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Five Years Of Innocence: @U2 Staff Reflections

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Photo Credit: Interscope Records

 

Five years and one day ago, we were still scratching our heads as to when the next U2 album would be released. Five years ago, it dropped from the clouds (the iCloud to be specific) into the iPhone/iPod/iPad of every person on planet earth. U2 created a moment in the complicated relationship between technology and art that won’t be replicated anytime soon. Between all of the snarky tweets, tours and op-eds, the band birthed their most personal record to date. To commemorate their 5th birthday, here are our thoughts on 14 songs of innocence.

 

1. “The Miracle (Of Joey Ramone)” by Chris Endrinal

I have a confession to make: “The Miracle (Of Joey Ramone)” didn’t impress me the first time I heard it. Perhaps it was the less-than-stellar sound settings of the auditorium that affected my enjoyment. Maybe it was sheer excitement of U2’s (not-quite-)surprise appearance at the Apple event that clouded my ears. Or perhaps it was the awkwardness of the Bono/Tim Cook “high five” afterwards that left me with an impression that was more “meh” than miraculous.

Whatever the reason(s) regarding that performance, I felt very differently after I listened to the album version. This time, with the lyrics in hand, the song connected with me in a way a U2 song hadn’t in quite some time. I started thinking about my own life-changing “Miracle moment." The song was on repeat for weeks, maybe even months. I couldn’t get enough of it. Seeing/hearing the song live during the 2015 Innocence + Experience tour just reinforced my connection to the song. Five years later, I still listen to the song with that same fervor. My kids even ask me to sing to them as their bedtime song! “The Miracle” remains my favorite track from SOI and has now claimed a place among my all-time U2 favorites.

 

2. “Every Breaking Wave” by Kenny Irwin

So, Songs Of Innocence turns five today but “Every Breaking Wave” has been on the U2 scene for way longer than that. It was slated for potential use on No Line on The Horizonbut wasn’t used. A “fat” sounding song on SOI (tone and sound), it sounds and feels very different to the rest of the album. U2 prefer to use the stripped-down version live, possibly to capture even more the beautiful melody that encompasses this song. It’s still a favourite “go to” song for me. There is something incredibly calming about this song – perhaps because I tend to focus on the musicality and take the lyrics for what they are - instead of chasing “Every Breaking Wave.”

 

3. “California (There Is No End To Love)” by Brian Betteridge

U2 is not known for “fun” songs. A quick look through their hits will reveal a collection of serious-sounding tracks, with only a few lighter pieces scattered about. But “California (There Is No End To Love)” is one of those rare, straight-up fun songs. From the chiming bells, to the Beach Boys-esque “Santa Barbara” introduction, to a chorus that one just can’t help but sing along to, “California” is easily one of the brightest spots on Songs Of Innocence. I’ve never been to California myself, but while listening to this song I feel like I’m sitting on a beach watching as the Pacific waves crash onto the shore. It’s truly a transformative song.

 

4. “Song for Someone” by Jill Marino

U2 have often said that they are the ultimate band to play weddings or bar mitzvahs. This is totally believable, because who wouldn't want to cut a rug on the dance floor to "Mysterious Ways"? But, whether they want to admit it or not, they are also ridiculously good at love songs. Yes, the biggest band on the planet really know how to get the heartstrings tugging, be it the superior tearjerker "With Or Without You" or the honey-dipped "The Sweetest Thing." But, have you even dived deep into the core of "Song For Someone"? 

It's pitch-perfect when it comes to telling that special soul exactly how you feel about them. During the I+E tour, when Bono would intro this song as his teenage self, saying he was trying to write a song for a girl named Alison Stewart, and then uttering her response of, "It doesn’'t have to be perfect," were you looking around the arena asking, "Why is it so dusty in here? My eyes are very watery!" Because, same. Then as soon as he sang, "You got a face not spoiled by beauty / I got some scars from where I've been," you couldn't help becoming a sniffling mess and you had to admit to yourself that Bono had turned you into a sentimental romantic. And that was OK! You're forever rooting for teenage Bono and Ali, and you and your someone. U2: The wedding, bar mitzvah, and crying in your car/arena seat/walking down the street band. 

"You break and enter my imagination / Whatever's in there / It's yours to take…" Hold on, I'm in my feels, be right back.

 

5. “Iris (Hold Me Close)” by Ian Ryan

The morning Apple announced they were force-feeding Songs Of Innocence into the iTunes account of anyone who had one, the track list was available before I was able to download the tracks. Just looking at the song titles, “Iris (Hold Me Close)” immediately stuck out to me. Once I started listening to the album, I knew it was the gem. I didn’t know it was him initially, but Chris Martin’s ethereal opening vocals hooked me right away: dreamy, distant, beautiful, intangible. Once the song kicked in, it became the clearest exploration to date of how Bono processes his mother’s death not as a strict loss so much as a great, unknowable distance. “I Will Follow” talks about Iris walking away. “Lemon” talks about a man who dreams of leaving but who always stays behind. In “Mofo” he sings that Iris left and made him someone. “Iris”  goes full all in on that idea. Iris is framed as a distant star, providing light across the heavens. Bono recognizes something in how his mother looked at him that didn’t register until he was much older. He frames the revelation as the many, many years it takes for a star’s light to reach earth. “The stars are bright, but do they know the universe is beautiful but cold?” Her impact all those years ago still provides him with light and inspiration, but it is so distant now, so unreachable, even as he wants to be held close. Bono even frames this concept with how he sings the song. He performs his oft-used double-vocal track technique in which he sings two vocal tracks at the same time, but in “Iris” there is a voice up close, conversational, intimate, and a voice distant and echoey, yelling across the void. Interestingly, in the one hopeful moment of the song, when he sings “Something in your eyes took a thousand years to get here…,” The Edge performs the backing harmonies. Just a bit of hope in the darkness. 

Much of Songs Of Innocence felt a little self-consciously throwback. The songs were created with current U2’s musical skills and mindsets, but there was a deliberate reach to get back to some of what U2 valued in their early days. “Iris (Hold Me Close)” feels perhaps like it’s the only “modern” U2 song on the album, which is why it might be my favorite. It’s a point of Experience in the Innocence, and Bono’s not done with the idea of his mother and stars: “Now, she’s at the other end of the telescope. Seven billion stars in her eyes… This is no time not to be alive.” The universe is beautiful but cold. 

 

6. “Volcano” by Aaron Govern

“Volcano” is a song that is following a theme of previous songs written about Bono's late mother, such as “I Will Follow,” “Mofo,” “Lemon,” and “Tomorrow.” It is noticeable that “Volcano” immediately follows Iris on the SOI album, and is an angry song with Bono dealing with the death of his mother. He pushes the angst of her being lost to him, being in a band, and having to deal with all of this as a teenager to the forefront of the song. The lyrics deal with a period of Bono growing up in Ireland where the political unrest and religious turmoil in his home country is at its peak, and the song is menacing in sound and content, literally bubbling over in its emotion. A great bass melody and sound by Adam Clayton makes this one of the best songs on the album.

 

7. “Raised By Wolves” by Becky Myers

“Face down on a broken street

There’s a man in the corner in a pool of misery.

I’m in a white van as a red sea covers the ground

Metal crash I can’t tell what it is

But I take a look and now I’m sorry I did.

5:30 on a Friday night 33 good people cut down”

The lyrics are graphic; the recitation by the singer is poetic. When U2 released Songs Of Innocence a lifetime ago (or so it seems), I was unprepared for “Raised by Wolves,” especially the bold lyrics and the tragic story they weave. Being about the same age as the band members, I remember hearing about this bombing in the news.

The song catapulted me right back to that time when I was a teenager and witnessed the raging war in Ireland via television and newspapers here in America. I remember feeling horrified by all of the death and wondered if it would ever end.

Because of that, I skipped over “Raised by Wolves” when I played the album. Then I saw it performed live on the Innocence + Experience tour and understood the full narrative of the show and where the song appeared in the set. Bono’s performance – and his literal leap into the full intensity of the song converted me right then and there. I eagerly awaited that song at each I+E show I attended, and I was up front, smack-dab in front of Bono and Adam when they played it again in just a few of the early shows of the Experience + Innocence tour. All I can say is “Wow.”

Five years on, the song has taken on more meaning than when I first heard it. Those powerful lyrics and Bono’s performance carry it for me. The band was right to spotlight this yet-to-be-solved heinous crime and to continue the call for “Justice for the Forgotten.” This song stands the test of time.

 

8. “Cedarwood Road” by Mason Merritt

When SOI was released to an unsuspecting world five years ago I was 19. I was living at home, the only home I’ve ever known in fact, and in the middle of my second year of college. Now I’m 24 and writing this from the couch of my apartment in New York City where I work at a job doing something completely different from what I went to school for. 

So yeah, a lot has changed in the last few years. And other than the visceral musicianship of this song (that Edge opening riff? The guitar solo? Larry’s bass drum? Wow!!!) what keeps this song close to my heart is that it’s about leaving home. Five years ago, I had taken my first steps out into the world. I didn’t have my parents standing behind me. Every step I took was 100% of my own choosing. I walked out, left the old pain behind and with the foolish pride of a young man ran into a world full of hurt to hide from and joy to hold closely.

 

9. “Sleep Like a Baby Tonight” by Collin Souter

“Sleep Like A Baby Tonight” — One of the precious few risk-taking moments U2 had with the music on this album comes in the form of a dark, despairing track about pedophile priests. It’s the one moment on both albums where U2 risks making the listener uncomfortable in a way they haven’t really tried before. 

While it certainly wouldn’t fit on Songs Of Experience, this is definitely one of the songs of innocence lost. The album version takes a third-person perspective on the subject while the second CD gives the song another go with an “Alternate Perspective Mix by Tchad Blake,” in which Bono chillingly takes on the personalities of both predator and prey. Somewhere between the two versions lies the perfect approach, as both songs suffer from awkward turns of phrase. Yet, despite the taboo subject matter, “Sleep Like A Baby Tonight” still ends with a lullaby that remains one of the band’s loveliest outros, making the song that much more of a dichotomy of moods and a bit frustrating, to say the least. 

Love it or hate it, it remains one of the most provocative songs on the album and it’s no wonder it has never been played live.

 

10. “This Is Where You Can Reach Me Now” by Eric Gifford

The best U2 albums have a second half where the band digs deeper into its themes and play around a bit in its soundscape. For Songs Of Innocence, “This Is Where You Can Reach Me Now” follows form as a deeper cut with a fast driving beat and reflection on another experience formative to the band’s origin. On an album that has a range of contemporary producers, this may be where Danger Mouse’s sonic contribution is most obviously heard. Edge, Adam, and Larry each deliver the goods in their instrumentation, but it’s the production details and the chorus melody that would make this track sound at home on a Broken Bells album. About the band’s experience at a Clash concert, its lyrics tell of a group of youths making a commitment to follow their hearts and enlisting as soldiers in a cause. Giving in to “complete surrender” in what they believe, it describes the band deepening their resolve to share a message through their music, the only weapon they know. “This Is Where You Can Reach Me Now” gives an address for their maturing plane of existence, a new sense of self-purpose and philosophy from which they would then be interacting with the world.

 

11. “The Troubles” by Brian Betteridge

“The Troubles” is a particularly memorable song from this era, as it features a rare commodity: a guest singer. Lykke Li’s vocals add an ethereal layer to what is already a fresh U2 sound. I always appreciate a U2 song that works on a number of levels. Aside from the obvious reference to Ireland’s “Troubles,” the song tells the story of a difficult relationship or a personal internal struggle. Musically, it manages to sound unlike anything they’ve done before, while still managing to sound exactly like a U2 song. It’s interesting how often they’ve managed to do exactly that throughout their career. “The Troubles” is a strong U2 track, and one of my favorite closing songs on any U2 album.

 

12. “Invisible” by Mason Merritt

Once again, the theme of leaving home rears its ugly head. Whereas “Cedarwood Road” is about leaving home, “Invisible” is a song about what happens when you get to the end of the yellow brick road. You have to forge your own identity in a world where you’re often just another name on a page and just another face in the crowd.

For many years, especially the end of college, I felt invisible. When I heard this song, I was in my second semester of college, having finally built up a solid friend group after spending much of high school as a semi-outcast. A year later, my friends and I all took our two-year degrees and splintered off to new schools in new states with new friends. So, I was abruptly brought back to square one. Invisible again. Flash forward two years. I finished school and a 5 month internship at a prestigious production company and was sitting in the bottom of 30 Rockefeller Plaza waiting for my final interview with an incredibly selective and prestigious post-grad program. Two weeks later, ‘We regret to inform you…’. Invisible still. As you’ve hopefully read in my Cedarwood entry, I did end up making it to New York, and for the first time in a long time, I feel wholly visible. This song, and the words “I’m more than you know/A body and soul/You don’t see me but you will I am not invisible/I am here” have truly been with me every step of the way. A soothing reassurance, a prayer, and my own personal mantra.

 

13. “Lucifer’s Hands” by John Cropp

“Lucifer’s Hands” may be a bonus track on the deluxe version of Songs of Innocence, but it is as essential to the narrative of the album as “The Miracle (of Joey Ramone)” or “This Is Where You Can Reach Me Now.” Opening in a “punk rock party in a suburban home,” the song speaks to the transformative power of rock ‘n’ roll as the narrator is “born again to the latest sound” before ascending the talent show stage (of the Stella Ballroom? https://www.atu2.com/tours/concert/stella-ballroom-limerick-mar-18-1978 ) like St. John Devine. The Velvet Underground and “inky page” of NME are namechecked as guideposts on this journey, and I am sure that anyone who has ever found salvation in the form of a pair of headphones and a music magazine can relate.

It is fitting that this song about reinvention was itself reinvented. “Lucifer’s Hands” draws its sound from “Return of the Stingray Guitar” which was an instrument used to open the 360 tour in 2010. Diving further back, it is suspected that The Edge rescued the riff from an abandoned TheUnforgettable Fire-era recording with the same name during the remastering of that album. U2 are the masters of revision and “Lucifer’s Hands” is proof. It has become a favorite of mine and I am glad that it was not left on the outtakes reel all those years ago.

 

14. “The Crystal Ballroom” by Ian Ryan

I like it when U2 goes a little spooky, goes a little sinister. To close the book on Songs Of Innocence, U2 create a tribute to the people they’ve lost along the way and set it to a disco beat. Bono lounges in a ballroom resplendent with its finery and crystalline features. Light refracts, peoples’ movements take additional dimensions as their reflections are filtered through angles, and glimpses of familiar faces occur in between the seconds. All the ghosts of people lost in the faces of the people still here as they walk by, as they chat with a smile on their faces, as they sip from their glasses. A pose here, a gesture of the hand there that takes you back to someone you used to know that is no longer here. It’s kind of obvious, but this song can only be written by someone who is still here, who hasn’t become a ghost in someone else’s face yet. This is a song written by someone who has everything in life they could want, but would probably still trade it for hearing a special person’s voice and feeling their hand one more time.  

I’ve paid a bit of attention to Inhaler, and it’s hard not to see young Bono in Eli Hewson. Innocence to Experience.