U2 gives away its long awaited new album for free and it's possibly their most satisfying set in years, writes long-time follower Russell Baillie.

Back in the early days when iPods first came out, there was a special U2 edition one.

Today's launch of Apple's next-gen hardware came with more U2 product - their whole new album, free to all iTunes customers.

Yes, here it was a new U2 released pro Bono ... and Edge, and Larry and Adam.

There will be physical deluxe albums out on October 13 which should please the band's backers, especially after early studio sessions were scrapped.


As as far as recording industry stunts go, this giveaway is a biggie.

Sure Radiohead did it first, but there goes Ireland's balance of payments for the year, possibly.

True, much of the band's finances are based in the Netherlands, while Apple has a subsidiary in low-tax Eire which harvests much of the company's billions.

So if nothing else, giving this way to iTunes customers is a feat of creative accounting.

As for the album itself ... well Bono described it as "their most personal ever", albeit at a product launch for the world's biggest hardware company.

Many long-time followers of the band would agree there hasn't been truly a satisfying U2 album in years or indeed decades. This one sounds like it is.

No it's not The Joshua Tree II or a sequel to Achtung Baby. But after half a dozen listens, there's plenty that promises further rewards, especially the likes of Every Breaking Wave which should have thousands waving their Apple products aloft, should this album deliver a tour (where presumably the tickets won't be free).

And yes it is personal - there's a Bono essay in the liner notes, reflecting on his teenage years and the early years of the the band and a good read which joins the dots between the history and the songs.

The album itself does do some familiar recent U2 album things, like begin with an upbeat crunching opener that will inevitably become the first blast of a live setlist but which may never graduate to encore in later life.

But if the noughties U2 albums were a return to classic early U2 after the reinventions of the 90s - especially in the churning echoplex of The Edge's guitar - this sounds more textured.

It's an album which sounds built around the singer's familiar voice but the guitars are balanced by a small arsenal of keyboards - the ballad Sleep Like a Baby Tonight is pretty much all throbbing synthesizer beneath Bono's falsetto and quite the unsettling lullaby for it.

It's also an album where the meat and spuds men of the U2 rhythm section sound like they're finally breaking out into a sweat after all these years.

There's a quintet of producers credited in various configurations throughout the 11 tracks. But it's dominated by Danger Mouse - Brian Burton to his mum - whose gritty, groovy fairy dust has been sprinkled in the past across albums by the Black Keys (whose DM records took them from indie outsiders to stadium contenders) , his own Gnarls Barkley and Gorillaz, among others.

His touches are prominent on the likes of opening track The Miracle (of Joey Ramone), with its opening blast of fuzz guitar no doubt a reference to Johnny Ramone's scratchy Mosrite, even if there's a temptation to start humming Soft Cell's Tainted Love when it kicks in. Cedarwood Road gets a stuttering Black Keys/Led Zep riffery balanced out by a dreamy psychedelic pop swirl; while there's a soul-funk shapes being thrown on tracks like This is Where You Can Reach Me Now and the closing The Troubles.

And no, it appears The Troubles - a duet with Lykke Li- isn't about those troubles.

Though there are domestic politics on the agenda - Raised By Wolves, with its opening scene of an terrorist bombing, gets to be the Sunday Bloody Sunday of this, complete with guitars and hanging piano lines that echo that early anthem.

It might be personal yet but it's not self-absorbed. As well as the hat-tip to the Ramones, there's dedications to Joe Strummer on This Is Where You Can Reach Me Now, inspired by an early encounter with the Clash while California (There is No End of Love) starts off with a short Beach Boys vocal pastiche before putting the roof down and roaring off into the Malibu sunset.

The aforementioned Cedarwood Road is a reference to Bono's boyhood Dublin neighbourhood though the hard-edged song sounds as much a look back in anger as nostalgia.

The largely acoustic Song for Someone is the big ballad and possibly destined despite its ambiguous lyrics to be become the next U2 wedding hymn.

But the most obviously personal song is Iris (Hold Me Close) about Bono's mother who died when he was 14.

He's addressed his father's influence before on the lovely, hymnal Sometimes You Can't Make it On Your Own on 2004 album How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb.

Here, his ma's belated eulogy is exultant care of a song musically cut from a similar cloth as Where The Streets Have No Name/ One Tree Hill, but with beefed-up bass and lyrics that are affecting without being cloying.

In the liner notes, Bono talks about how he filled his mother's absence with music. It's a point I can sympathise with. This reviewer's Mum, also named Iris, died also when I was 14.

My favourite album of the following sad summer was Boy, the debut by a young Irish band who went on to bigger things.

So yes that song gets five stars all by itself. The rest is almost as great.


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