There’s a whale in the swimming pool, and everyone’s taking potshots. It has been some weeks since U2 dropped their new album, Songs Of Innocence, in everybody’s iTunes for free. The furore has been immense. Helen Razer resented being infected with the music and vomited witty, articulate bile in Daily Review. Objections to the means of delivery blurred into a critique of the music itself. The New Yorker’s Sasha Frere-Jones, usually a voice of measured and articulate aestheticism, committed a track-by-track evisceration of the album. Because it was foisted upon us, we hate it. Take that, whale!
The episode proves the point that music is not a pure, magical pill with mind-altering powers but a cultural object whose effects are determined by our predispositions, values and by the cultural milieu in which it lands. Externalities matter. The “spam” album has been a monumental tactical error for U2 and an infuriating intrusion for the masses, who have to go through a process to erase it from their iTunes accounts. Click click — see ya later.
A few weeks have passed and I’m still seeing web chatter about the quality of the music on Songs Of Innocence. Is it really that bad? Of course it isn’t; solid, slightly quirky rock with ample craft and skill in evidence. There are signs of an effort to experiment with modes of expression — consider that experimentation is difficult for whales in swimming pools.
Producer, Danger Mouse, thins out some of the U2 lushness and cranks in some distortion. Bono is a master craftsmen who knows how to turn a lyric with heart and humour. OK, you hate him. The Edge is one of the greatest (somewhat overlooked) sonic architects of the guitar; he originated an archetype with his shimmering, delay-drenched chime. The aim of any artist is, in part, to create an unmistakably personal and unique voice — that man has done it. Larry Mullen, the drummer, hasn’t. Adam Clayton (once referred to as the “luckiest bass player in the world”) is deceptively good at carving out a distinctive line through this music.
It must be said that U2 are, in some regards, a remarkably average musical unit. There’s no explosive, Who-like chemistry when they play. They cannot traverse the solar system with virtuosity like Muse. They can’t thump and snort with a concerted gritty feel like the Black Keys. Despite their best efforts there is no funk here. Sometimes the rhythm section sounds bog-average. They are more of a pop-cultural sound (and light) design project than a rock band. The most remarkable thing about them is that they have pulled together and persisted for so long with such vaulting ambition.
No other rock band in Western culture has become and remained so world-encompassing, communicating to a broad audience while experimenting with process and the popular music discourse for 35 years — 35 years! Only Madonna can rightly lay claim to a similar record of commercial success coupled with experimentation. Don’t mention the Stones — the last time they pushed an envelope was in the ’70s. Coldplay are relative newcomers, re-enacting many of the tropes that U2 created. REM, who were once contenders, did the big record deal in the early ’90s but tripped at the first hurdle. Many other outfits have followed but haven’t achieved the sustained Death-Star immensity.
If the aim was simply to be BIG, then why all the ceaseless experimentation and reinvention? Ease up on the arty stuff and become Bon Jovi or Def Leppard; fun, accomplished, broad but flat. U2 strive to invest pop music and the cultural events around it (primarily until now, The Concert) with resonance and depth. They could aim lower; a smaller audience, less risk, less strenuous effort to invest the work with complexity. Imagine the heart and resilience it must have taken to press ahead with such a program, with Brain Eno on the sidelines waving the Oblique Strategy cards and years wasted trying to flip the switch from anthem rock to industrial rock.
In the ’90s U2 notoriously chopped down the Joshua Tree, ditching the sound that made them famous and launching a phase where they explored popular culture and punctured their own mythology. In the ’80s they shouted about what was wrong with the world. In the ’90s they became that which they sought to critique; a gigantic high-tech satire. There was always an abiding political project at the heart of their work. They risked the entire enterprise and they did so on a massive scale. Usually they took it one album too far (Rattle and Hum, Pop) and had to tack back in the other direction. OK, you hate Bono.
U2’s songmaking process has often been haphazard and unbounded. It’s as if the last thing they were looking for was a song. They might start with a noise or a series of limitations and directives — “don’t do anything that sounds like U2” was a notable one. Somehow, after noodling themselves down many cul de sacs and stopping Brian Eno from hitting erase on months of work, the last thing that would emerge would be a song. These songs, while coherent, were replete with asymmetries and inexplicable musical punctuations that could only be the result of a wilfully obscure process. Don’t we love it when the surface of an art work is disrupted? U2 manage to rent their songs with non-linearities and disruptions … and then make a football stadium full of people sing it back at them. For 35 years.
As a cultural project on a massive scale and an extended experiment in process in the pop sphere U2 are of prime significance. Put aside your eclecticism, niche taste or worse still, your rock snobbery and give them that. You mightn’t like big things but that’s what they do. Maybe this gesture is another sign of the End of Big Things. Now, like the whale, U2 are possibly endangered. They’ve gone too far, applying a one-size-fits-all mega-event mentality to a viral-nodal world. This U2 gesture lacks the sincerity, wit, politics and creativity of their better moments; not a positive disruption like, say, the pay-what-you-will Radiohead album or Danger Mouse’s Grey Album, but a negative cultural event. Too clever. Too corporate. Too much. The music is soured by the means of its delivery. But is the music that bad?
You may now hit delete.
*Originally published at Daily Review.