The Brand Band: Reviewing the U2 Reviewers

It's safe to say that the U2-Apple merger has no winners. By invading its customers' iCloud accounts and giving them what many didn't want -- a free new album by U2 -- Apple reinforced its image as the prototypical NSA-age super-corporation (yes, I have an iPhone, iPad, Mac and Cloud account), while also managing to remind its customers (and SNL) of the recent and very public "breach" (my word) of its iTunes security. (This Wired piece is typical of the response.)

U2, for its part, reminded the world that it is more than a rock band. It is, like Apple, a massive corporation and only functions as a musical act within this context. This is both a realization of Bono and the boys' long-term goal and a disavowal of the narrative that Bono sometimes likes to tell -- the one about being nothing more than a group of Irish lads who formed a small punk-rock outfit back in the day, and one that had a decidedly radical political view -- a narrative he explicitly and inexplicably linked to the free album release.

Consider this piece from Nico Lang on Salon and The Daily Dot. Lang traces the band's ups and downs -- the pompousness(and good music) of Rattle and Hum; the undeniable greatness of Achtung Baby; the interesting, if failed, experiments of Zooropa and Pop; and the move back to the mainstream with a series of solid (my take) albums during the 2000s.

Through out all of this, as Lang points out, the band was gaining a growing and deserved reputation for pretentiousness (all artists are pretentious on some level, though U2's level may never have been ascended to before). At the same time, Bono moved from sly and ironic Fly character to real-life Fly -- a man who seemed to enjoy trading on his fame, even if he often did so for what he believed were good causes. The character, of course, was meant as a send up of the smarmy celebrity -- though, unfortunately, that sense of daring and humor appears long gone, replaced with an earnestness that is off-putting. Bono now hangs with world leaders, including some very bad men, and the titans of new industry and pushes his tepid version of left capitalism and mushy political reforms while still talking of the band as though it is a quartet of rebels -- which is a bit of I intended irony, I guess.

The band has become, in a word as I said, a corporation.

This would be acceptable if the music matched the personal/band ambition. But what's become clear, as Lang says, is that U2's " recent output" -- its last (now) four albums -- is of a piece. There is a deadening sameness to them, a sense that the band was working from a template or formula. I am like Lang in that I am "someone who likes many U2 records" -- I probably like more of them than Lang, however. That said, I also agree that the band appears to have made a branding decision -- just as Toyota or GE might -- "to be a certain type of band."

If you liked the kind of music they were making with “Stuck in a Moment You Can’t Get Out Of,” you might like No Line on the Horizon, a 2009 album filled with middle-brow jams. This was a time when even their politics seemed repackaged to fit their new global mindset. Instead of their signature songs about Irish pride, Bono wrote hippy-dippy lyrics about world peace that could play while you browse the aisles at Hobby Lobby.

The new disc, Songs of Innocence, is part of this branding, an album indistinguishable from the previous three but lacking the couple of stellar tunes that kept the U2 fans returning. There is no "Dirty Boots" here and, as the critics at Sound Opinions point out, no lyrical depth. (Favorite line from the podcast: "This is what a dinosaur does in its last days.") In fact, this is easily Bono's weakest set of lyrics -- they are not even worth quoting. Sound Opinions gave the record a vehement and effusive pair of "trash its" and I can only disagree with the vehemence. This is not so much an awful record as an uninspired one. It is background music that becomes less interesting with each listen. (How Rolling Stone -- the music writer Jim Testa alerted me to this -- gave it four stars is beyond me, though Rolling Stone is the U2 of music magazines.)

Is the often vituperative criticism just part of the backlash against the Apple stunt or maybe against Bono? Some do it is, to be sure. But one way of trying to judge this record is to remove the U2 baggage from the equation -- not an easy task. In this case, I asked myself what I'd think of Songs of Innocence were it the product of an unknown band. The answer? Not much. I'd probably not buy it, not recommend it or the band, would feel it to be derivative (Jim DeRogatis and Greg Kot address this in their Sound Opinions take down when they describe the record rightly as a band imitating the bands that have imitated U2),

Ultimately, it is not a terrible record so much as a banal and inconsequential piece of radio fodder and would be forgotten were it not for the historic public relations blunder that accompanied its release. One can only hope that the massive scale of the Apple debacle does not obscure the power of the group's best work. If you want to know what I'm talking about listen to Boy, October, War, Under a Blood Red SkyUnforgettable Fire, Wide Awake in America, The Joshua Tree, its masterpiece Achtung Baby or the two greatest hits compilations.

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