For two months, I have been attempting to write a review of U2's Songs of Innocence. Then I realised that reviewing an album that was given free to every iTunes user for a month is pointless, as least in the conventional sense. Everybody who wants to hear it already has. Thus, the traditional approach of "this is what the album sounds like/is about/why you should or should not listen to or buy it" becomes an irrelevant way to approach it. Yes, it is a deeply personal album, but there are enough books to fill a library that already discuss the early stories of U2's career and the mythology of the band. I could write about the obvious major role that poetry has played in influencing this album - how the very title is an overt reference to William Blake, how Nelson Mandela and Seamus Heaney are quoted in the liner notes, how the album is a not-so-subtle tribute to Heaney who based his entire poetics on his own memories and the humble details that made him who he was. I could tell you how the album seems on the surface to be classic U2, but in actuality represents a seismic shift in the U2 catalogue from which there can be no return. The album gave me nightmares, made me question myself as a fan of the band, as a person, made me question everything that makes me who I am, and yet still manages to have the same inherent joy that permeates everything U2 does. I could spend pages on that. I could tell you that it is a strong album that has some kinship with 2004's How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb, but fails ultimately to be a great one. I could go on for some time about the joy of discovering that U2 is as fine an acoustic band as they are at epic stadium rock. I could regurgitate (yet again!) the disruptive nature of the iTunes release and the pure genius of that in a marketing sense (two months later, it is still a hot and controversial internet topic. In this digital age of 5-second attention spans, when was the last time anyone discussed a musical topic for that length of time? That kind of PR in the current zeitgeist is nothing short of a miracle). However, others already have or will. In addition, chances are, you already had an opportunity to formulate all those thoughts yourself during the first month of its availability.
I realised that the best way to discuss this new album is to address finally the elephant that has been in the room with regard to U2 since the end of the 1980s. Because this album is about the band going back and asking what made them who they are fundamentally, why did they make the choices they did to be in the band in the first place? So maybe it is time U2 fans asked ourselves why are we fans, what made us stick to the band loyally all these years? The fact of the matter is that U2 expired in terms of "cool" when the 80s expired. Every time a new album comes out, the media demands to know why the world is being tortured with it. Critics have long ago attempted to relegate U2 to the nostalgia circuit or label them dinosaurs in the sense that the Rolling Stones are. Corporate rock, some people call it, in a tone that is more like spitting than speaking. Most of the vitriol is aimed at Bono. He is called an "over-privileged, out-of-touch, megalomaniac" whose very diplomatic nature (generally - there are exceptions) leaves him open to easy pot shots. (The band - and especially Bono - are acutely aware of these unfair, overly personal assertions and have made a career out of openly laughing at them.) The band's loyal fan base faces daily ridicule for being fans. U2 fans are almost as hated and targeted in the current environment as practicers of certain religious groups are. So why endure so much for music?
The short answer is: it isn't just about music. U2 are not interested in being that shallow and they do not want their fans to be, either. They never were your granny's boy band and never will be. Bono is no Elvis. These are human beings and they make sure the world knows it. Highly complicated humans. To be a U2 fan isn't just to know all the lyrics, all the drum lines and bass lines, and as many of the Edge's guitar effects as he wants to reveal the secret of. It isn't just getting tickets to that show that sold out within 30 seconds. Or having a t-shirt for every album in your closet. In fact, most fans aren't like that. It isn't obsession; it's a real, concrete relationship.
It's true that U2 have power, a lot of it. Right out of the gate, their stated mission was to change the world. They have - about as regularly as people change socks. I think that intimidates some people. They have influenced the world musically, culturally, technologically, socially, and politically for nearly 40 years. Some of it is very public ((RED) and the ONE Campaign, their long-standing partnership with Apple, securing the freedom of Aung San Suu Kyi and other work with Amnesty International and Greenpeace, working for decades with Nelson Mandela, etc.), and some of it less public. But U2 do not want their fans to follow them blindly and just do what they are told. It isn't like that. Involvement in that aspect of U2 Culture is optional (I opt out). No, they present issues, but simply as subjects for consideration. U2 is all about awareness of the world around you, thinking for yourself, forming your own conclusions, and having the responsibility to own those conclusions and act on them. They lead you to water, but they will not force you to drink. There is a reason why U2 fans tend to be intellectuals, artists, scientists, think tanks, activists, and otherwise meditative, pensive and compassionate souls who get turned on as much by statistics and analysis and research of any and all kinds as they do by sex. U2 are teachers, but they teach principles and life lessons, a worldview. They lead by example, not by mob mentality. They invite their fan base to disagree, to challenge them, to push them. Moreover, they in turn disagree with, challenge, and push their fan base. Lest you think that I am over exaggerating their influence: did you know that there are professional scholars who dedicate their careers to the field of U2 Studies? That is a real field of academic and cultural study; I couldn't make this up.
However, they are not saints; they don't want to be. The typical U2/fan relationship is a messy one. U2 would not have it any other way. They are flawed individuals in the same way that anyone is flawed and those flaws are on public display. They get it wrong as often as they get it right. Sometimes the relationship hurts, badly. There are times I want to hug Bono and say "I love you, man" and there are times I want to punch him in the face until he cries and then give him the middle finger. (Yes, I wrote that. Get over it.) Nevertheless, I always come back again. I've never really left. Why? Because that is what love is: ugly, messy, brutal, painful, and beautiful. That hardly describes the typical band/fan dynamic, now does it? That complicated, deep level is what U2 strive to encourage. They don't want anything easy, black and white, sentimental, and flowery. They want something hard-bitten and real. Because they are deep, hard-bitten, complicated, and real. When you as a fan have a relationship with a band where you fight each other because you love each other, it couldn't matter less what those outside that relationship think about it.
The U2/fan base relationship is also highly symbiotic. They teach the fans, lead the fans, and work harder than any other band on the planet for the fans. Truly, the fans tell them what to do rather than the reverse. It isn't simply "we delivered a product, your job is to buy it". Sure, they run the band like a business, because it is. But the fan base are not customers; we are partners. Go to a U2 concert if you haven't and you will see this. The shows where the band is having an "off night" are typically the best shows of any given tour, because the audience steps up and carries the band through it for a unique communal experience.
This illustration may not work for everyone, may actually turn some people off, but: U2 are like parents, the fan base is their family, and it is ever-so-slightly (but benignly) dysfunctional. Daddy doesn't always set the example that daddy should, but daddy wants to. Family doesn't always listen to daddy's advice. Sometimes family outright rebels. Sometimes arguments arise, become heated, voices get raised. Sometimes doors get slammed and daddy stays up all night worrying because family didn't come home. Sometimes there are misunderstandings. Yet the beautiful moments outweigh the thorns. Daddy is protective of family. Family is protective of daddy. Daddy turns inside out for family. Family holds daddy's hand. At the end of the day, love holds the whole thing together. Like Bono wrote in two different, but equally well-known songs: "Love is hard and love is tough" but "we've got to carry each other" (Please from the Pop Album and One from Achtung Baby). That is why U2 fans are U2 fans. That is why we have been loyal all these years through good and bad. The music is only part of it. Love is all of it.
Ultimately, that is the point of Songs of Innocence: these are songs about (mainly Bono's) troubled youth. This album is full-frontal emotional nakedness and vulnerability. It is U2's gift to the world and especially the fans for putting up with them and carrying them for a lifetime. It is love in a black album sleeve. Even the idea of doing an acoustic session for Disc 2/Side 2 suggests this. No more big production tricks. No more bombast. Just this once, daddy and family are having a painfully honest, all-nighter conversation. It may not be the most innovative, earth-shaking, influential thing U2 have done (that distinction still belongs to Achtung Baby at this point), but it is far and away the most touching and beautiful.
All I can say to the haters out there is: it's your loss.