U2 surprised the world Tuesday by releasing "Songs of Innocence," their first album in five years, as a gift from Apple, available for free immediately to anyone with iTunes. The band made the announcement with Apple CEO Tim Cook at a Cupertino, California, press conference for the new iPhone 6, capping the event with a performance of the album's first single, "The Miracle (of Joey Ramone)."
After a standing ovation, Cook said, "Wasn't that the most incredible single you ever heard? We would love a whole album of that."
"The question is now, how do we get it to as many people as possible, because that's what our band is all about," Bono said. "I do believe you have over half a billion subscribers to iTunes, so — could you get this to them?"
"If we gave it away for free," Cook replied. And five seconds later, the album was unleashed in the largest album release of all time.
"We wanted to make a very personal album," Bono told Rolling Stone's Gus Wenner the day before the press conference in an exclusive interview. "Let's try to figure out why we wanted to be in a band, the relationships around the band, our friendships, our lovers, our family. The whole album is first journeys — first journeys geographically, spiritually, sexually. And that's hard. But we went there."
The band worked on "Innocence" for two years with producer Danger Mouse (a.k.a. Brian Burton), then brought in additional help: Flood, their collaborator since 1987's "The Joshua Tree," plus Adele producers Paul Epworth and Ryan Tedder. "I think having them around really helped," says Bono, "Some of the music out there now that people call pop, it's not pop — it's just truly great. And we wanted to have the discipline of the Beatles or the Stones in the '60s, when you had real songs. There's nowhere to hide in them: clear thoughts, clear melodies."
To begin, the band went back to its roots: Bono says the group listened to the music they loved in the '70s, from punk rock to Bowie, glam rock, early electronica and Joy Division. The album kicks off with "The Miracle (of Joey Ramone)," a loping pop song laced with distinctly punk-ish power chords. "I found my voice through Joey Ramone," says Bono, "because I wasn't the obvious punk-rock singer, or even rock singer. I sang like a girl — which I'm into now, but when I was 17 or 18, I wasn't sure. And I heard Joey Ramone, who sang like a girl, and that was my way in."
The driving, reggae-tinged "This Is Where You Can Reach Me Now," is a tribute to the Clash, with slinky guitars from the Edge that nod to "Sandinista!." "After we saw the Clash, it was a sort of blueprint for U2," says Bono. "We knew we couldn't possibly hope to be as cool, and that's proven to be true, but we did think we could get behind a sort of social justice agenda."
There is also an intensely personal song about Bono's mother, Iris Hewson, who died when he was 14. "Forty years ago, my mother fell at her own father's funeral, and I never spoke with her again," he says. "Rage always follows grief, and I had a lot of it, and I still have, but I channeled it into music and I still do. I have very few memories of my mother, and I put a few of them in a song called 'Iris.'"
The most joyous track on "Songs of Innocence" is "California (There Is No End to Love)," which unexpectedly nods to the Beach Boys in its intro. "It's like the sun itself," says Bono. "It's about our first trip to Los Angeles." The darkest track, meanwhile, is "Raised by Wolves," which tells of a deadly car bombing in Dublin. "It was a real incident that happened in our country where three car bombs were set to go off at the same time in Dublin on a Friday night, 5:30," says Bono, "On any other Friday I would have been at this record shop, just down the corner, but I cycled to school that day."
At times Songs of Innocence feels almost like a concept album about Bono's early years — there's even a track named after the street where the singer grew up, "Cedarwood Road." "It has a lyrical cohesion that I think is unique amongst U2 albums," says Bono, "I don't want it to be a concept album, but the songs come from a place. Edge laughed and said this is our 'Quadrophenia.' We could be so lucky."