Home > Culture, Internet, Music, Reviews > “Songs of Innocence”, Fruits of Experience: U2, Apple, and the Atrophy of Neoliberalism

“Songs of Innocence”, Fruits of Experience: U2, Apple, and the Atrophy of Neoliberalism

U2 and Apple always seemed like a corporate partnership that was meant to be. With the exception of the Irish megaband’s collaboration with Apple’s smartphone competitors Blackberry on their ultra-grossing 360 tour from 2009-11, their late-period releases have frequently been marked by promotional crossover with the technology megacorporation that has charged a premium to package and sell post-Sixties counterculture notions of liberty to the mass consumer market. The 2004 Apple commercial featuring “Vertigo”, U2’s last kick at the youth market can (to which they were relevant for 25 years, no small feat at all), was the pinnacle piece of the company’s distinct and iconic iPod ads. Bono and Steve Jobs, like the corporate entities they each headed, were very clearly cocktail-party buddies, united in their shared mission of crafting populist secular experiences as proxies for the church-bound spirituality that modern citizens found increasingly unsatisfying. Both U2 albums/concerts and Apple Stores aim to replicate the sensation of ecstatic worship in consumable portions, to package the sublime, and to make a pretty penny at it, too.

U2’s surprise decision to release their new album Songs of Innocence for free to all iTunes Store users (controversially, whether those users want it or not) a mere week after completing it makes sense not only in terms of the players’ previously-established relationship but also in terms of each player’s current position and the music retail market as it (barely) stands. Apple’s retail buzz has been distinctly muted since its fêted founder’s death three and a half years ago; they’ve carved out a healthy share of the device market but hardly dominate it, and iTunes feels increasingly like a bit of a dinosaur system in a digital music milieu advancing much faster than anyone might have reasonably expected. Apple will always have its devotees and its detractors, but unchallenged in hegemony it most certainly is not.

If Apple has stumbled from its lofty pedestal, then U2 is clinging onto the edge of its own pedestal by their collective fingertips. No Line on the Horizon was the least artistically accomplished release of a decade of unadventurous legacy efforts from the four men who forever embalmed the concept of the Biggest Band in the World. Even worse, it did not sell very well by the band’s (admittedly outlandish) standards. Giving away a new album for free seems to make a lot of sense at this point in U2’s career: they certainly don’t need the money, can play it off as a “gift” to loyal fans (and have), and are about the point in their career at which new music they produce is only barely worth paying for anyway (consumers are increasingly dubious about whether any music is worth paying for, but that’s a separate discussion).

The narrative arc of U2’s career is marked by the headrush rises and swooning faints that likewise characterize their best musical output. It’s a fine drama, when you take it all together. The brash, ambitious New Wave punks out of Dublin with an earnest political edge rising on the backs of anthemic appeals to togetherness in a fragmented, anxious culture. They hit dual peaks evoking quasi-biblical desert vision quests as therapy for modern dislocation (The Joshua Tree) and riding the cresting wave of living history in a post-modern repurposing of David Bowie’s Berlin-period shadows (Achtung Baby). At the peak of their success, they fiddled in sonically-innovative ephemera (Zooropa, still a massively underrated piece of excellence) and grandiose, self-effacing Pop Art kitsch (Pop, never a great album but also tragically underappreciated). When a sizable portion of their massive fanbase proved unreceptive to the band pushing their creative boundaries in this way, they retreated to familiar idioms and have since maintained an easy truce with their varied aesthetic legacy and rendered it for mass consumption in bevilled-down, inoffensive form, to decreasing returns.

Songs of Innocence is, of course, a William Blake reference, and the invocation of ecstatic aesthetic spirituality must surely appeal to Bono’s understanding of faith and its relationship to creativity. That said, the “Songs of Experience” half of Blake’s titular dichotomy would seem to apply more snugly to a band pushing towards four decades together. But U2’s music in general and Bono’s lyrics (The Edge writes them too, but I prefer to blame the singer) in particular have paradoxically accrued a refreshed bloom of innocent naiveté as they have advanced in years. Bono’s aggressive sincerity has always carried with it a certain guilelessness: he did place Martin Luther King’s assassination in the “early morning” of April 4th, 1968 in “Pride (In The Name of Love)” rather than when it actually happened, in the early evening. But what many saw as the irruption of irony in the band’s 1990s work, I read as a knowing world-weariness, something approaching (god forbid!) wisdom.

Songs of Innocence is yet another conscious attempt to banish doubtful knowing wisdom from the U2 project, which has gone “back to basics” so many times that even the basics seem ornate and elaborate at this point in time. Bono was quoted an album or two back self-praising the lyrics he was writing as sounding like t-shirt slogans, as if that was a good thing. This continues to be his aim, and the band behind him aims for the alternation between anthemic rockers and skyreaching hymnal epic ballads that has characterized their post-millenial phase. Producer Danger Mouse grants a certain stripped-down feel, as if what U2 required at this point in their careers is more stripping down. The resulting record, like No Line on the Horizon, has some nice moments, even some borderline-memorable ones, but none that approach the great, the grandiose, those elusive, U2-esque moments where “God walks through the room”, as Bono typically put it.

“Song For Someone” is lovely, vintage stuff if wholly unsurprising: passionately-sung Irish-folk-ish melodies along The Edge’s trademarked clear, rising riffs. “Iris (Hold Me Close)” and “Volcano” U2 it up right behind this mild highlight, but it’s hard to grasp onto much else. Opener and single “The Miracle (of Joey Ramone)” is a bit fun but summons only a fraction of the titularly-invoked rock n’ roll saint’s no-bullshit vitality. Even a teasing reference to “The Troubles” that once granted U2 a distinct political frisson on the free-floating closing cut doesn’t ever dig in. The experienced U2 listener will yearn for more, and will have to go back into the catalogue to get it, unfortunately.

U2’s vaunted longevity has now begun to define them more so than their audacious artistic reinventions. They could use another one of those sharp aesthetic left turns, but Songs of Innocence is not it. This is one more way that U2 is closely aligned with Apple. Both are institutions predicated on versions of enlightened neoliberal capitalist hope that rolled with the punches of social and political changes to remain relevant and profitable for longer than many would have thought possible. But both have settled into lucrative but diminishing cycles of repetitious atrophy. That their partnership is not meeting with a positive reception should be a worrisome sign for both U2 and Apple going forward.

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Categories: Culture, Internet, Music, Reviews
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  1. September 18, 2014 at 1:06 pm

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