So what do you reckon? A stroke of marketing genius, or an invasion of privacy and Orwellian nightmare? Whichever side of the fence you're on, you have to admire the sheer audacity and force if Apple and U2 combining to drop their new album into half a billion users iTunes accounts all at the same time last night. You also have to assume that U2 have either got 1) more money than they're ever going to be able to spend or 2) some sort of massive follow up tour planned, since they're never gonna be able to sell a single track from a record they've spent 4 years working on (although they have confirmed this morning that Apple bought it from them to give to us 'as a gift', so some money has changed hands for it).
On to the record itself then - what does 4 years and 5 producers (Dangermouse, Paul Epworth, Flood, Ryan Tedder & Declan Gaffney) get you? Musically it's fairly simple and uncluttered. The Edge has toned down his guitar effects, the drums and bass are gently insistent rather than bombastic, and overall there's the feel of a band who just wanted to write some engaging, open and uplifting songs. Likewise Bono has notched down the messianic tone of his lyrics, and while there are still a few references to miracles and pilgrims, these are mostly either autobiographical words about how and where the group grew up or straightforward love songs. This does mean that at times they sound more like Coldplay or, dare I say it, The Script, than U2 songs, but maybe that's the price you pay for finally accepting that you're never really gonna change the world when you're 'just a rock'n'roll band'.
Although due to the various producers involved there's not necessarily a cohesive thread or feel throughout the whole album, this probably results in a better listen overall. It really feels more like a collection of singles than an album, and it certainly contains some of the most radio-friendly and straightforward pop songs they've ever recorded. After a few listens my favourite so far is album closer 'The Troubles', which features guest vocals from Lykke Li and is a subtle and enigmatic way to finish the record.
If you're one of the anti-Bono brigade then I doubt very much that this album and its method of delivery are going to change your mind. But if you like the band or you're prepared to give them a fresh start then you might be surprised at what you discover. Ultimately I think that they've finally decided to grow old gracefully rather than attempting to keep up with 'the kids', and as a result have started a new chapter in their career (one which apparently might continue quite quickly with another record called 'Songs of Experience'). Bono might sing on here that "I get so many things I don't deserve" but maybe a fair hearing is something he's entitled to after so many years in the game.