Bono and Co. look inward for inspiration on "surprise" 13th studio album.
No other rock band does rebirth like U2. No other band – certainly of U2's duration, commercial success and creative achievement – believes it needs rebirth more and so often. But even by the standards of transformation on 1987's The Joshua Tree and 1991's Achtung! Baby, Songs of Innocence – U2's first studio album in five years – is a triumph of dynamic, focused renaissance: 11 tracks of straightforward rapture about the life-saving joys of music, drawing on U2's long palette of influences and investigations of post-punk rock, industrial electronics and contemporary dance music. "You and I are rock & roll," Bono shouts in "Volcano", a song about imminent eruption, through a propulsive delirium of throaty, striding bass, alien-choral effects and the Edge's rusted-treble jolts of Gang of Four-vintage guitar. Bono also sings this, earlier in a darker, more challenging tone: "Do you live here or is this a vacation?" For U2, rock & roll was always a life's work – and the work is never done.
Songs of Innocence is aptly named, after William Blake's 1789 collection of poems about man's perpetually great age of discovery – childhood. For the first time, after decades of looking abroad for inspiration – to American frontier spirituality, Euro-dance-party irony and historic figures of protest such as Martin Luther King Jr. and Nelson Mandela – Bono, the Edge, bassist Adam Clayton and drummer Larry Mullen Jr. have taken the long way 'round to metamorphosis: turning back and inward, for the first time on a whole record, to their lives and learning as boys on the way to uncertain manhood (and their band) in Dublin.
Bono's lyrics are striking in their specific, personal history. In "Cedarwood Road", named after a street where he lived, the singer remembers the fear and unrequited anger that drove him to music and to be heard – and which won't go away. "I'm still standing on that street/Still need an enemy," he admits against Clayton and Mullen's strident, brooding rhythm and the enraged stutter of the Edge's guitar. "Raised by Wolves" is a tension of metronome-like groove and real-life carnage ("There's a man in a pool of misery . . . a red sea covers the ground") based on a series of car bombs that bloodied Dublin one night in the Seventies.
In "Iris (Hold Me Close)", Bono sings to his mother, whos died when he was 14, through a tangle of fondness and still-desperate yearning, in outbreaks of dreamy neo-operatic ascension over a creamy sea of keyboards and Clayton's dignified-disco bass figure. "You took me by the hand/I thought I was leading you," Bono recalls in a kind of embarrassed bliss. "But it was you who made me your man/Machine," he adds – a playful shotgun reference to his youthful poetic conceit in Boy's "Twilight" ("In the shadows boy meets man") and his wife Ali. The teenage Bono once gave her Kraftwerk's The Man-Machine as a gift while they were dating.
For U2 – and Bono in particular – the first step on the road out of Dublin was the sound of a voice, and they name it in the opening track, "The Miracle (of Joey Ramone)". U2 have always been open in their gratitude to New York punk and the Ramones in particular, and this homage to unlikely heroism – that kid you least expect to take on the world and win – is suitable honour: a great, chunky guitar riff and a beat like a T. Rex stomp, glazed with galactic-Ronettes vocal sugar. "I woke up," Bono sings, "at the moment when the miracle occurred/Heard a song that made some sense out of the world." U2 also pay due diligence to the Clash in "This Is Where You Can Reach Me Now", dedicated to Joe Strummer, and there is a strong hint of the Beach Boys' allure – their standing invitation to a utopia far from the Dublin grit and rain – in the Smile-style flair of the chanting harmonies in "California (There Is No End to Love)". "Blood orange sunset brings you to your knees," Bono croons in an awed register. "I've seen for myself."
These are the oldest stories in rock & roll – adolescent restlessness; traumatic loss; the revelation of rescue hiding in a great chorus or power chord. But Songs of Innocence is the first time U2 have told their own tales so directly, with the strengths and expression they have accumulated as songwriters and record-makers. This album was famous, long before release, for its broken deadlines and the indecision suggested by its multiple producers: Brian Burton a/k/a Danger Mouse, Paul Epworth of Adele fame and Ryan Tedder of the pop band One Republic. Those credits are misleading. Burton, Epworth and Tedder all co-produced "The Miracle (of Joey Ramone)" and contributed keyboards; that's Epworth on the additional slide guitar in "Cedarwood Road"; and Burton arranged the chorale in "Volcano". But the extra hands and textures are thoroughly embedded in the memoir. There is no time when the telling sounds like it was more than the work of the four who lived it.
And it is a salvation, U2 believe, that keeps on giving. "Every breaking wave on the shore/Tells the next one that there will be one more," Bono promises in the tidal sun-kissed electronica of "Every Breaking Wave". And "The Miracle (of Joey Ramone)" comes with a pledge to every stranded dreamer who now hears Rocket to Russia, Give 'Em Enough Rope or some U2 for the first time and is somehow, permanently, changed. "We can hear you," Bono swears. "Your voices will be heard."
Just find one of your own. Then shout as hard as you can.
Former 'finger frontman serves a bittersweet breakfast.
How brutal? The sequel to last year's Civil Dusk stutters to life like a sudden wake-up in a prison cell. "Shed My Skin" is a shudder of old demons and "How Many Times?" finds its way into a darker place again. "America (Glamour and Prestige)" is as brutally dismissive as the title implies and "Fighting For Air" seals a broad theme of grasping at straws of redemption in troubled times. The remedy is in Nick DiDia's full, warm, woodgrain production with crafty echoes of classic Seventies Americana from Dylan to CSN, and in songcraft strong enough to warrant the twin-album gambit.
Compelling debut from Cali alt-country singer-songwriter.
"I grew up my father's daughter; he said, don't take no shit from no one," sings Jade Jackson on "Aden", before a wounded fiddle slices open the track's careworn guitars. It's an apt opening salvo for an LP that occupies the sweet spot triangulated by the brash defiance of Lydia Loveless, Nikki Lane in full Western mode (locomotive shuffle "Troubled End"), and the world-weary self-affirmation of Tift Merritt ("Gilded"). Punchy barroom drums and ragged guitar textures ("Good Time Gone") flatter producer Mike Ness (Social Distortion), while Jackson's easy poeticism and vaporous, laconic delivery shine on nostalgia piece "Back When" and "Finish Line". It's a consummate debut.
Melbourne alt-country stylists return with mesmerising third LP.
In four years, the twin songwriting force of Luke Sinclair and Nick O'Mara has matured to a lustrous finish. Richer guitar textures proliferate here, while Sinclair's inflection is charged with uniquely Australian pathos throughout (the title track). There's freewheeling West Coast country-rock in "Nowhere (You Wanna Run)", vital Seventies roots-rock in "Night Wheels", and breathless poignancy in "Dreamer". Lyrically, a minor theme centred on modest hopes and ambitions thwarted casts an affecting light over proceedings ("By Now"). RBE are in good company with the likes of local alt-country luminaries Halfway and Tracy McNeil.
Strange and wonderful neo-folk visions from NZ singer.
Produced by John Parish (PJ Harvey) and featuring turns from Perfume Genius, Party is a mesmerising follow-up to Harding's 2014 debut. A less demonstrative heir to Kate Bush, Harding inhabits nine jaw-droppingly disparate vocal incarnations, delivering crystalline slivers of enigmatic, fragmentary poeticism amid delicate whorls of finger-picking and expressive piano. Childlike innocence is wryly counterpointed with sensuality in the title-track, while Harding summons profound hurt in "Horizon". Save for "I'm So Sorry", which bears the stamp of established collaborator Marlon Williams, it's an album of incomparable quality.
British outfit plunder darkness on debut album.
Hailing from East London, Pumarosa dub their sound "industrial spiritual", and it's not a bad description – the cold, The Cure-meets-Depeche-Mode-in-a-bar-owned-by-Interpol vibe of songs such as "Priestess" is offset by a melodic warmth and energy that prevents the album from veering too far into the insular. Frontwoman Isabel Muñoz-Newsome is a captivating presence, calling to mind a mix of PJ Harvey and Johnette Napolitano, her voice washing over the choppy guitar work of Jamie Neville. Witness the swirling climax of "Honey", a sonic freakout that will leave you breathless.
Impressively heavy debut from Sydney punks.
Just in case you had any doubts where Bare Bones take their cues from, their bio cites LA punks the Bronx and Every Time I Die as influences. Which is fine, but on first listen to opener "Thick As Thieves" it would be hard to guess this wasn't a Bronx record. By the second track though, these Sydney brutalists establish their own take on death rock. Songs like "Deathbed Visions" are punchy and memorable, the playing is tight and muscular, and Bare Bones shift gears regularly enough that Bad Habits sticks after a first listen, rather than being merely a moshpit soundtrack. This could be a hit record of the genre.
The contrarian pop veteran's predictably odd all-star album.
Forty-seven years after his debut album, Runt, Todd Rundgren's latest fuses his pop-wizard side and his studio-contrarian side more than usual, pulling an impressively odd array of stars into his vortex – from Trent Reznor (the android-apocalypse "Deaf Ears") to soulstress Betty Lavette (the bleary electro-hustle "Naked & Afraid") to Robyn (the Eighties tearjerker "That Could've Been Me"). Inconsistency is like a muse here, but he seems to work best with Seventies peers like Joe Walsh, Daryl Hall and Donald Fagen, whose smooth Donald Trump parody "Tin Foil Hat" is a timely highlight.
Victorian indie whiz kids' impressively imaginative debut.
The (musical) genus of APES ought to be easy to figure, but their debut evolves through stages of super smart indie pop to be marvellously hard to pin down. There's smoky, slinky, dark indie-electro pop on "Filter", a spiralling space rock rush on "Dimension" and wonky indie-funk on "If You Want It". Temper Trap have spent the past five years trying to write "Fourth Point", and the scuzzy new wave of "Tired Face" is harder to shake than herpes. The LP almost loses momentum, but is a playful, engaging record that'll have you guessing and impressed at almost every turn. Without thrown turds or anything.
Long-serving indie band go guitar-free on album 16.
John Darnielle has finally put down the guitar. And while the absence of an acoustic – once their sole instrument – is a surprising self-set challenge, little else has changed, with the now-quartet opting for a single subject focus, much like on 2015's wrestling ode, Beat the Champ. Goth subculture is just the jumping-off point, however, with Darnielle diverting to D.B. Cooper conspiracies, debt payment plans and more across the LP's 12 episodes, all of which lean heavier than ever on the other fourth-quarter career identifier – compositional prominence. Here, mostly jazz-spiked and hook-led scores serve not simply as lyrical support, but equal companion.
Melbourne blues-folk singer-guitarist releases second album.
Barefoot Wonderland is right: Bernasconi is so laidback here you can see the soles of those bare feet. While kicking back he's picking his way through Kentucky mountains folk and lowland blues on his Harmony Sovereign acoustic or Dan Robinson parlour guitar, picking up a 1936 Gibson or maybe a Martin 7-string along the way. Luckily for people who wouldn't know a Gibson from a gibbon, Bernasconi can write a tune almost as well as he plays this array. "Carrie Swoon" is light and amused, and the instrumental "Box Of Birds" skips along, but there's wistfulness in "Melatonin"'s bent strings.
'Big Country' dialled down on ZBB's seventh studio release.
Zac Brown Band have throttled down. Eschewing, for the most part, the glitzy sheen that's slathered over most 'big country', Brown and Co. employ a rougher, grittier edge, in the process slowing things and placing the emphasis squarely on the songwriting. Brown's songwriting has never been subtle, and despite being full of heart, it's what lets the record down, the by-the-numbers writing watery in comparison with the extremely talented band (Jimmy De Martini's fiddle playing in particular), which save Welcome Home from becoming just another 'American big country album'.
Indie-punk relishes in creative freedom – a little too much.
From no-fi bedroom noise to Fat Wreck Chords hangover, from indie labels to majors and back to self-released. Such is Nathan Williams' decade-long parabola path, arriving at album six near where it all began, with the experimental, cassette-warped vignettes that were stuffed between songs on Wavves' debut demos now serving as the backbone of his adopted paint-by-power-punk approach. At best, these shards of shitgaze and cut-and-paste weirdness recall his early work's raw disposability ("No Shade", "Million Enemies"), while the flipside, such as the near-untouched sample on "Come to the Valley", are borderline unlistenable.
Soft-focus pop bridging the Pacific Ocean.
Sydney native Hazel English is ready for her close-up. Now based in Oakland, California, she's bundled last year's debut Never Going Home EP with a newer EP made in collaboration with Day Wave's Jackson Phillips. It's a tidy introduction to both her stylised sweetness and soft-focus dream-pop, warmly evoking the Drums and Wild Nothing. Airy vocals and delicate, chiming guitars thread through nearly every one of these 11 tracks, striking an evergreen balance between breezy uplift and melancholy undertow. The songs can sound a bit too much alike, but otherwise the sparkling ingredients are all there.
Melbourne punks up the ante, craft their masterwork.
Clowns' third LP is an intricate document of the shape punk finally came in. Gleefully brutal riffs sit side-by-side with melodicism, patience, countless filthy prog-punk moments and insouciant throat-shredding. Nine tracks in 43 minutes bucks traditional punk standards, and it flows impressively through "Like a Knife At a Gunfight" and the muscly "Pickle", calmly picking its spots to deliver nuggets of pure punk-rock energy like "Destroy the Evidence". By the time Lucid Again closes out with the epic punk jam "Not Coping", it's hard to argue against Clowns having created one of the best rock – not ‘just' punk – albums of the year.