“What Did I Screw Up?” is a mental exercise that occasionally keeps me up at night. It’s when I think back to something I wrote that I wish I could revise or even take back completely. Generally, I’m fine with the rogues’ gallery of takes that I’ve accumulated over the years. I don’t agree with all of it, but that’s okay. Evolving your perspective over time is a sign of personal growth! And I don’t think I’ve been egregiously wrong many times.
I was wrong about Songs Of Innocence, though.
Songs Of Innocence is a U2 album that came out five years ago as of next month. At the time, I dismissed it as “an edgeless album” that “justifies its own existence, but just barely.” Today, after spending the past few week or so listening to it, I would call Songs Of Innocence the best album that U2 has put out in the 21st century. If that seems like faint praise, I’ll go further: I think it’s the best U2 album since 1993’s Zooropa. Every track qualifies, at the very least, as as a “very good U2 song.” And there are two songs (“Every Breaking Wave” and “Song For Someone”) that I’m tempted to nudge toward “U2 classic” status. Overall, the album approaches the band’s prime, which is as much as you can reasonably expect from a 2010s U2 record.
I guess you could say that Songs Of Innocence “grew on me,” to use one of the oldest rock-critic clichés. But, of course, there’s more to it than that. My original review, like pretty much everything written about Songs Of Innocence in the fall of 2014, was preoccupied with how the album was released to Apple users, via a free “giveaway” in which it was systematically (and involuntarily) uploaded on tens of millions of phones. The intention was to manufacture a monoculture moment where “everyone” would be listening to the same U2 album at once. But the result was the biggest music-related PR disaster of the decade.
“I had this beautiful idea and we kind of got carried away with ourselves,” Bono subsequently explained in a sheepish and sort of sad Youtube video. “Drop of megalomania, touch of generosity, dash of self-promotion and deep fear that these songs that we poured our life into over the last few years mightn’t be heard. There’s a lot of noise out there. I guess we got a little noisy ourselves to get through it.”
The backlash was swift and overwhelming. In the press, U2 and Apple were called “inconsiderate,” “kinda creepy,” and “tone-deaf,” and even likened to Big Brother from George Orwell’s 1984. Customers complained that uploading Songs Of Innocence was a grievous invasion of privacy. And they were offended that a band as, well, old and uncool as U2 had encroached on the sanctity of their digital music collections. Many people took to social media to register their displeasure, including the rapper Tyler The Creator, who memorably compared the indignity of finding Songs Of Innocence on his phone to “waking up with a pimple or like a herpes … F*ck Bono. I didn’t ask for you, I’m mad.”
But looking back all these years later, I can’t help but wonder: Why were we so mad about U2 putting a free album on our phones? Wouldn’t it be wonderful to live again in a pre-Trump world, where you had the luxury to get worked up about a so-called Orwellian scheme involving a melancholic late-period U2 record? Isn’t it crazy that people cared so much about this?
First, let’s concede the obvious: Putting Songs Of Innocence on all of those phones, without permission, was a terrible idea. It reeked of arrogance and, worse, naiveté. U2 had originally forged a relationship with Apple in the early ’00s, when the single “Vertigo” was featured in one of the first iPod commercials. “He’s a poetic fellow, an artist and a businessman,” Bono mused of Steve Jobs. He actually put “artist” before businessman! Clearly, U2 was already a bit deluded about Apple as a creative partner well before the Songs Of Innocence debacle.