Music Review: Along with over 10% of the world’s population I received a free copy of U2’s 13th studio album, Songs of Innocence, which, with the perplexity of a Loch Ness leviathan manifestation, had inexplicably appeared in my iTunes library. When I fired up my laptop there was a new album waiting for me and it was from none other than the world’s acclaimed “most successful rock band.” Bono and Tim Cook had apparently conspired in absolute secrecy for months on end to gift me this harmonious handout.
What was utterly marvelous about U2 and Apple’s pioneering complimentary auto-download move was that they pulled it off when I was out of the country. I was contentedly traveling through Malaysia at the time, in Kota Kinabula, Borneo to be exact, at the Sheraton, on the sixth floor, and as usual none of my streaming music services worked in these seemingly un-licensable locations. Sure they’ve got electricity and the Internet works fine, but the music subscription services do not. Many video services also will not function, including free YouTube clips, when one is far from home. We might consider this to be a connivance to deny most of the world the inimitable entertainment we have back in America or as a ruse to encourage us to stay home and not spend our cash overseas.
A few weeks ago I was giving a talk at a French university and a crucial segment of the discourse relied wholly on my presentation of a YouTube video. I had successfully given a similar presentation in France a few months previously, and as I confidently built up to my pièce de résistance and the visual underscoring of my central hinging argument, the large screen projection brusquely pronounced, “this video is not licensed to play in this region.” It wasn’t even in French. I thought, well thanks guys, just change the rules on me mid lecture, mid stride, while the audience was thinking Dr. Badlink could’ve prepared better for his trailblazing talk on global commerce. Well, that involuntary screen declaration might as well have said asshole.
Stimulated in part by my recent French lesson, I realize that I now place a substantial reliance on streaming services, such as video on demand, subscription music, subscription video, and all sorts of at-your-fingertips real-time entertainment. Without streaming, on the sixth floor of the Sheraton, music selections diminished precipitously to a choice between a dodgy-looking 1980s era bedside clock radio featuring the Eagles in both AM and FM and the decade-old iTunes technology on my laptop. Having callously ignored the last fifty or so annoying prompts to download a new version of iTunes, based on my computer’s age I estimate that I am two years behind on that particular entertainment user interface. Firing up iTunes took me through a small time warp as I perused an aging sonic clutter that was as organized as my teenage daughter’s bedroom. But I saw a few gems. However, “not authorized to play on this computer” was the recurring communication as I tried to select favorite albums I rightfully purchased many years ago. Not only did I buy those collections on vinyl in the 70s, tape in the 80s, CD in the 90s, but also on iTunes in the 00s—apparently now licensed to play only in landfills on five obsolete computers. It was then that I stumbled across U2’s Songs of Innocence.
A lot of people were upset by Bono’s megalomaniacal fascist imposition – but not in Borneo. I welcomed it with the pragmatism of Tom Hanks when he cut the shoes off the dead pilot’s feet in Castaway. So, yes, I thought, the boys are back in town, or more appropriately, achtung baby! Now while I am not criticizing the free aspect of this business model I would like to stress that when I go to bed tonight I don’t want Apple donating me the complete works of Barry Manilow or the entire Harry Potter audiobook series. So I do understand and respect the basis and substance of the complaints levied by others heretofore.
When I was a teenager my record collection was carefully maintained and displayed as a prized trophy and testament to my acned existence. My friends and I kept our small collections of precious long playing records in dust covers, with unpeeled price stickers, stored upright and alphabetized in a purpose-built wire rack, close to the record player and away from the radiator. For more protection, one of my friends, Eric, additionally kept his dust-covered records in the plastic carry-out bag from the record shop, with the receipts. This required a three-step vinyl un-sleeving procedure followed by another three-step re-sleeving process every time he played a song. And there was that little black felt-like brush that we all used to remove tenacious dust particles that had somehow broken through our multiple layers of defense.
Fiscal conservatism generally dictated the growth rate of our teenage record collections. New records were added every several weeks with ceremonious pageantry that included a group detailed examination of any lyric sheets, photographs and artwork on the covers and inside the revered gatefold. Friends would be invited hastily to the bedroom for the un-sleeving of a new album, which would be played several times to its teenage fans and critics alike. Back then, record companies did not give out new rock albums for free. The closest we ever got to that scenario, which was not that close, was some random band’s square low-quality flimsy black plastic stylus-ruining 45 rpm single stapled to the inside of the New Musical Express, which, of course, you had to buy. Fast-forward to today and people are complaining about receiving new quality rock music for free! With great appreciation, I therefore welcomed the unexpected arrival of Songs of Innocence that evening.
The album is pretty good I think; well-produced as you would expect from U2, melodic and uncluttered for the most part. There is a small orchestra here and there, a piano, and oodles of voiceovers, but I suspect they could rousingly pull off most of these songs live with just the four of them. I’ve only owned perhaps three U2 albums; this one, their 1981 album October, and one other in between that I can’t recall right now. My good friend Jay Lanier dragged me to one of their concerts a while back –I think it was the Achtung Baby tour. I personally thought they were losing the thread at that point but what do I know—they kept getting bigger and bigger. The guitarist, the Edge, is incredibly gifted, and on Songs of Innocence he seems to dial down his overworked echo and reverb trademark sound and takes more of a nouveau Chilli Peppers rock approach on some of the songs, which I think helps overall with sonic variety. My favorite track is California, where the verse melody and meter carry the song effortlessly. The only real musical-related criticism I would have for U2’s latest work is a little too much seriousness. Many one-named rock stars can exhibit a bit too much geldofian solemnity and it puts me off a little when I hear that Sting’s latest album was inspired by the death of his father or Bono’s by the death of his mother. Great songs need powerful inspiration of course, but I just really want listen to some good tunes.