On September 9, 2014 U2’s thirteenth record exploded as a viral topic. The buzz was not for its music, but the LP’s surprising format: the band and Apple had the audacity to drop Songs of Innocence onto millions of iPhones and iTunes libraries overnight.
In some ways the gimmick worked – millions of people reacted to an otherwise ordinary record. Unfortunately for the two mega-brands, the consensus reaction to U2’s iTunes album was primarily annoyance. It was doubtful that many people even listened to much of it before dismissing the music.
U2, iPhone, And iTunes
The backlash to the inconvenience of the album was immense. Concerns about storage space, privacy, and artistic integrity inspired rants. HuffPost even published an article “How To Get That Terrible U2 Album Off Your iPhone, In 4 Steps,” underlining the prevailing irritation with the band and Apple. Bono later apologized for the release, saying,
“I’m sorry about that. I had this beautiful idea and we got carried away with ourselves. Artists are prone to that kind of thing: [a] drop of megalomania, touch of generosity, dash of self-promotion and deep fear that these songs that we poured our life into over the last few years mightn’t be heard. There’s a lot of noise out there. I guess we got a little noisy ourselves to get through it.”
Five years ago, I was happy with the concept behind its release. Free music from one of my favorite bands was a fantastic gift. I can now relate to the fuss over Songs Of Innocence. I still have duplicate album tracks that will not completely disappear from my iTunes library.
Even if it quickly evolved into a bad idea, the release platform makes complete sense. U2 were unsure about their place in modern music. Listener attention was shifting to Nashville and Atlanta. Their most recent album, No Line On The Horizon, was an artistically-minded record that lacked popular singles like “Vertigo” or “Beautiful Day” and did not achieve their typical chart success. The band that reinvented themselves with Achtung Baby and The Unforgettable Fire was looking for the new phase of their careers.
Apple and U2 established a working relationship prior to Songs Of Innocence. They paired up for the U2 iPod in 2004. The Edge made now-dated comments at the time of its launch, saying,
“iPod and iTunes look like the future to me and it’s good for everybody involved in music.”
Instead of probing new sonic ground, the band chose technology as their next grand experiment.
Songs Of Innocence – U2’s Songs, Album Meaning
The band also chased after continued Top 40 relevance. Producers Danger Mouse, Paul Epworth, Ryan Tedder, Declan Gafney, and Flood were enlisted for Songs of Innocence. At the time, the men associated with the new faces of music: The Black Keys, Gnarls Barkley, Florence + the Machine, Adele, and Taylor Swift.
To pair their release with new technology and contemporary popular music, U2 unusually chose to review their past. The thesis of Songs Of Innocence revisits early inspirations, journeys, and their Dublin upbringing.
The lead track captures an early spark that inspired the band. “The Miracle (Of Joey Ramone)” recalls a time when the band snuck into a Ramones concert that transformed their lives. It appropriately lures the audience in with a nonchalant prelude before shocking with quick bursts of guitar. U2’s choice of arrangement perfectly queues up the revelatory potential of music as they initiate their journey.
That musical voyage re-occurs throughout Songs of Innocence. “(California) There Is No End To Love” romantically remembers the band’s first trip to the Golden State. “This Is Where You Can Reach Me Now” is dedicated to Joe Strummer, whose Clash performed a concert that Bono credits as a “coordinates changing experience” in the album’s liner notes. “Cedarwood Road” looks at the singer’s childhood neighborhood.
There are also darker reflections. “(Iris) Hold Me Close” reflects on Bono’s mother, who died when he was a teenager. The album closes with the Lykke Li duet “The Troubles,” which details Bono’s rebound from tormenting experiences.
This is all introspective stuff that fits with many U2 albums: slick, emotional, and celestial. The Songs of Innocence album cover is an intimate shot of drummer Larry Mullen Jr. and his son. Even if the songs are a hit with ardent U2 fans, the nature of the record is more intellectual than sensational – not the type of record to slip onto millions of casually interested phones. Had it been a more pop-friendly album or a masterpiece, the backlash against the record’s platform would not define Songs Of Innocence.
Songs Of Innocence And Experience Legacy
The album is more hopeful than its 2017 companion, Songs of Experience. The second volume in the pair of records has a cynical vibe that matches the group’s initial objective, even if the grand vision did not endure.
According to Setlist.fm, tracks from Songs Of Innocence were only played 86 times during the sixty-date EXPERIENCE + INNOCENCE Tour that merged the two records. The number represents the sixth-highest figure of any U2 record played in the tour.
The album’s five-year legacy is just as revealing about the fleeting nature of technology as it is the music on the record. iTunes is being phased out in favor of Apple Music. A half decade after attempting to latch on to New Age devices, the game-changing experiment’s platform has already become antiquated.
The failed experiment of Songs of Innocence is one of the most interesting moments in U2’s career. Bono, Apple, et al. were self-aware in knowing that they had to try something new, but not cognizant of the negativity resulting from of their intrusion into people’s music libraries. Just five years later, the record catches music and technology at a crossroads that is no longer there.