I want to thank Bryan, Craig, and Nick for such a civilized discussion regarding politics and art. I also want to thank the many commentators who joined in.
I only have a personal, autobiographical, inward-looking comment. I grew up in an extremely anti-war, pro-Catholic, libertarian household. I’m deeply thankful to my mom, my aunts, my maternal grandmother, and the Dominican nuns for teaching me that EVERY SINGLE HUMAN LIFE (regardless of race, gender, ethnicity, religion, skin tone, etc.) matters.
Life is precious, and the good life is even more so.
For me, the only great thing to come out of the Mike Portnoy/NHS controversy (which doesn’t seem like it should have been a controversy, at least to this American) was that it re-awakened my interest in Portnoy’s time in Dream Theater. I’ve followed him almost religiously in his non-DT efforts (Transatlantic, Neal Morse Band, Flying Colors), and I think the world of him—as a person and as a drummer. Yeah, he’s got a bit of a temper—but he seems to let it run wild only when life calls for it to run wild. I can’t really blame him. Plus, the guy is so outstanding in what he does, I can’t help but admire him. I would give a lot to have his restraint, frankly.
But, my point in this post is not about that “controversy.” Instead, that moment in England caused me to pull out all of my Portnoy-era Dream Theater, 1992. I’m not what you’d call an intense fan of Dream Theater, but I have purchased every single album (studio, live, ep) as it’s has come out since IMAGES AND WORDS.
When I first got IMAGES AND WORDS, I was impressed with it. I listened to it with fervor, but, even then, I really loved side two and I really didn’t love side one.
1992 was a great year for music, but it was an uncertain year for prog.
At the time, The Cure’s WISH seemed as likely a candidate for inheriting the mantle of prog as did Dream Theater’s IMAGES AND WORDS. In hindsight, it’s easy to give the award to Dream Theater, but not so easy in 1992. Go back and listen to “From the Edge of the Deep Green Sea,” but also listen to “Open,” “Cut,” “To Wish Impossible Things,” and “End.” There’s a LOT of prog on that Cure album. Plus, I would consider DISINTEGRATION a prog album. My point: if you listened to Dream Theater (metal prog) and The Cure (pop prog), it was impossible to determine who was more prog. At least in 1992.
Add the albums from Phish, Pearl Jam, and U2 that year.
A lot could’ve happened.
Well, here we are 23 years later. Thanks, Mike. You paved the way then and you continue to do so.
“Fans are extremely loyal, and they love hearing new versions of old stuff. In fact, a lot of people would rather listen to that than a new album. Remarkable, really.”
But, let’s face it, an industry with a business model that depends on selling an ageing audience something that they already own is in big trouble. Thankfully, not every veteran is relying on their back catalogue. Neil Young and AC/DC have new albums on the schedules. And in the usual scheme of things Irish rock superstars U2 might have been expected to boost the Christmas sales with their new album, but instead they gave it away free on iTunes. Explaining their motives, Bono said “the charts are broken”. He has a point.
UK album sales have been in decline for most of the 21st century, down last year to a meagre 94 million from a 2004 peak of 163 million. CDs still account for nearly 80 per cent of those sales, although there are kids obsessively listening to music now who wouldn’t know what a CD was if you broke it over their heads.
Meanwhile, streaming services such as Spotify and YouTube are rapidly expanding, claiming worldwide listening numbers in the billions. These are forums where you can access music without actually owning it. To put it in perspective, U2’s 1987 album The Joshua Tree sold more than 25 million copies in the course of its lifetime. But U2’s Songs of Innocence has already been downloaded free more than 26 million times and actually listened to by more than 80 million iTunes users. By most criteria, you would have to call that a hit. But it only reached number six in the UK sales charts.
U2 have effectively opted to put their music where the majority of listeners might actually find it. The bigger point is that just because older fans still want to feel a physical object in their hands, it would be a mistake to think this means that oldies are taking over pop. The truth is, the kids are just having a different kind of conversation in an era of big pop singles, where individual tracks accessed online are all that really matters.
But you can’t put a download or a stream in a Christmas stocking.
Perhaps it is Dan Flynn who wrote the best review of U2’s Songs of Innocence:
Songs of Innocence follows the creative holding pattern that began after Pop ventured too far from the mainstream for the stalwarts there from the raw-rock beginnings of Boy. It reminds listeners of the back catalogue, which may be the point.
Conclusion? This isn’t U2 but a robot tribute act playing Coldplay playing U2. Surely the busker bazillionaires, particularly the world saver on vocals, can no longer spare the time for mere music.
Still, if it’s worse than U2 past, it’s better than radio present. “Song for Everyone,” an acoustic ballad that builds into a soaring anthem, deserves to knock Ariana Grande, Nicki Minaj, and Justin Bieber off the airwaves, even if for four minutes. And if it fails in that noble mission, it will at least serve as the soundtrack for when the twelve-pack becomes a one-pack. “If there is a dark/within and without/There is a light/don’t let it go out.”
Guys in their fifties generally fail to match the artistic output of their twenties in as thumotic a genre as rock ’n’ roll. Songs of Innocence isn’t Unforgettable Fire, Joshua Tree, or Achtung! Baby. But it isn’t exactly post-Tattoo You, phone-it-in Rolling Stones, either. U2 on an off day hits the ears better than no U2 at all. And with fans thirsty for a drink after five dry years, going back to the well works well enough to satiate. Listeners get more than their money’s worth at the price.
U2 keeps making the same album. … There’s a payday in safely playing like the heyday.
Mark Judge gives us a great commentary on U2’s new album, in the form of a confessional review … and on his birthday, no less!
If you were into some bad stuff in the 1980s, and a lot of us were, U2 could confront you like a tough, poetic, and compassionate priest. I remember spending a lost summer at the beach (in a house that would eventually be raided by police) and when I looked up out of the haze, I saw U2 performing “Bad,” one of the greatest anti-drug songs of all time, at Live Aid. The song was about a drug addict who eventually commits suicide. It’s a desperate, retroactive cry for the person to not throw himself away.
Thanks in no small part to U2, I avoided that fate. I gave up the mind enhancers and one night stands and became a Catholic. I also never lost my love for rock and roll, and now, thirty years later, with Songs of Innocence U2 has given us one of the best records of their career. They have kept true to the punk ethos of writing honestly about what’s in your heart and what you see as the truth. The album is smart and dynamic, diverse, and mesmerizing.
Like U2, I’m not afraid of making the grand statement — it’s probably just genetic to the Irish — and I think that Songs of Innocence is needed today. I mean that both in terms of the world and for me personally. America, which was always a source of musical inspiration for U2 as well as a kind of great spiritual hope, seems lost. The great progressive dream has resulted in more economic inequality, and political correctness imposes the kind of burden on free speech and thought that punk came along to destroy.
When I first fell in love with U2s music in the 1980s, I had my heart set on being a writer. I was from an Irish family that idolized Joyce and Yeats, which is probably why Bono fit so well into our pantheon of greats. For a time the dream of being a writer came true, but the reality of the digital revolution has made it a profession that can no longer be sustained. There is intoxicating freedom, but it simply doesn’t pay any longer. I have to take Bono’s advice. I have to surrender.
And yet, inside me is still that punk rock spark of hope — the idea that you can in fact do it yourself, keep your soul, flourish spiritually, and survive. It’s a feeling U2 addresses in “Cedarwood Road,” one of the best tracks on Songs of Innocence. It’s a recollection of how the band formed.