I long ago abandoned the pursuits of childhood. No more Saturday morning marathons of Scooby Doo and Looney Tunes. No more cereal with sugar. No more games of tag.
That’s a good thing. I wouldn’t want to look like a bald version of Jeff Bridges’ The Dude, or, even worse, Adam Sandler. Yet, well into my forties, I’ve held onto one last favorite adolescent diversion: U2.
U2 came of age just as I did. The ringing guitar that propelled the group’s first single, “I Will Follow,” caught my attention just as I connected the music my father had passed on — The Beatles, Stevie Wonder, Bob Dylan — with my own discoveries: Run DMC, The Clash, early Bryan Adams (that’s not a misprint.)
U2 stood out for its earnestness, spiritual and worldly explorations, and its music. No one else sounded like them. Bono’s maturing tenor vocal, The Edge’s echoing guitar, and a steady rhythm section quickly earned my loyalty. By the time of War and The Unforgettable Fire in the early 1980s, these guys weren’t just my favorite band; they owned my imagination. They were as relatable as rock stars could be. If I could be in a rock and roll band, it would be U2.
As the 1980s and the plaintive appeal of The Joshua Tree gave way to the 1990s and the sonic experimentation of Achtung Baby and Pop, I took pleasure knowing the band that I had supported from its beginning had earned prime seating at the rock legends table. (“Chuck Berry, you know that new sound you’re looking for?”)
Granted, U2’s albums in the 2000s were soft around the edges, but much of the material in the middle still sparkled. There has been no question that three decades after discovering them, U2 still has relevance in my big book of music.
Now, I recognize many people hate U2, and particularly dislike Bono’s swagger and ego. He can be a bore. So it was no surprise that many critics and a score of people with access to Twitter stomped on U2’s latest album, Songs of Innocence. As even my 81-year-old mother knows, Apple paid U2 a pile of cash so it could drop the album, at no charge, into the iTunes accounts of more than 500 million people. This gift offended a slew of Twitterers, who griped about having a U2 album eat space on their iPhones. (I suppose I would have complained in the 1980s if someone had slipped a Benny Goodman record into my pile of albums.) Meanwhile, critics groused that beyond the hype of the giveaway, the album fell short of The Joshua Tree and Achtung Baby, not to mention Shubert’s Great C major symphony.
Their words stung a bit. Not because my happiness hinges on the critical reception of a U2 album, but because any hint of the band’s diminishment shines a huge spotlight on my age — 44, a number almost double the age of Taylor Swift — and where I am in life. Decades ago, I hitched my wagon to U2, so when they stumble, I stumble.
My connection to U2 is about more than me playing “Until the End of the World” when I’m feeling troubled spiritually or celebrating beautiful days by playing “Beautiful Day.” It’s about me clutching that last childhood toy.
I probably shouldn’t have read Twitter while giving Songs of Innocence a first listen. Receiving the album had been a truly digital experience — and a big surprise at that — so it seemed only natural to scan social media for reaction to the first U2 album in five years. For my second listen, I focused intently on the new music and read only the album’s liner notes. I’ve listened again and again even more over the past two days.
I can keep my childhood. It’s not a masterpiece, but Songs of Innocence is a very good album that focuses on…growing up. With trademark catchy rockers and slow-building numbers that offer just enough new elements to sound fresh, the album mines the urgency of youthful discovery with an eye toward the ambivalence of adulthood. Bono deftly explores first loves, first losses, and even his first taste of The Ramones — an experience that sent him and the band in pursuit of a new sound — against a backdrop of hope and doubt that adults know well.
By making sense of its history while earning the right to stay on the big stage for a little while longer, U2 has made a personal record that reminded me it’s okay to still possess childlike excitement on the middle stretch of life’s long journey.
As Bono observes in the liner notes: “We can spend our whole lives searching for cohesion, and in not finding it, turn the world into the shape of our disappointment. Or not.”
Published Sept. 11, 2014