On YouTube right now, you can — and should — watch the entirety of Live in Sydney, a 1993 performance from U2’s ridiculous, iconic, and undeniably spectacular Zoo TV Tour. It’s a polarizing junction in the band’s 38-year run, but it’s also the one I’ve always found most fascinating: pre-Pop, post-Achtung Baby, when they were trying to distance themselves from the achingly earnest image perpetuated by Rattle & Hum. It worked. For a few years, at least, the guys got to have their lemons and eat them, too: With his Bowie-esque alter ego the Fly, Bono could indulge his inner preening rock star and call it performance art; the band could justify the tour’s outrageous special-effects budget by saying it was some kind of McLuhan-esque critique of technology and the mind-numbing effects of the media’s “sensory overload.” Dopey and indulgent as they sometimes were, these contradictions were what made U2 a great band in 1993. They performed “The Fly” beneath a flicker of words that suggested the media’s complicity with war and capitalism’s distortion of our desires: WANT, BOMB, URGE, BUY, MEDIA, ORGASM, that kind of thing. Hey, it was the '90s. One of the most memorable images from the tour is the band performing against a backdrop of glowing screens that sardonically instruct, “Watch more TV.”
That’s the image that stuck in my mind yesterday afternoon, when at the Apple Keynote, U2 announced that — surprise! — it had just released its 13th album, Songs of Innocence, and if you are one of 500 million iTunes users, it was already in your library right now. It was “the largest album release of all time,” a humbly attired multimillionaire businessman informed us. Then, to symbolically seal the deal, he and Bono touched fingers ET-style, and in the front row a constellation of glowing, already-obsolete iPhone 5 screens rose to capture the moment. Even the Fly couldn’t have envisioned this scene exactly.
We must admit that it was all pretty impressive. U2 simultaneously out-Beyoncé-d Beyoncé and out Jay Z-ed Jay Z (especially since they turned their album release into a promotional campaign for a device people actually use). We must admit, too, that it was pretty creepy, maybe even a tad Lynchian. (Something about Cook’s “it’s already in your iTunes library” reminded me of that scene in Lost Highway when a terrifying stranger calls Bill Pullman to say, “We met already, at your house … as a matter of fact, I’m at your house right now.”) Although Bono released a requisitely self-deprecating note about it on the band’s website later in the day (“for the people out there who have no interest in checking us out, look at it this way … the blood, sweat, and tears of some Irish guys are in your junk mail”), there is something delightfully silly, characteristically presumptuous, and just so U2 about the conjecture that 500 million people would like to drop what they’re doing on a Tuesday afternoon and listen to a new U2 album. Although Apple likely paid them an absurd amount of money for the release, Cook and Bono repeatedly stressed that they were giving it away to us for free. An act of self-aggrandizement disguised as globally resonant magnanimity? Looks like U2 also out-U2-ed U2.
The release will go down as by far the most surprising thing about Songs of Innocence. With few exceptions, it sounds exactly like you’d expect a U2 album to sound in 2014: expensively glistening, perpetually awestruck, and often (though not always!) bloodless. It does have a slightly fresher, more contemporary feel than its predecessor, 2009’s unremarkable No Line on the Horizon, and this has a lot to do with all the new producers in the mix: Danger Mouse (who also worked with them on “Ordinary Love,” last year’s Oscar-nominated single from the Mandela: Walk to Freedom soundtrack), Paul Epworth, and Ryan Tedder among them. (At one point in the album’s development, they were rumored to be working with David Guetta and RedOne, which definitely would have been bolder … and very likely “Discotechque”-part-2-level disastrous choices.) It’s unfortunate that the album’s Mumford-Goes-Electric opening moment is also the one that sounds most like an Apple commercial, because if you can endure the hokey “oh-woaaah-oh-ohs,” “The Miracle (of Joey Ramone)” is actually one of the best songs on the album — the Edge’s ax buzzes and bites as the song builds to one of those classic, aerodynamically tuneful U2 choruses. (It’s also a sweetly reciprocal tribute; I’ll always have a soft spot for U2’s “In a Little While” since hearing it was the last song Joey listened to before slipping off to that great Rock’n’Roll High School in the sky.)
Much of the first half of Songs of Innocence, though, suffers from a sense of one-size-fits-all grandeur. “Iris (Hold Me Close)” is about Bono’s mother; “Song for Someone” is a nostalgic reflection on first meeting his wife; “California (There Is No End to Love)” is about, well … California. And love. (The lyrics to that one in particular are a real scramble of Bono magnetic poetry.) Good luck telling them apart: These songs all blend together in a swirl of clenched fists, heart-swelling chords, and easy whoa-oh-ohs that try but fail to distract from unmemorable choruses. Songs does rustle to life a little late in the game, beginning with “Raised by Wolves,” a sparse, driving song about a Dublin car bombing, and the snarling “Cedarwood Road,” which opens with a buzzsaw riff that sounds a hell of a lot like Fugazi’s “Waiting Room” before (unfortunately) resolving into something more tame. My favorite song on the back half is also the album’s most sonically adventurous, “Sleep Like a Baby Tonight:” a pharmaceutically spacey, “No Surprises”–lite reverie that employs Bono’s endearingly wobbly falsetto. Except for that moment, actually, Songs of Innocence never sounds anything less than gorgeous — but given its sponsored rollout and the band’s near-evangelical zeal over the Apple partnership, I can’t help but feel a little cynical about exactly why. It would be a different story if the music were bolder or more interesting, but as it stands, it’s hard to shake the feeling that Songs will be remembered as a vessel for this (spotlight on my turtleneck, please, and cue up “Beautiful Day”) Revolutionary New Product, not the other way around. In the end, Songs of Innocence is just feels like the album equivalent of the Planet Earth episode playing simultaneously on all the 3-D TVs at Best Buy.
Selling out, we’re told, isn’t the crime it was in the simpler, halcyon days of Zooropa. “Kill Your TV” isn’t a battle cry so much as an ironic/nostalgic T-shirt worn by a twentysomething twirling knobs at a Red Bull–sponsored DIY space. It’s hard out there for aspiring musicians, and they’ve got to take funding where they can get it. Still, even in this brave new world of corporate patronage, something about U2’s surprise iCloud drop left a bad taste in my mouth. Maybe it was the timing: In the wake of last week’s Great Celebrity Nude Leak, even the plebs among us were feeling fresh anxiety about exactly what the cloud means for us and our ever-dwindling sense of privacy. Before yesterday, did you even know that Apple could drop a secret little “gift” into your iTunes library, whether you wanted it or not? (Are you also suddenly worried that Bono might leak your nudes?) It might sound a little paranoid, but part of being a music fan — hell, a human being — in 2014 is that creeping sense that there’s some new auto-share feature that our digital overlords haven’t told us how to switch off yet, that there’s some omniscient eye looking at all our personal data, and that we’re too far into this mess to be anything but powerlessly complicit. Something about yesterday’s surprise U2 release reminded me that Apple still occupies this strange cultural space that’s somehow beyond artistic critique. It’s not that we’ve resolved all of our Zoo TV–era worries about technology’s connection to sex and war and capitalism, it’s just that it’s become more difficult to extricate ourselves — musicians included — from the messenger. If the Zoo TV Tour happened in 2014, those flickering screens would probably command, “Buy an iPhone 6,” except I don’t think there’d be a trace of irony to the message.
In the end, U2 did not actually out-Beyoncé Beyoncé. Because, along with the fact that she transcended the gimmick by making a wildly good record, the brilliance of her surprise 2013 release was the way it subtly subverted the rhythms of the technology used to deliver it. Yes, you did have to shell out $16.99 and click a few extra buttons to purchase Beyoncé’s visual album, but once you did it also demanded your complete attention — full-screening each video was a moment of pause in our sensory-overloaded world. Beyoncé was an argument for the continued existence of the album-as-experience; Songs of Innocence is an argument for the album-as-background-noise, or maybe just the album-as-accessory-to-technology, the forgettable prize drowning in the much-more-desired Crackerjacks. On one of the album’s most elegiac songs, Bono sings, “Every breaking wave on the shore tells the next one there’ll be one more.” So does every iPhone.