U2’s Songs of Innocence: Familiar But Surprising, Free But Costly

That didn’t take long! This review comes to us from Nathan Hart: The biggest surprise […]

Mockingbird / 9.11.14

That didn’t take long! This review comes to us from Nathan Hart:

f98b63a5The biggest surprise of the launch of U2’s new album isn’t the way it was released—it’s how good the songs are.

It has been five long years since No Line On The Horizon, an album with some great moments but one which also revealed a band in artistic decline. In those five years, they knew they were one more misstep away from irrelevance. The reports weren’t hopeful: a new producer here, a scrapped album concept there. They seemed “stuck in a moment that they can’t get out of”, finally crushed under the weight of their own ponderousness.

So on September 9, 2014, when the band surprisingly released Songs of Innocence for free at Apple’s gargantuan iPhone 6 product launch, I was only sure of one thing: the music would be worth the price I paid for it.

Before I heard the songs, I noticed a clue that they might be special. On the release day, Bono said that in fact the album had been paid for, just not by the listeners. Apple Corporation paid the price. “I don’t believe in free music,” Bono said, “music is a sacrament.”

The power of Songs of Innocence is found within its sacramental atmosphere. There are holy moments throughout. With very personal and vulnerable lyrics, Bono has (probably temporarily) laid down his political megaphone. It feels less like a prophetic diatribe and more like a prayer of confession. For example, even in thinking about the very political “troubles” in Ireland on the closing track, he sings,

You think it’s easier to put your finger on the trouble,
when the trouble is you
And you think it’s easier to know your own tricks
Well, it’s the hardest thing you’ll ever do

Bono points his wagging finger away from the issue and onto himself. In other words, he’s saying, sin is not just something that has infected the big bad world out there, it is also the thing that has infected the self in here. I can’t recall any other U2 lyric that peers so honestly into the farthest corners of Bono’s own heart. Sure, he has been honest about his lustfulness and the origins of his messiah complex. But by vulnerably associating his own sinfulness with the very thing that he normally prophesies against, he offers us a lyrical sacramentology—a holy moment inviting divine redemption. Redemption comes in the same song, which later depicts a thrown lifeline, a rope, “something I could hold on to.” Then, redeemed, he can sing, “God now you can see me. I’m naked and I’m not afraid. My body’s sacred and I’m not ashamed.”

s-inn-l-p2-3-300In “Song For Someone”, which at first seems like a message to his wife Ali, he pulls a classic Bono-ism and reveals in the last verse that he’s actually/also talking to Jesus:

I’m a long way from your hill of Calvary
And I’m a long way from where I was and where I need to be
If there is a light you can’t always see
There is a world we can’t always be

This theme of tension—between Calvary’s victory and a self-defeating world—is as familiar for U2 as the sound of Edge’s guitar riffs, but the personal intimacy in which it is couched is new.

There are many other examples throughout the album. The band has been in conversation with God for many years, but rarely so tenderly, so openly. One reviewer found the songs to be “safe”, but these lyrics are anything but safe. Bono is no longer hiding behind his prophetic megaphone or his costumed messiah complexities. He has given us an honest remembrance of his own loss of innocence and how he found redemption. Just as The Joshua Tree journeyed through the landscape of the American west, this album journeys through Bono’s redeemed soul. On “Cedarwood Road“, he sings,

A heart that is broken
is a heart that is open

It’s true, we don’t have to pay for the album, but now we know that it was not free. It came at great cost, not just to some line item in Apple Corp’s budget, but also to the lyricist who has opened his broken heart to us all.

Free to us but costly to him. Now that’s a familiar sound.