U2's new album, “Songs of Innocence,” blasts open with “The Miracle (of Joey Ramone),” an ode to one of the fallen godfathers of punk.
In one respect, it's a perfect kickoff: The album’s surprise, free release on iTunes to a potential audience of a half-billion Tuesday is the punk move of the digital music age. Yet the context – “Innocence” arrived as part of the promotion for Apple's latest wonder gadgets – smacks of corporate establishment shilling.
The worldwide giveaway of U2’s first album in five years could mark an industry game changer and perhaps the defining triumph – or sellout – for a band that embraces paradoxes.
This venture is full of them: “Songs of Innocence,” available free through Oct. 13, stands to become the most downloaded album ever, but might end up the worst seller of U2's nearly four-decade run. The disc, inspired by the Irish rockers’ youth, offers songs evoking not only Ramone, but the Beach Boys ("California") and The Clash (“This is Where You Can Reach Me Now”). Yet the album benefits greatly from the contributions of younger artists like Danger Mouse (who produced or co-produced most of the tracks) and Swedish singer Lykke Li (who provides haunting vocals on “The Troubles”).
Bono told Rolling Stone “Songs of Innocence” aims to echo the classic, impeccably crafted albums of Beatles and the Rolling Stones from the 1960s (“When you had real songs,” he said). Yet some numbers come across as U2’s tribute to itself (“Volcano” is somewhat reminiscent of “Vertigo,” in a mostly good way). The album’s hoopla-laden debut also taps into the band’s trademark showmanship and the promotional spirit of the late Steve Jobs, a Bono partner in deftly mixing the not always compatible worlds of entertainment, mass consumerism and international philanthropy.
The surprise release clearly seeks to top Beyonce’s stunner from December when she suddenly dropped a very well received 31-song self-titled album onto iTunes, along with 17 videos. U2 helps its cause by providing one of its better albums of recent years, crisp and brimming with energy. Some cuts (“Song for Someone,” “Every Breaking Wave”) seem destined to become concert favorites, though “Iris (Hold Me Close),” Bono’s song about his late mother, might be the album’s strongest offering.
The band risks flak for letting its album be given away to the masses in the 119 countries with iTunes while less established artists struggle to find new business models and just make a living. And, nothing, of course, is free: Bono told TIME, the band, which played the opening cut at Apple CEO Tim Cook’s presentation of the company’s new watch and iPhones, didn’t come away empty handed.
“We were paid,” Bono told the magazine. “I don’t believe in free music. Music is a sacrament.”
It's also a gift. U2 has given fans an incredible present, even if we need to get used to the wrapping.
Jere Hester is founding director of the award-winning, multi-media NYCity News Service at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. He is also the author of "Raising a Beatle Baby: How John, Paul, George and Ringo Helped us Come Together as a Family." Follow him on Twitter.
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