I’d been a U2 fan for a long time before the release of 2001’s All That You Can’t Leave Behind, but this album elevated my love for the band, because it showed me that the human heart I thought I saw beating under the facade throughout the band’s output of the 90s was alive, and beating as pure and strong as ever. They seemed to have passed through the irony of Achtung Baby and Zooropa and Pop, decided that the irony had run its course, and abandoned it, returning with a record that stripped it all away to give us songs full of earnest emotions that at once felt big enough to fill the arenas and yet real and true enough to say something about how to be a real person in a world that doesn’t make that easy. The first words of the first song on the album are “The heart is a bloom. It shoots up through the stony ground.” And toward the end of live performances of that song, “Beautiful Day,” Bono sang, “The goal is soul.” I couldn’t agree more.
I was sick to death of irony in 2001, and I’m twice as sick of it now, when it sometimes seems like the worst thing you can be is sincere. I’m sick of South Park and Family Guy and caustic internet memes that don’t say anything but just make a joke out of everything. And so I admit that I don’t love the new U2 album as a collection of songs. I like it, but I understand the lukewarm reception it’s getting, and would never argue that it has the incendiary brilliance of The Joshua Tree or Achtung Baby, that it’s as daring as Zooropa (it’s not musically daring at all), or that it’s as memorable as All That You Can’t Leave Behind. But as a big, goofy statement against irony, in favor of real feelings, I like it a lot. I also think that this goofy sincerity is why some people hate it. Notice how the mere title of the album alone, Songs of Innocence, is enough to make this writer exclaim in disgust every time he writes it.
So I actually think that, given the prevalence of irony in pop culture today, there is something a bit daring about putting out an album that is not simply sincere—lots of records are sincere—but that is so ridiculously sincere, so much a championing of the very idea of sincerity, that it seems to make some people sick. I have to believe that Bono is smart enough to know that U2 could have put out a less aggressively uncool record, one that was a bit more detached, more ironic. But Bono has sung before about placing being real ahead of being cool—“Be uncool, yes be awkward,” he sings on the B-side “Always,” and on the 2009 track “I’ll Go Crazy If I Don’t Go Crazy Tonight,” he sings, “The right to be ridiculous is something I hold dear.” I’m pretty sure he actually means it.
In this Salon story about irony, Matt Ashby and Brendan Carroll write, “One attribute of a move toward something greater is to reject the safety of ironic remove and risk the possibility of failure.” And I think that for all its musical safety, Songs of Innocence does risk failure by entirely rejecting the safety of ironic remove.
Of course, I have enough sense to cringe when I see images of Bono high-fiving Apple’s Tim Cook, and I accept that liking the album may be pretty close to the musical equivalent of liking a bad CBS sitcom, which is something I wouldn’t hesitate to judge someone for. So go ahead and judge me. But I’ll take goofy and awkward and earnest as hell over cool and detached and ironic any day. I’m moved by the grand gesture and prone to making them myself. I think all of us have struggles that are significant, and that those struggles and the emotions that come along with them deserve as accompaniment big songs, unmuddled by irony, about feeling real feelings and being real people, if we want them.
And so when Bono sings, on “Every Breaking Wave,” that “every shipwrecked soul knows what it is to live without intimacy” and that “we know that we fear to win and so we end before we begin,”
and when he sings on “California” that “the weight that drags your heart down, well that’s what took me where I need to be” and that “There’s no end to grief, that’s how I know and why I need to know that there is no end to love,”
and when he sings on “Iris” that “the ache in my heart is so much a part of who I am” and he pleads, "Hold me close, hold me close and don’t let me go, hold me close like I’m someone that you might know,”
and when he sings on “Volcano” that “You can hurt yourself tryin’ to hold on to what you used to be, I’m so glad the past is all gone” and later, “You were alone, and now you’re not alone,”
and when he sings on “Cedarwood Road” that “a heart that is broken is a heart that is open,”
I know that this is the U2 that I want right now, because to me, these things are true.