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.
I thoroughly enjoyed Brad’s righteous, even rockin’, post earlier this week in response to the “Rock is dead!” crowd. Mankind, it seems, has an innate attraction to the apocalyptic, including in the realm of rock. It brought to mind a piece I wrote in November 2008 on the Insight Scoop blog regarding a number of silly stories about how the Pope (then Benedict XVI) was somehow and in some way embracing and celebrating the music of the Beatles on the 40th anniversary of the release of the “White Album”. That led to a little rant on my part about how stupid it is to say, as did L’Osservatore Romano, the semi-official newspaper of the Vatican, that the popular music of the late 1960s was far superior to that of the early 21st century. To that end, I made five points. Here is the post, below the fold (the pic above, by the way, is “The Music Man” painted by Norman Rockwell in 1966):
As is more than well known, U2’s latest album showed up in every single person’s iTunes library, wanted or not. A cursory google search reveals how angry this gratuity made a whole lot of folks out in the world. The complaints run as follows: if rock is free, it’s not rock; pulling out guys in their fifties to celebrate the latest piece of technology is just tacky; the music is terrible., etc., etc., etc.
My reaction to these reactions is so strong, my head (and maybe my soul) really really really want to explode. Really.
Admittedly, I’ve not kept up with U2 as well as I once did.
For what it’s worth, I was rather obsessed with them from 1982 to 1987. My love of U2 never came close to equaling my love of Rush, Talk Talk, Yes, or even Thomas Dolby at the same time, but I still knew about everything there was to know about the four guys from Ireland.
To this day (September 12, 2014), I think October and The Joshua Tree are two of the greatest rock albums ever made, “New Year’s Day” a contender for the greatest rock song ever written, and “Under a Blood Red Sky” second only “Exit Stage Left” as the greatest live album of all time.
I still can’t listen either to October or The Joshua Tree (the latter especially) without becoming emotional. The first time I listened to The Joshua Tree, I cried and cried. Perhaps not very manly, but certainly very human. Bono’s voice and lyrics spoke to my lifelong desire for social justice.
As strange or paradoxical as it is seems to me now, I can state with some certainty that while Neil Peart’s lyrics taught me to love myself, Bono’s lyrics taught me to love that which is not myself.
I thought Rattle and Hum a great rockumentary, and I continued to defend—sometimes vehemently—U2’s music post “Rattle and Hum.” I couldn’t do that now. While I think post-Rattle and Hum U2 is very, very good, it’s not excellent. U2 enjoyed a streak of genius from Boy to The Joshua Tree. After 1987, though, it did great things but not brilliant ones. The song with Johnny Cash on Zooropa and Fez from No Line on the Horizon still show that old brilliance, but the glimpses of genius have become rarer as U2 has aged.
I’m sure there are reasons for this, though I’m not sure I could identify them easily. I do think that U2’s social justice made much more sense in the Cold War than it does in the post Cold War period. By this, I don’t mean that Social Justice is less important than it was in the 1980s. It’s ALWAYS important. It’s just that the social justice U2 espoused was anti-Cold War, a focus on problems that did not fit into the Cold War scheme of things. With the Cold War over, U2’s position seems less full, somehow watered down. In hindsight, I think their positions were necessarily anti-Cold War as opposed to a-Cold War. The troubles of early 1980’s Ireland or South Africa just don’t hold the kind of gravitas they once did.
This is all a very long way of saying to U2 and to Apple, thank you. When I look back at my 1980s, Steve Jobs stands next to Bono as heroes. Both spoke for excellence in the human condition. I have no problems with the two being connected, in my memory or in the actual present. Do the guys of U2 looks like they’re in their fifties. Three of the four do. The Edge still looks young. But, hey, who cares? Age is utterly and completely relative. Do I at 47 act like I did at 22? Thank God, NO! Wouldn’t it be much worse if U2 spent their money on plastic surgery rather than advocating aid for the poor in Africa?
And, I really, really like the new album. Is it The Joshua Tree. No. Is it even Actung, Baby? No. Is it good? Yes. Bono’s voice still sounds excellent, the lyrics are quite strong, and, perhaps most importantly, the music is completely earnest. No gimmicks, no fads, no tricks—just four older guys making music.
Thank you, Tim Cook. Thank you, four guys from Ireland.
[P.S. This is my 500th post at progarchy. Tempus fugit.]
On Tuesday afternoon, U2’s new album was just there, waiting for you. Like an Ikea catalogue. Or a jury summons. Or streptococcus. The latest inescapable unpleasantry for anyone who’s chosen to participate in our great digital society — more specifically, the 500 million human beings on this planet who use iTunes.
As for the album itself, it’s called “Songs of Innocence,” perhaps to suggest that U2 is abandoning a swaddled orphan on your doorstep, not an intrusive cluster of idea-starved rock songs. Yeah, okay, this might be the largest album release in history. It’s also rock-and-roll as dystopian junk mail.
In this brave new farrago of medium and message, U2 seem to have transmitted all of rock-and-roll’s misguided egotism into one ridiculous statement: Our music is technically worthless and everyone in the world should hear it. That’s what this band is “all about,” and Apple is happy to do its part, making you the owner of these songs without asking your permission. Which is disgusting.
Well, I don’t know how dystopian this event is. Giving away free stuff: isn’t that just a promotional stunt, calculated to generate PR to sell more stuff?
U2 and Universal Music Group will face some hurdles due to disgruntled retailers. Sources say Target has a policy of not carrying any title that was first released to digital retail. Target refused to initially carry Beyonce’s self-titled album following her surprise iTunes exclusive, and Amazon withheld the usual prime page placement. To entice retailers, Universal is offering four tracks that iTunes will not have until November, according to sources. Some retailers could walk away with more tracks, as sources say Universal has three additional tracks for select retailers.
The awareness surrounding the Apple giveaway and related advertising efforts could be a financial boon to U2’s catalog. As such, Universal is said to be planning the most aggressive catalog program it has ever executed for U2. The band’s catalog has already been sale-priced at iTunes and is promoted as “limited-time pricing” on the iTunes Music Store home page.