It’s not even 72 hours since its (surprise) release, but already U2’s latest album has become one of the most widely distributed, most talked about and oddly controversial albums in living memory.
Which is odd, because it’s just a U2 album.
Okay, so beyond the music itself, there’s a few talking points here
– It was effectively distributed as spam / malware.
– There’s a certain arrogance about the assumption that everyone is going to appreciate the gesture from a global electronics company with (at best) questionable employment / production ethics and possibly the most corporate rock band on the planet.
– The ‘free album’ thing has been done before (Radiohead, Prince) and has resulted in considerably more meaningful debates in regards to the ‘worth’ of music.
– The ‘surprise release’ thing has been done in a less intrusive way in the past twelve months (Beyoncé, My Bloody Valentine).
Okay, the distribution thing. There was no option to opt in, or out, downloading fro iTunes of your own free will. Apple and U2 just decided that everyone with an iTunes account just had to hear this album, because, you know, a lot of people might really like U2 if you gave them a chance. It’s got a feeling of those family days out you didn’t want to go on when you were a kid, but your parents told you that you will enjoy it if you know what’s good for you. All in the name of enforced fun.
In terms of the arrogance, I can’t think of another band beyond KISS that would stoop to such a questionable way of hyping their latest release. Then again I also have a certain grudging admiration. A few years back I did question why so much money was spent marketing How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb, when it was always going to sell in mind-bogglingly vast numbers anyway, for no better reason than it was a new U2 album. Why not put out a simple press release that the entire marketing budget was going to be contributed to one of the charities that Bono is so fond of telling us we should all contribute to, that way gaining exposure for the band, the new album and the charity itself, and giving everyone involved a feel-good glow? In this situation Apple,Island Records and U2 have entered a golden-handshake deal in which apparently Apple would ‘pay’ for all iTunes users to have a copy of Songs of Innocence, so yeah, everyone’s a winner. Except the charity. And every iTunes user who isn’t a fan of U2.
The release of Radiohead’s In Rainbows sparked a fascinating debate on how much music was ‘worth’. Prince caused a stir when he made a deal with the publishers of The Mail on Sunday to give away free copies of Planet Earth with a copy of that ‘newspaper’. The difference between these and the Songs of Innocence stunt, is that the individual music fan could make a conscious decision to acquire a copy of In Rainbows or Planet Earth, whereas Songs of Innocence just turns up in your iTunes folder uninvited, leaving you with a vague feeling that your privacy has been invaded.
The surprise release thing is an odd one. Everyone that cared pretty much knew that a new U2 album was due this year. There’s also the fact that untold thousands of albums are released each year from bands on labels that simply can’t afford to market their albums and so slip out unnoticed, unheralded and finding only a tiny percentage of the potential fans. U2 and Apple have basically rubbed their omnipotence in the face of every struggling musician and record label in one fell swoop.
Of course, all this only scratches the surface of a discussion which could rumble on to untold depths of insight during the next few months. At the end of the day Apple, Island Records and U2 have distributed an album to about half a billion potential listeners, but is it any good?
Not really, no.
Even as someone who is very much a fair-weather U2 fan, Songs of Innocence strikes me as a relatively bland album by their standards. It suffers from production overload, displays a significant lack of an obvious hit single and generally just sounds like an ageing rock band trying far too hard to remain relevant in a music scene which left them behind many years ago.
Another problem is that during the first half of the album, nothing much actually happens, which is a real problem when you consider that not everyone listening to this album will be a fan of the band. Surely if you’re giving an album away, you’d front-load it with the catchiest, most commercial material at the front to catch the listeners attention? Not here. It’s just another U2 album and there’s nothing unique about it, beyond the way that most people have acquired it.
For U2 fans (of which there are admittedly countless hordes), Songs of Innocence may prove to be something of a grower, a slow burning album which only reveals its true worth over time and many repeated listens. For the rest of us, it’s something we’ll probably listen to once, just to give it a chance, then never listen to again. There are of course those, for whom the very notion that there is a U2 album in their music collection is offensive, but hey, all you need to do is delete it, it’s not difficult (indeed such has been the over-the top vitriloic reaction from some, that it has resulted in some brilliantly patronising Memes on how to delete it from your iTunes folder).
The thing is, despite the controversy regarding its distribution and the lack of lasting impression that Songs of Innocence leaves on the listener, I can’t escape the feeling that U2 may still have a great album in them somewhere. They just need to reign in the production, eliminate the unnecessary faffing about adding layers of keyboards to pad out the sound and just be four blokes playing instruments. In fact, I’d like to challenge U2 to make an album on a budget of £500 without the use of effects pedals or hard drives. Just a raw, basic album of stripped back rock songs with the emphasis on great songs, rather than trying to convince anyone that listens that they’re still the biggest band in the world.
Ultimately Songs of Innocence is an album that will linger long in the memory for a lot of people for exactly the wrong reasons. Perhaps if it hadn’t been foisted upon us via iTunes, it would have found a more sympathetic audience, but as it is, it has so far created more negative feeling towards U2 than positive. But hey, this is U2. They will endure and they will come back in a few years time with another album that will appeal to their multitudes of fans. And hey, as they apparently own about a 10% stake of Island Records, I’d certainly not say no to a free album of my choice from the label’s extensive back catalogue (personally I’d probably go for some Amazing Blondel, early Traffic, or a nice remaster of Catch a Fire).