Six years ago, at the end of 2014, Rolling Stone magazine proclaimed U2’s Songs of Innocence the best album of that year. This seemed patently absurd to many people, given that the album’s only other significant claim to fame at that time was being used as part of a particularly unfortunate promotional campaign for Itunes. Apparently, it happened entirely because the Editor-in-chief of Rolling Stone was friends with U2 frontman Bono and handed down the edict by fiat because he wanted to help promote his buddy.
While I grant you that this is definitely not the way music criticism should work, that blatantly undeserved accolade combined with its involvement in that asinine Itunes stunt has put this album squarely on the enemies’ list of many people who have never really listened to it. The truth is that this is actually a very good album, and that Rolling Stone could have chosen far worse candidates for its top prize that year.
U2 may have drawn heavily on New-Wave and Post-Punk influences, but in practice they were essentially a slightly-modernized version of a Seventies Arena Rock band. Now, Arena Rock tends to get laughed at these days because many of the major acts in the genre have not aged gracefully, but at its best it could be thrilling in its blasting dramatic intensity, and other than Springsteen, Queen and occasionally Meat Loaf, no-one ever did it better than U2. One objection many brought against this album is that it sounds too much like the work of their heyday, but it’s not like U2 have ever been accused of being stagnant. They have famously varied their sound a great deal, and quite successfully too: this just happens to be one of their albums that periodically return to their roots.
If this album doesn’t match the power and grandiosity of their greatest albums like The Joshua Tree, it nonetheless continues their consistent record for making melodic, stirring and intensely dramatic arena anthems. Indeed, the opening “The Miracle (of Joey Ramone)”, an ode to the revelatory power of Punk Rock’s first appearance, could compete any day with the band’s classics, as could the album’s closer, the Lykke Li collaboration “The Troubles”. And items like the deeply moving “A Song For Someone” and the cry of cosmic anguish “Raised by Wolves” also rate as unknown gems in U2’s catalogue.
Not everything is on this level, but even the less interesting tracks are solid and well-crafted throughout. The album is also quite well-constructed, with the first half being rhapsodic and hopeful and the second half, ushered in by the appropriately-named explosive Rocker “Volcano”, being much more dark and aggressive, full of those anguished political threnodies that have always been the band’s trademark.
In any case, how much worse Rolling Stone could have chosen is illustrated by the album that, according to Metacritic, made the Number One slot on more publications’ year-end lists that year than any other…The War on Drugs’ Lost in the Dream. I normally have no significant quarrel with the music press’ proclivity for Indie Rock…I can think of many lauded Indie Rock albums of past years that fully deserve their acclaim. But with the recent trend of music critics becoming both more lenient with their criticisms and more effusive with their praise, some mediocre material, particularly in the Indie scene, has been rubber-stamped with acclaim out of all proportion to its quality.
I will admit that this band’s idea to combine Shoegazing with Heartland Rock is a novel one, but I’m not sure anyone actually needed or wanted it. More damningly, they fail to do anything remotely interesting with the concept. The album simply consists of placid, hazy buzzing with a vague hint of Roots Rock instrumentation that still fails to really distinguish it from any of the other 500 Dream-Pop bands making the rounds of the Indie scene.
The music isn’t lively enough to make you engage with its consciously, and it isn’t pretty enough to let you just drift away on the sound (which is the Dream Pop subgenre’s raison d’etre in the first place). This, combined with the sheer length of most of the tracks, makes for a tooth-grindingly boring album that is almost impossible to listen to all the way through in one sitting. There are plenty of better Dream Pop bands out there than this one (Beach House comes immediately to mind), and the success the album achieved with the critics is ultimately far more baffling than Rolling Stone’s choice that year.
So I think I’ve demonstrated that plenty of other publications chose much worse than Rolling Stone for their year-end best pick that year (I would have gone with the popular favorite, Taylor Swift’s 1989, but obviously the professional critics weren’t going to go for that, even if the public certainly seem to have picked it). I also think I have established that even U2’s most maligned album of their career is both valid and worth hearing. I won’t hold out hope that I’ve made any of the pro critics reconsider their practice of hyping up uninteresting Indie albums beyond any sane standards, but hey, I can’t work miracles.