It was a decision that startled the music world, last year, when Apple announced the album would be downloadable (is that even a real word?) to half a billion iTunes Store customers worldwide at no cost. I am sure a lot of people shook their heads in disbelief. What a different, strange world we live in, where one of the most popular and enduring bands in history has its new album given away just like that? I saw the TV commercial and only registered the unmistakable singer’s voice in passing; somehow my brain acknowledged that a new album was out and that it, somehow, was sponsored by Apple. That was September 2014 and honestly I did not think about it again until one month ago when I realized the album had been made available on my Apple devices for free and decided to give it a try.
I am not a marketing expert to judge whether or not Apple’s strategy worked, but the album is phenomenal; as phenomenal as the enduring success achieved by this band. You too may be a fan, like me. I mean U2.
That Mr. Paul David Hewson is the owner of a peculiarly beautiful and warm voice, capable of reaching high notes, at this point, after decades of listening to him, it comes as no surprise. If the singer’s triple name is puzzling you, we’ll go with his nickname. Bono is actually short for BonoVox (and bona vox is Latin for good voice by the way). After four kids and a marriage as lasting as his relationship with Edge, (guitar), Adam Clayton (bass guitar), and Larry Mullen, Jr. (percussion) – his fellow U2 musicians – Bono’s voice does not sound one day older than the first time I listened to Where the Streets Have no Name. If anything, he is more precise, clearer, stronger, and in control. It fills you ears with sounds no other band on earth can reproduce. I can tell a U2 song right at the very first seconds so unique they are. I once thought Cold Play was going to be able to do something similar, but it never really happened. They were not able to give me the goose bumps U2 does, after all these years… The U2 guitar starts and the magic begins in me.
This realization – I don’t forget lyrics and melody to which I attach a deep emotion and most songs by most popular bands fail to do so – only came after years of listening to music and choosing my favorites. I finally figured out that the ones that stick with me, the ones whose lyrics I know word by word – be it English, Portuguese, Spanish, Italian- from memory, many years after I heard it for the first time, are those to which I attached a deep feeling. The emotional imprint could be triggered by a verse, a rhyme, a guitar solo, the unmistakable piano or drums… And once my brain learns to identify it as special, remarkable, I don’t forget it anymore. As U2 puts it, friendship once is won, is won.
The song featured in the Apple commercial one year ago is very engaging – The Miracle (Of Joey Ramone); before you know you are humming the melody to yourself and it only makes sense it was picked to be the opening track. It’s a perfect display of U2’s energy and vitality. But it is when the second track begins, Every Breaking Wave, that Bono will remind you why he has been the super musician he is all these years. Everything works perfectly; his voice is at its best shape ever, the lyrics are of that type – unforgettable:
Every breaking weave on the shore
Tells the next one there’ll be one more
Every gambler knows
That to lose
Is what you’re really there for…
In From the Sky Down, a 2011 documentary directed by Davis Guggenheim on the production and release of U2’s album Achtung Baby (Berlin, 1991) the band’s evolution was growing apparent, transitioning from a strong politically activist style to a much more personal and introspective point of view. It was then that it became clear they were reaching for something different – not musical identity, but spiritual identity. You need faith to move from one note to the next, as Bono remarks. Music is a living thing; we have a low opinion of musicians and a high opinion of music.
I did not know about that statement – not musical but spiritual identity – until I had listened to their 2014 album – Songs of Innocence – many times. This is exactly what the band achieved; that is why I can tell them from any other successful group – they have something unique that goes way further and above talent and musical skills. We are loyal and kind to each other. A group of people not genetically related who pledged allegiance to one another – Bono adds, in From the Sky Down, describing not their marriages and families but how the band members relate to one another. How devastating it was for all of them, including Bono’s wife, for example, when the first divorce happened among the group in the early 1990’s. How saddened they all were at the first serious breakup suffered in their “community” – Bono’s word for the link uniting them – since high school.
It was only then that I began understanding the reasons behind U2’s stability through the years; how they managed to remain intact, apparently immune to the breakups and exclusions that affected most bands. Besides U2 the only other group that comes to mind is The Rolling Stones – I have never been an admirer but they do stick together…
Songs of Innocence took almost six years in the making – the longest gap in U2’s career – and the delays prompted Bono to declare he was not sure the band was still “musically relevant”, as they struggled with the quality of the material until it was finally deemed acceptable per their obvious high standards.
Son of a Catholic father and a protestant mother, Bono admitted in an interview that growing up in Ireland in the 1970’s (the golden era of the IRA activities in the UK) thought him a thing or two. I was a war zone in my teens, he sings in Cedarwood Road (track # 8). Songs of Innocence is all about first trips, Bono also said of their album; the first time we fall in love, our first trip to LA (thus the song California – There is no End to Love, track # 3). As for the war zone teenager Bono was and probably lived in sometimes, it did not help that he lost his mother at 14 to a brain aneurism. IRIS is the song he wrote for her:
The star that gives us light/ Has been gone a while/ But is not an illusion/The ache in my heart/Is so much a part of who I am (…) Iris standing in the hall/ She tells me I could do it all/ Iris wakes to my nightmares/ Don’t fear the world; It Isn’t there/ Iris playing on the strand/ She buries the boy beneath the sand/ Iris says that I will be the death of her/ It was not me…
(If you happen to be wondering if Bono has siblings, yes – one older brother named Norman, who is a restaurateur in Dublin, according to Google).
Songs of Innocence dives deep into another fundamental relationship: Song for Someone (track # 4), inspired by Bono’s wife of many years Allyson (Ali) Hewson and their romance since both were very young. I was told I’d feel/ Nothing the first time/ I don’t know how these cuts heal/ But in you I found a rhyme (…) You lead me into conversation/ A conversation only we could make/ You’re breaking into my imagination/ Whatever is in there is yours to take…
Every time I hear U2’s Edge or Adam Clayton on their guitars I feel renewed in my dream to learn to play it one day. So far the guitar I own has been standing in a corner in my office, shinning and pretty, and I dust it regularly, waiting for the miracle to occur (Bono’s words in The Miracle of Joey Ramone), that will give me the courage to look for actual guitar classes. I tried online lessons but I am too bad a student for those to work; broke two strings trying to tune it up properly… I will need a real teacher – the poor thing – and will probably give up in pain and despair shortly after, realizing not all the sincere admiration and heartfelt respect I have for competent and well-accomplished musicians will ever make me one of them.
In the meantime, I can only hope U2 never stops making beautiful music; I hope Bono never feels that the band is no longer musically relevant. If it takes them another six years to release the next album and if one day the band doesn’t have the energy to travel the world promoting their work, that is okay by me – just keep writing songs, keep singing please, until you have no voice left.
If you ever liked U2 in the 1880’s and the 1990’s, try Songs of Innocence; you too will be (as Every Breaking Wave predicts) swept off your feet…