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“There is only one thing … worse than being talked about,” says a character in Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray, “and that is not being talked about.”
The Irish rockers U2 and their partners at Apple tested that idea by placing free copies of U2’s latest album, Songs of Innocence (Island), in the accounts of iTunes subscribers on Sept. 9—a date, coincidentally, that also marked the 124th birthday of Colonel Harland Sanders and the 48th anniversary of Elvis Presley’s debut on The Ed Sullivan Show.
Verifying whether Songs of Innocence causes cultural convulsions as seismic as secret-recipe chicken and wiggling hips won’t be easy. Billboard and NARAS will only recognize sales of the bonus-track-enhanced version that went on sale in October, not the acceptance or the streaming of the 11-track freebie by 33 million iTuners. But Songs of Innocence did get people talking.
Some of the talk was silly, especially accusations that Bono, The Edge, Adam Clayton, and Larry Mullen Jr. had “devalued” music. If anything, by selling the album to Apple for $100 million, they’d done the opposite. A pro-bono effort (pun intended) the album definitely was not.
But there was serious talk too. Many critics commended in particular the way the songs pan for wisdom among their nostalgic subjects rather than merely wallowing in remembrance of things past.
And The New Yorker’s Joshua Rothman noted Bono’s continuing to “sing about religious subjects with … unfussy directness,” adding that in “Every Breaking Wave” one encounters the “paradoxical idea that, to really sink into faith, you have to stop questing after new experiences of it.” Such talk, let alone the song on which it’s based, should give would-be apostates pause.
By now, of course, the touch-and-go relationship with Christianity that U2 has been exploring for over 40 years is no secret. What’s new is the humility with which Bono, and through him the group as a whole, approaches the sacred. “I’m a long way / from your hill of Calvary,” he sings in “Song for Someone,” “and I’m a long way / from where I was and where I need to be.” Such sentiments echo those of the group’s 1987 hit “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For.” But now Bono seems aware that the fault lies more within himself than in his stars.
His fellow joyful noisemakers do too. Somehow, while only slightly modernizing their trademark arena-sized hooks and sound (i.e., without succumbing to a full-scale sonic overhaul like the one that characterized their ’90s output), they’ve managed to convey the need to remove one’s shoes when rocking on holy ground—and to get people talking about it.
The rock hotlines have also been abuzz with talk about the American indie band The War on Drugs. Its third album Lost in the Dream (Secretly Canadian) peaked at a relatively unimpressive 26 on Billboard, but it’s been lighting up critics too young to identify the secondhand nature of its charms. If, for instance, the rhythmic, two-chord nature of Lost in the Dream’s catchiest songs recalls New Order’s 31-year-old post-punk classic “Age of Consent,” the reverberant mysteriousness of the guitars and Adam Granduciel’s keening vocals recall U2 even more. Unfortunately, unlike Bono, lost in a dream is how Adam Granduciel often sounds. Even deciphering his lyrics, as the competing versions posted online by War on Drugs fans prove, requires effort. The wake-up call, in other words, that the band will have to deliver to keep tongues wagging remains on its bucket list. —A.O.