U2 have a Bono problem. The singer’s apotheosis as a globe-trotting, statesman-hobnobbing celebrity activist has coincided with a downturn in the band’s fortunes. They have been accused of tax avoidance, their powerful manager Paul McGuinness quit last year and the follow-up to 2009’s No Line on the Horizon has suffered scrapped recording sessions, jettisoned producers and delayed release dates.
Amid rumours of a possible split, Songs of Innocence has finally appeared – and with some chutzpah. Its existence was revealed at Apple’s new product launch on Tuesday when it was foisted for free on to iTunes’ 500m customers, materialising in their music libraries like a Cupertino-ordained virus. The biggest giveaway in history, it’s also glossed as U2’s “most personal” album, a look back at the influences that formed them 38 years ago. Yet one personality in particular dominates its 11 songs – that of the band’s irrepressible, overweening frontman.
The album opens brightly with Larry Mullen Jr leathering his drums and The Edge cranking out vibrant riffs. Then Bono heaves himself to his feet. “I was chasing down the days of fear,” he sings, in the first of no fewer than 137 uses of the first person, many dressed up in the most florid formulations.
“I woke up at the moment when the miracle occurred”: that’s Bono discovering punk rock in “The Miracle (of Joey Ramone)”. “You’ve got a face that’s not spoiled by beauty”: that’s him comforting a plain person in “Song for Someone”. Then there’s his taste for magnificently empty phrase-making: “All I need to know is there is no end to love”, “A heart that is broken is a heart that is open” etc.
Brian “Danger Mouse” Burton is the main producer, but the former hip-hop maverick’s contributions are inaudible. “This Is Where You Can Reach Me Now” hints at his peppy psychedelic style and “The Troubles” has a dramatic orchestral soul backdrop. Otherwise the songs are predictable exercises in stadium rock, all chants and big choruses that rise up like bully pulpits. There are glimpses of the mooted old influences, a Kraftwerk-style electronic melody here, some bristling New Order-like basslines there. None is developed.
Through it all sails the hammy, overwrought presence of Bono. There’s no overt activism, but with him the personal and the political are indistinguishable. Thus final track “The Troubles” borrows the title of Northern Ireland’s 30-year conflict to address the terrible pressure of being Bono. “God knows, it’s not easy,” he cries, “taking on the shape of someone else’s pain.” A graceful Edge solo strikes up – only to be faded out as the album ends. God knows, it can’t be easy being Bono’s bandmate.