You don’t need a critic to tell you whether the new U2 album is worth owning. If you’re one of the 500 million people in the world with an iTunes account, you already own it.
The world’s biggest rock band announced their return just as Britain was settling down to a quiet evening with Holby City. The 13th U2 album became part of the clamour surrounding the Apple Watch reveal, automatically appearing in people’s iTunes libraries yesterday evening as a pretty impressive free gift.
Songs of Innocence will reignite the debate, sparked by Radiohead’s pay-what-you-like album In Rainbows in 2007, about the value of music. It’s all very well for millionaire megastars to give away their songs, but what precedent does that set for mansionless new bands with food and rent requirements?
It also, like the recent surprises from David Bowie and Beyonce, runs the risk of the novelty of its release overshadowing the music within. U2 will never know how many people like these songs enough to actually pay for them.
And they are good songs, for the most part, treading a careful line between nostalgia and innovation. There’s The Edge’s familiar chiming guitar on Song for Someone and Iris (Hold Me Close), named after Bono’s late mother. Lyrically the singer frequently looks backwards, with the chugging rocker Cedarwood Road recalling his childhood home, and The Miracle (of Joey Ramone), a standout with its fuzzy, raw riffing, reminiscing about the epiphany of first hearing The Ramones.
They become more innovative as the album reaches a conclusion, when the contributions of hip hop producer Danger Mouse become more audible and cult Swedish singer Lykke Li makes a surprising and beautiful appearance on The Troubles. Mostly they’ve played it fairly safe, something they didn’t need to do when the masses have acquired their album, like it or not.