Much has been written already about the way Apple have given away U2's latest album and there has been much speculation as to why and how much U2 pocketed as a result. I'm not going to cover that in detail here. As far as I'm concerned, it's pure marketing or alternatively, an attempt at a new form of distribution. Either way, U2 would never turn down an offer like that at this stage in their career. I suspect with dwindling airplay, now they've been usurped by the like of The Killers (who ironically stole both their sound and engineer/producer Steve Lillywhite) this was the only way they could reach a new and wider market. With iTunes offering half price deals on their back catalogue they're bound to pick up a bit more as people rediscover the joys of the Joshua Tree, Achtung Baby and Zooropa. Nestle use the same approach with KitKat - release a 'limited edition' mint version for a while and everyone remembers how good the normal ones are and sales jump.
Er, so having now covered that in more detail than intended, on to the album itself!
Worth the price?
Opener 'The Miracle (of Joey Ramone)' kicks off the album with a straightforward grower of a track. While not in your face, it is one that will morph into an ear worm after a few radio plays - I can imagine this fitting nicely into the Absolute Radio playlist, for example.
'Every Breaking Wave' follows, a nice gentle mid-tempo number with a rhythm guitar part reminiscent of The Police's 'Every Breathe You Take'. Perfectly pleasant, but nothing special - and so it continues...
In terms of performance, by this point I was already starting to notice a weakness in the performances. Bono's voice seems to be suffering at the high end, resorting to falsetto far more than usual - sounding almost Prince-like on 'Sleep Like a Baby Tonight'! Whilst he's always had a slightly strained quality, which has been used to accentuate more emotive lines in the past, now it seems a little thin and almost as if the top couple of notes are requiring real physical effort to hit. Probably time for the band to think about tuning down a tone...
If fact, it's the performances that let this album down. There's nothing fundamentally wrong with the songs, but there's no imagination in the orchestration - The Edge's guitar sounds are fashionably bland - even further distancing U2 from the delayed, processed tones of some of their biggest hits.
Larry Mullen Jr. and Adam Clayton are also taking it easy. This was not an album that had the band jumping round the studio, even on the 'big' track 'Volcano'. Rather, this has the sound of four guys sitting comfortably in a room strumming away gently - an irony given the punk references in the opening track and liner notes.
This is a very clean sounding album. All the instruments are well placed, but the mix favours the vocal, with the backing almost disappearing, perhaps because there's nothing worth bringing forward. The vocals have a very airy, live sound - it's easy to imagine them emanating from a stadium stage. However, it sometimes feels like you're hearing from the bar or toilets as there's so little else at the front of the mix.
Despite this, it's not a bad album at all and has some nice grooves in places. If you like your rock radio friendly and modern then you'll probably love it. If you want crazy guitar sounds a la 'The Fly' shaking your trouser legs you'll be left a little short.
In summary, this is probably the best U2 album I've heard this century, but it's not a patch on anything from the golden days of '84-94.
Overall: 3/5 (3.5 for the songs, 2 for production!)