, to the Ramones at the start, U2 references the Clash — another band from their halycon days — during the reggae-inflected “This Is Where You Can Reach Me Now.” In a way, it seems they had to go backward in order to move forward. Songs of Innocence comes to a close with “The Troubles,” a searcher’s song, a moment of sharply introspective summation — completing a song cycle that has a deeply personal, valedictory feel.

What you’re left with is that rare look back that’s undamaged by nostalgia or petulance. “It’s a dirty business, dreaming,” Bono concludes at one point on Songs of Innocence — but, at the same time, U2 isn’t ready to give up. They’ve just got a better perspective on things now.

Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso has written for USA Today, American Songwriter, All About Jazz, and a host of others. Honored as columnist of the year five times by the Associated Press, Louisiana Press Association and Louisiana Sports Writers Association, he oversaw a daily section named Top 10 in the U.S. by the AP before co-founding Something Else! Nick is now associate editor of Ultimate Classic Rock.
Nick DeRiso
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