09/09/2014 10:38 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

New Album 'Songs of Innocence' Is Like Hearing U2 for the First Time

When leaks suggested that the highly anticipated new U2 album might be released on iTunes as part of this week's Apple event in Cupertino to unveil the new iPhone 6 and the Apple Watch, music fans sat through nearly two hours of live-streaming tech demonstrations (including video games, fitness apps and leather wristbands) with their fingers crossed, wishing.

Well, at 2:45 PM EST Tuesday, the rumors turned out to be true.

U2 stayed behind to gab with Apple CEO Tim Cook after playing its new single "The Miracle (of Joey Ramone)" during the live event, and that's when we knew the performance itself was never the main attraction. Bono and Tim announced that the album - the band's lucky thirteenth outing Songs of Innocence - was already waiting in everyone's iTunes libraries on their devices via iCloud, at no charge. (The band was paid by Apple, but fans get the music for free until October.)

Although U2's previous studio effort, 2009's No Line on the Horizon, left critics wanting more of its dark, midtempo contemplations, the band has spent the past five years openly expressing its desire for an outright hit. Today's automatic release direct to a half billion users makes Songs of Innocence the biggest album launch ever. How's that for a "hit"?

But the victory isn't in the numbers, and U2 of all bands should know that by now. Say what you want about sellouts and corporate schmoozing, the proof is either in the pudding or it's not - and this new album makes it plain that commercialism (or lack thereof) can't drown the heart of U2.

Songs of Innocence is like hearing u2 for the first time.

The liner notes to the album hint at a trip down memory lane for the band - who reminisce, lyrically, about their first loves (from the music of The Ramones, Bob Dylan, The Beach Boys and The Clash to their families, girlfriends, first sex and more), their regrets, their pains and their grief from unexpected deaths. Yet, it is not a nostalgic collection nor is it a return to what most audiences call the "classic" U2 sound. Sure, there are the flourishes and the familiar echo chime of Edge's guitar, but this is a U2 you've not heard before.

Thanks be to God.

I was skeptical about so many producers stirring the pot (Danger Mouse; Paul Epworth of Adele fame; Ryan Tedder of One Republic; Declan Gaffney and Flood), but the variety brings sonic experimentation back into the fold, and there's not a prefabricated electronic dance beat in the bunch. This is a rock and roll band finding itself again - in emotional discoveries that assuage old wounds and revel in new hopes. We hear the evidence as Bono sings the last line of "Cedarwood Road," a song about his boyhood street: "A heart that is broken is a heart that is open."

It's precisely these open hearts that allow U2 to remain vital in ways that other bands aren't; each year U2 keeps going, its longevity becomes less about length and more about breadth.

U2 abandoned its recent single "Invisible" after releasing it as a charity download for (RED) during the 2014 Super Bowl (the song does not appear on Songs of Innocence), but as good as it was, it's not missed. "Every Breaking Wave" and "California (There is No End to Love)" come out of the gate with a gallop and a sprint, lifted by soaring choruses; "Volcano" and "Sleep Like a Baby Tonight" recall the youthful energy of October or Boy, as recalibrated for the digital age; and "The Troubles" is a rare duet that sees indie singer Lykke Li sparring softly with Bono.

"Iris (Hold Me Close)," was written for Bono's mother, whom he lost when he was just 14. "Free yourself to be yourself, if only you could see yourself," he sings before calling her name in a haunting minor key. Every great element of U2 is present here: Edge's locomotive sixteenth notes play against the entrancing rhythm of Larry and Adam in perfect sync, and Bono sings like he's naked to the soul. Words and music together, more than melody, more than anthem. Riddle, poem, dream: this is the song of innocence. If, in glimpsing a ghost in the night, you suddenly find the light inside you, you'll never be afraid of the dark again.

Isn't that what U2 is all about?


Image courtesy of U2.

Click here for more information about how to get the album.