Of course, that’s just my opinion, so allow me to introduce myself.
I can’t claim to be the biggest U2 (#U2) fan in the world, but I’m not a lightweight either: I own every song they’ve ever recorded (or at least 99.9%), I’ve seen them multiple times in concert, including the Rose Bowl show in 2009 that was recorded for the 360 DVD, and I’ve read many of the books that have been written about them.
When it comes to assessing music, it is more subjective than we’re willing to admit. We don’t love the songs on our favorite playlists strictly because of their music theory. Nostalgia, memory association, and an album’s thematic material in the lyrics play a big part.
And, on that note, I will confess there is some bias here. One of the songs, “California (There Is No End to Love)” is about the area of California where I live (Santa Barbara, CA)–well, partly; it mentions Zuma Beach in Malibu too. It also has a subtle but brilliant reference to “Barbara Ann” by the Beach Boys. You can read the full story here.
So to say something like, “Songs of Innocence (#SongsOfInnocence) is U2’s best album,” is not a small thing for me. I take it very seriously; I’ve put real thought into it.
Allow me to also provide some credentials for this bold claim. I have a B.A. degree in Music Composition from UC Santa Barbara, the College of Creative Studies. Yale University’s Music Library published my blog article, “The Most Beloved Chord in Music History, Part 1,” on their curated news site. Heck, I’ve done Roman numeral analysis of Beethoven symphonies.
To be sure, there are vast multitudes–hordes, even–of people who are smarter than me when it comes to music, but I know a few things.
Now that you know that I’m not just making stuff up, I’ll cut to the chase. Here are some reasons from the vantage points of music theory and the craft of composition why I think “Songs of Innocence” is U2’s best work:
Strong Voice Leading in the Melodies
Their skill in constructing a good melody has rocketed to a level that’s better across the board, from the first track to the last, than any other U2 album. Any fan of Achtung Baby, Joshua Tree, or All That You Can’t Leave Behind might raise an eyebrow of skepticism at that claim — considering that those three albums contain some of the most famous melodies in rock and roll history — but hear me out.
Here are two examples from the first two tracks of the album:
“The Miracle (Of Joey Ramone)“: In the chorus, where Bono sings, “I woke up at the moment when the miracle occurred,” the interval relationship between the bottom note (Edge’s guitar) and the top note (Bono’s voice) has no parallel 8ths or parallel 5ths. Bach would commend them for obeying that rule of counterpoint — although it does go from a perfect 8th to a perfect 5th, which is a voice leading no-no, but The Edge instinctively feels it and changes the note almost as soon as he hits it.
In plain English? They’re writing melodies that don’t feel clunky, top-heavy, or heavy-footed to the brain when the sound waves hit the ear drums. From the brain’s perspective, good voice leading feels like a suave, smooth dancer gliding across the floor. Songs of Innocence has some serious moves.
“Every Breaking Wave“: The melodic hook in the chorus of this song is arguably the best of the album, if not one of the best in U2’s career. I’m referring to the lines “Baby every dog on the street, / Knows that we’re in love with defeat, / Are we ready to be swept off our feet…”
They do something wonderful here. They are using dissonance with great skill. Our brain feels dissonance in music when complex, hard-to-decipher harmonic frequency patterns hit our ears and make the brain wince and want to turn the radio off if it goes on long enough.
But when used in moderation, according to the rules of voice leading, dissonance can turn a song into something magical — something that makes people weep at the drop of a hat without knowing why. In the chorus of this song, U2 hits a big fat note of dissonance at the end of each lyrical phrase. You can hear it on the words “street,” “defeat,” and “feet.”
On both “street” and “feet,” Bono hits a major 7th interval above Adam’s bass line. He hits it on beat four, and resolves it (makes the dissonance go away) on the downbeat of the next measure. That’s not just a wee bit dissonant, a major 7th is crazy dissonant when it comes to melody.
But the band holds that chord below the melody for that dissonant beat anyways. So many other bands would have shifted chords along with the melody to avoid the dissonance, but U2 charges into it. You can hear Bono’s voice bend a little on it because his brain feels the strain of the dissonance. But he remains steadfast. On “defeat,” he hits a major 2nd, or sort of sings around it, above the bass line — also a noticeable dissonance.
In plain English? They create a sudden stab of tension in your ears at just the right moment, and then they resolve the tension on the next beat so that your brain feels this sense of, “Aahh,” relief for that brief moment. There’s a reason why your brain will want to hear that song over and over again. It’s addicted to the tension-relief trigger that U2 pulls throughout the melody.
And they do these things in many other songs on the album.
Staccato Notes and Air Pockets
There’s something else about this album that mesmerizes me: its use of air space and short, staccato notes. Just go listen to “Volcano” and “Sleep Like A Baby Tonight” to hear examples of what I mean: pulsating BLIPS of music dot the air and leave room for silence; stabs of quick chords cut out unexpectedly to linger in yet more silence; Bono resists the temptation to sing long, sustained whole notes and instead hits short bursts and allows silence to come and shape the melody (as in the chorus of “Volcano”).
Some might chalk this up to the little dashes of soul music that they’ve added to this album, but I say it’s also the direct result of having Danger Mouse as their producer. I’m a diehard Danger Mouse fan, and if you go back and listen to all of the albums he’s produced, you hear this same appetite for punchy, tasteful silence that fills Songs of Innocence.
“Cedarwood Road,” “Every Breaking Wave,” “The Troubles,” and “Raised By Wolves” provide perfect examples of what’s called a pre-chorus, a short line of lyrics with a melody different than any other parts of the song, and it’s wedged between the verse and the chorus. It works like the ramp that a skateboarder uses to launch into the air. It launches you into the melodic hook of the song.
And if you can write a good pre-chorus, something that functions the way a cadence functioned in classical music, the song suddenly inflates with massive power and floats into the stratosphere the moment you hit the chorus. God bless those boys from Dublin because they hit some doozies on this album — the best and largest collection of pre-chorus AND-WE-HAVE-LIFT-OFF moments that I’ve heard on any U2 record.
I also have to give the band props for their obvious maturity in developing more complex tonality — meaning they don’t stay in the same key every single measure of a song from beginning to end. “This Is Where You Can Reach Me Now” provides a perfect example: on the “soldier, soldier” part of the song, we witness U2 switch from a minor to major key mid-measure, and it casts this unearthly sheen across the music.
Something Heavenly Going On
Speaking of unearthly: to see a band that’s a few years shy from its 40th anniversary, still striving to grow as artists, making the best music of its career; well, there’s something — perhaps even Someone — supernatural about that. The story of U2 has so many layers, but beneath it all there’s something refreshing and zealously child-like about their journey, especially when the curtain is pulled back and you’re able to see their beginnings.
In an understated way, this album does just that: it reveals the pounding, original heart of U2 and shows why, like a runaway train unable to slow its speed, it was able to roar its way through four decades — sustained by a Heaven-breathed steam — without missing a beat.