SONGS OF INNOCENCE (and other tangentially related topics)

Sun Oct 05 2014

I think U2 may have finally brought about the death of the record review. As a longtime fan, I can only sit back and laugh at the hoopla surrounding Songs Of Innocence. I’ve found it to be a pretty enjoyable listen. It’s not going to win over many new fans, that’s for sure. In fact, the way in which it was released has only energized the curious U2-hatred that has existed ineffectually for decades. It’s like politics: At least 90% of the half a billion who now “own” this album made up their minds about U2 long ago. Those who haven’t bought into the cult of U2 are now even less likely to listen to Songs Of Innocence, and even if they were to listen, there would be no getting around their hyperconscious truth that U2 is crap and couldn’t possibly make good music.

Nowhere is this closed-mindedness more perfectly exemplified than in the reviews of the album by David Fricke (Rolling Stone) and Rob Mitchum (Pitchfork). Each is patently absurd in its own way, preordained in the neurological machine of its respective writer well in advance of their hearing the album. RS hands out five stars like the Grammys honored Steely Dan with their Album Of The Year trinket in 2000, while Pitchfork clings to its fading credibility by attempting to codify both its target audience's disdain for mainstream culture and its inherent distrust of earnest emotion. Sadly for Pitchfork, it has undermined its own relevance by even acknowledging U2, while RS clearly abandoned any vestiges of credibility long ago.

Meanwhile, the internet was ablaze with first-world outrage over Apple's infusion of the album into the iCloud accounts of all of its disciples, as if its very availability in the hypothetical mist of electrons constituted some tangible affront. I think a lot of that was just people being smartasses on Twitter, which I wholeheartedly endorse, but I do find it ironic that people's appreciation of U2 continues to hinge on their personal opinion of the way it's presented as an entity to the public. Given the fact that we are all public figures now, I wonder how many of us are comfortable with being judged on the way we act on social media alone. Speaking for myself, I think I and most people I know are, in that case, narcissistic bitches or pretentious pricks at best, inconsiderate dicks at worst, and that's not filtered through the ulterior motives of any journalist. But I don't think most people who actually know me think of me in those terms, nor vice versa. I shudder to think how Bono's actual motivations have been twisted over the years into the various perceptions of him that exist today.

I've been in this ongoing conversation lately about whether we should separate our opinion of an artist from our appreciation for his or her art, but the discussion may be moot in the end. I can understand the scoffing about a new U2 album by people who will never bother to listen to it; I just wonder how much of that comes from an actual musical perspective. I'm not trying to suggest that I'm immune to this conundrum. I can acknowledge how difficult it is for me to wrap my head around the idea that a person who presents herself the way Miley Cyrus seems to could possibly create any worthwhile music even with an army of industry ringers doing most of the work. But I try, dammit. I doggedly check out each Flaming Lips release in a so-far vain attempt to figure out what people like about their music, and I try really hard to forget what a hypocritical piece of crap Wayne Coyne is while I listen. And I make shitty comments about the Lips and Coyne and other bands I don't like all the time, but it does come from a background of giving the music as much of an honest chance as my puny brain can muster.

I think most people with higher-functioning brains think of U2 in essentially scientific terms, the way they think of the concept of God or spirituality: I haven't had a positive personal experience with it yet, therefore I never will, and I scoff at anyone who claims he or she has. Scientifically speaking, the odds of me liking a U2 album or having a religious awakening are infinitesimal, so I might as well shut myself off from the possibility of it altogether. I am supremely confident in my specific definitions of God and U2 (and Republicans), and they are not my thing. I'm sure this attitude frees the mind up for more important things.

Of course, we all do this all the time, or else we'd never make a decision. We all think we're open-minded, but we have to rule out certain things in order to concentrate on what's important. I can understand simply disregarding U2 and moving on, but it's the focused animosity towards U2 that baffles me. U2 brings so much joy to so many people--like, really, only joy--and yet some people persist in slagging them like they're antichrists just for being unhip rock stars. Just like religion, if it somehow brings venom and cynicism out of you, that's on you, because the message is love and has always been love. Human beings working through the attempt to live good lives and help others. The same thing you're hopefully trying to do by tapping viciously on the screen of your iPhone as you rail impotently against this or that injustice, just like I do (except I have an Android).

Then there's the practice of reviewing the album, which by all rights ought to be an open-minded endeavor. After all this time, I do listen to each successive U2 album with a critical ear. Despite my as-yet unshaken faith in this band, I can certainly acknowledge the fact that since 2000's All That You Can't Leave Behind, Bono and company have made music that's less and less likely to engage the world outside its fanbase. I'd argue that that's as much because that outside world has grown more cynical and less open-minded as it is due to the lack of intrinsic value in the music, but perhaps that's the fanboy in me. I guess I could resolve to deny myself the incomparable joy and spiritual fulfillment I get out of U2 concerts in order to appease my analytical side or strive for "credibility", but that would be stupid. At the risk of sounding self-unaware and vain, I don't find it that difficult to separate myself from fandom (or vehement non-fandom) in order to think. It seems like a lot of other people do, though.

I get that Songs Of Innocence isn't some groundbreaking new statement, but the basis for Pitchfork's review of it seems to be not wanting U2 to be U2. Mitchum accuses Bono of writing lyrics "hoping to fit around the experiences of millions" as if it's intrinsically a bad thing. When did this become an unacceptable goal for art? Isn't that what Mitchum is doing--trying to tap into the cynicism and spiritual vacuousness of hipster nation with an expression of his own? I suppose the painful truth for Mitchum is that Bono has been succeeding at this mass-empathy experiment for 35 years, and continues to with this new album, while Mitchum is just some guy who mocks U2 on the internet and probably doesn't wear colored sunglasses.

I admit that I can empathize more with Fricke's position, but not by much. It takes a diehard (or clueless, or senile) fan to listen to some of these tracks and not accuse The Edge of ripping off songs of his that ripped off other songs of his ("Iris" being the most glaring example). It's tough when you invent a signature style of playing while having no remarkable talent at playing, and then you try to maintain a sense of identity for over three decades in the same band without repeating yourself. Fricke is probably a nice guy, or maybe he's buddies with some of the guys in U2, or maybe he's just an old man who likes things that sound familiar and can't find fault with U2 for sounding this way, but assignment of a perfect score to this album suggests a complete disconnection from any awareness of what's going on in the world of music. It breaks absolutely no new ground for anybody other than U2.

But in strictly U2 terms, it does shoot for new sounds and new ways of presenting itself. It's somewhat bizarre that, with so much low-hanging fruit on the rip-on-U2 tree, Mitchum chooses the opposite argument, making me wonder if he's ever given more than a cursory thought to any of U2's catalog. Maybe he chose the only argument he could conceive of that had anything to do with the actual music, realizing that his constituents wouldn't bother to listen to the album to see if they agree. It is in fact the most personal batch of lyrics that Bono has ever written--seriously, Bono's normally trying to make grand statements and look to the future, not talk about his past and his personal relationships. There are songs on this album--"Cedarwood Road", "Volcano", "Sleep Like A Baby", "Troubles"--that you could scarcely recognize as U2 if Bono weren't singing them. But that fact alone might add up to more than a 4.6, so it was probably best to make up something that sounds like it would be true. Hey, it works for politicians; truthiness rules everything around us.

I can say that, as a member of the decreasing population of folks who give any regard to lyrics at all, Bono's lyrics on this album are pretty fantastic compared to the last two albums. The 2000s yielded some astoundingly pretentious and downright awkward bits of wordplay from Bono. Who could've guessed that digging into his personal baggage would produce more meaningful and heartfelt poetry than trying to save the world? One of the things that has sustained U2 fans all these years is the sense that Bono's on a similar journey of self-discovery and spiritual awakening to ours, sometimes ahead of us, sometimes seemingly puzzling over lessons we've learned long ago. A lot of people seem to perceive him as pompous, but to us, he's just another lovable dumbass we like to sing along with--you probably have to see him live to really understand this. I've been cringing for about a decade at some of the ways he chooses to express himself on records, but after scrutinizing this new one, I feel like giving him a high five for keeping his lamest tendencies in check.

I know this isn't much of a record review, but it's the best I can muster. The absurdity of everything I've read online concerning this album has me questioning whether there's any point in writing record reviews any more. Maybe at one time I dreamed about being a writer whose opinions people trusted, clamored for, anticipated with the release of new music, but I don't know if that exists any more. There are certainly writers whose opinions I respect, but there are none whose opinions I trust. The pervading homogeny of music criticism today, the lack of style or balls required to be taken seriously, disgusts me even as it has infected me. Who didn't see RS's five stars and Pitchfork's rote dismissal coming? But that's what it takes to actually make money at this shit: Do what people expect you to do. I have no corporate overlords and barely so much as an audience here at you-phoria, yet who didn't see this piece coming?

The basic purpose of a record review, last I knew, is to persuade someone to buy or not to buy a record, but that can't be the purpose of a review of Songs Of Innocence; we all own it already. Fricke's purpose may have been to encourage those who agree with him to ultimately purchase the physical release, I suppose, but Mitchum's rhetoric has no possible intention to encourage any action whatsoever. His purpose could only have been to laboriously draw attention to his own disdain for U2, and that of Pitchfork--hey, look at us, we're not Rolling Stone! We're still hip! The desperation for attention that he so smugly lays on U2 is merely a reflection of Pitchfork's own insecure scramble for respect and/or clicks. But Pitchfork's shtick has always been that most of mainstream music isn't even worth mentioning by our "essential guide to independent music and beyond". Music doesn't get much less independent than U2. With his flagrant grab for attention, Mitchum might've inflated the importance of Songs Of Innocence far beyond what it demands--if anyone gave a shit what Pitchfork thinks of a new U2 album.

As it happens, the hype faded quickly. The outrage, too. It's almost as if the album doesn't exist, to be honest. Sure, there are fans who like it and those who don't, but for me, and I think for most U2 fans, it's an album to be listened to in preparation for the tour, so we can sing along with dumbass Bono, and feel amazing about life for a couple hours a night. The songs wormed their way very quickly into my consciousness, I know that much. I can already sing along to almost all the words after a couple weeks of casual listening, and that's exceedingly rare for me these days.

Maybe the real issue is that U2 is an ideal that still works for me, that I've had no cause to give up on so far. Democracy was invented to bring some hope for peace and prosperity to anybody who participated, but it hasn't worked out that way at all. Religions were invented to bring some joy and community to people in the throes of confusion about the world, but by and large, that hasn't worked out, either. But U2 actually does work out that way, believe it or not. You can deride it all you want, but it doesn't affect U2 or its fans one bit. Except to occasionally annoy me so much that I write a couple thousand words about how pointless it is. I've been noticing lately that cynicism tends to breed contempt of the non-cynical, and I guess U2 fandom has obscured the usefulness of cynicism from my perception, in which case ignorance really is bliss.
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