But I’ve never owned an Apple product, bearing in mind that digital downloads barely count as “ownership” in my mind, and my iTunes “library” so far is more like a Hot Wheels bookmobile. Apple’s ostentatious new-product announcements are usually outside my fields of interest. I’m not an early adopter in any tech-related areas. At all.
New iPhone? Pass. My phone is a Samsung S2 that accomplishes my simple daily needs as long as I remember to reboot once a week. (Longtime MCC readers may recall I was once staunchly anti-smartphone in general, until life gave me reasons not to be.) My phone isn’t broken, and once survived a ten-foot drop onto a metal catwalk with zero damage. I’m good for now.
New smartwatch with triple-digit price tag? Pass. I can’t function away from home without wearing a watch (see: “old”), but I rarely need to shop for a new one because any given fifteen-dollar waterproof department-store digital watch with a lithium battery will last me years. They’re arguably one of Walmart’s most durable products, and it’s faster for me to glance at my wrist than it is to pocket and unpocket any other time-telling gizmo, including my phone. And that lithium battery drains ten thousand times more slowly than any phone battery will.
But then Apple went in an unexpected direction with their third platform plank: a new U2 album. For free. Finally, a product in my price range and tangential to my personal interests. Sold!
Short version of my lifetime U2 experience: I’ve followed them since War, but for me Achtung Baby remains the apex of their discography, with The Joshua Tree running a respectable second. The older they’ve gotten, the less I’ve enjoyed their works. I found How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb so unremarkable that I skipped No Line on the Horizon. For a limited time, though, their new album Songs of Innocence is available as a free iTunes download. I figured why not indulge. Besides, I’m tired of seeing the same one or two U2 jokes over and over again online, and it might be nice to make up my mind on my own instead of assuming the worst.
The results of that listening experience after two run-throughs, track by track:
“The Miracle (of Joey Ramone)”: It’s over two minutes long, it has more than three verses, it begins with a choir, and its nominal guitar parts are spaced many measures apart instead of keeping up a persistent, rhythmic drone. Sorry, no, invoking that name sets certain expectations and this approached none of them. Unless this is a tribute to another guy they know named Joey Ramone who’s, I don’t know, a kindly high-school band director who lives down the street.
“Every Breaking Wave”: Melodic, mid-tempo power-pop a la Tears for Fears after they dropped off the charts. Not necessarily a bad thing.
“California (There Is No End to Love)”: Parts of this are like an unfinished Beach Boys homage, from the not-quite “Barbara Ann” intro to the seconds’ worth of not-quite surf-guitar. The song seem to be a testimony to God’s infinite love, and/or a reassurance to someone who’s been disappointed by hollow California living. Or probably both. Works for me.
“Song for Someone”: If the band ever dropped all pretense of neutrality and announced, “Okay, fine, we’re a Christian band,” this ballad would become a permanent K-LOVE staple for the next fifteen years. It may still. I don’t know if K-LOVE has a policy against playing actual Famous Bands outside Owl City or Skillet. If they do, I imagine polite debates in their next programmers’ retreat about whether or not to waive it. That being said: ballads are rarely my thing, but I hope others cherish the meanings inside this one.
“Iris (Hold Me Close)”: Ambient vocals segue into some truly old-school The Edge licks circa War/Unforgettable Fire. You can almost hear Larry Mullen waking up in the back of the room. At nearly 5½ minutes it’s the longest song on the album, but if I were the A&R guy, this would be my pick for the first single anyway. I might’ve asked them to dump the “Iris” part of the title to avoid consumer confusion with that evergreen Goo-Goo Dolls soundtrack single that our local oldies stations refuse to retire.
“Volcano”: This is what passes for RAWK in the U2 After Age 50 songbook, like “Get on Your Boots” and “Elevation” (not the killer Tomb Raider 2 remix but the duller album version with the percussion suppressed). After two minutes here come the swirling choirs to chase the lite-rawk away. Whew. Man, was that a close one.
“Raised by Wolves”: I think it’s meant to be a snapshot of hard inner-city life, and there are junkies and father/son conflict and a car crash, but then Bono rhymes “I’m gonna detonate and you’re dead” with “Registration one-three-eight-five-double-you-zed” and it’s like we’re in a world where Lou Reed was never born. When he sings in the chorus, “We were raised by wolves,” I don’t believe him for a second.
“Cedarwood Road”: That grungy Achtung hook lures me in, then steps aside because IT’S A TRAP. Another easy-listening narrator is sorting memory shards of someplace that means a lot to him, but he never connects it for me, and I’m sorry but that half-second feedback blip at the end isn’t nearly enough payback for my time.
“Sleep Like a Baby Tonight”: The plodding keyboards assert a perfect lullaby pace, but then The Edge gets restless and wakes the baby before leaving the room. A few minutes later you can hear his solo from the kitchen or wherever he went, and I mean really solo for the first time in ages, assuming that’s really him and not a guest musician, but everyone’s too polite to turn off the Toddler Tunes drowning him out in the foreground.
“This is Where You Can Reach Me Now”: The liner notes say “For Joe Strummer”, and I can’t believe I hear faint echoes of London Calling in everyone here except Bono, who lacks the righteous indignation I’d expect to hear in a sincere Clash fan. It’s also weird that he’s using the military as a metaphor for the music business. Either that or it’s the least upsetting anti-military song ever.
“The Troubles”: At first I thought they invited a children’s choir to prop up the finale, but no, it’s a duet with Swedish singer Lykke Li, with whom I’m unfamiliar. Ethereal dream-pop isn’t my thing even when it’s sorta pretty, and my least favorite U2 songs are the ones where the rhythm-section equalizers are cranked down to zero, but other listeners might add this to their dream-time playlist.
…and then I looked more closely at the liner notes and skimmed the two enormous, single-spaced paragraphs that seem to confirm the nods to other artists are intentional. Good to know.
Final verdict: this old man still prefers CDs to digital media, but I’m not sure I see myself buying this one. I did find a few listenable tracks that I might come back to a few more times. It’s not the cultural upheaval that Apple hopes the new iPhone and iWatch will be, but the knee-jerk internet snark is a bit overdone. I’m just glad it’s better than Pop.