A Look at the Singles from Songs of Innocence

Original story by Brad Hood (2015-08-05)

U2Wanderer.org has always been, first and foremost, a discography site. For us, a lot of the excitement of an album cycle has been in collecting and cataloging the various singles that accompany each LP. The 90s and the first decade of the new millennium was the heyday of U2 single releases, with a lot of variations to keep track of: multiple CDs with different b-sides for each single, DVD video singles, French deluxe singles, Australian bonus tracks, German 3-inch CDs, alternating Canadian release schedules; the list goes on. No Line on the Horizon featured only three singles in the end, but U2 did continue the trend of multiple CDs for each single, and there were a number of other items of interest including 7” singles in the UK, the first 12” single released in the U.S. in nearly nine years, and the first U.S. CD single in 11 years.

U2 infamously broke from their tried-and-true album release formula in 2014 by dropping Songs of Innocence for free on iTunes, with essentially no pre-release marketing, though it was widely known that they had been working on a record with Danger Mouse and a bevy of clean-up hitters. The first time the public heard a new track from the album proper was U2’s performance of The Miracle (of Joey Ramone) at Apple’s iPhone 6 launch event, and then the whole album was on every iDevice in the world 15 minutes later. Of course, the surprise release strategy obviated the need for a pre-album single, and the single release strategy since that time had been virtually nonexistent, particularly in regards to physical singles.

A lot has changed in the music industry in the past 15 years. Digital downloads, legal and otherwise, have cannibalized physical record sales, and in the past few years streaming services have returned to favor. This sea change in music distribution has, quite simply, made traditional singles obsolete and unsustainable. By the last album cycle, U2’s prowess as a singles band had already begun to drop off. While Get On Your Boots peaked at #12 on the UK singles chart, Magnificent only managed to get to #42, in an era where single sales were already on the decline. By 2012, physical singles had shrunk to only 1% of the market in the UK, selling only 617,000 total units compared to 183 million downloads. Number were similarly abysmal in the U.S., with sales of physical single in the hundreds of thousands in 2013 and 2014, compared to over a billion downloads in each of those years. The #1 selling physical single last week in the U.S. was Sauce by Detroit rapper Lil George. This same track failed to crack the Billboard Hot 100 (which is calculated using data from airplay, downloads, and streams) and currently ranks somewhere around #139,000 for Amazon’s single track sales.

In the Internet age, bands will often release a “buzz track” to promote a new album. These are typically album tracks (occasionally non-album cuts) streamed or posted online to hype an upcoming album release. It could be argued that Invisible serves as a buzz track for Songs of Innocence, as it was from the same recording sessions and was released well in advance of the LP. Invisible was featured in a (RED) Super Bowl ad in February 2014 and offered as a free download on iTunes the same day. It was even accompanied by a music video and a promotional performance on the premier episode of The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon. However, seven months passed between the Super Bowl splash and the release of Songs of Innocence, so any momentum U2 had garnered from Invisible had long since faded. Although Invisible currently stands as the only track from Songs of Innocence available as a digital single, the consensus among fans seems to be that it is not an album single in the traditional sense. Too much time lapsed between the single release and the album, no physical single has ever been made available, and there were no b-sides. Moreover, Invisible appears on the album only as a bonus track on the deluxe edition, and was relegated to hidden track status on all but the Japanese release.

It has become a common lament among the staff at U2Wanderer.org that it is increasingly difficult to define what constitutes a single release in an era when commercial physical releases have become an anachronism. The Miracle is widely accepted to be the first single from Songs of Innocence. It is featured in an Apple commercial that pays homage to its predecessor, Vertigo, and has an accompanying promotional video. No commercial single was released, physically or digitally, but cover art was created for the single. The Miracle has been released to radio and promotional CDs were produced, but all releases to date seem to be the album version. Interestingly, Universal Music Germany promoted the track as a single, but links to Amazon and Spotify simply link back to the album.

Every Breaking Wave may be the closest thing to a true single release from the new album. The track has been pushed to radio a couple of times, most recently in January. Initial radio and promotional releases were just a very slight edit of the album version, necessitated by the fact that the end of the song flows into the intro to California. However, the most recent radio release is a new arrangement, featuring a new vocal track and elements of both the acoustic and album versions of the song. This “New Radio Mix” was streamed to paid U2.com subscribers on February 23 and made available for download on May 2. Every Breaking Wave was featured in a short film directed by up-and-coming Irish filmmaker Aoife McArdle’s, which was edited into a promotional music video. The track also has dedicated single cover art, but again no physical release or b-sides.

Song for Someone is the latest track from Songs of Innocence to be considered a single. Like Every Breaking Wave, it has been released to radio on multiple occasions, most recently on July 13. Recent promotional CDs and radio industry compilations contain a new mix of the track, which even Bono has gone on record as stating is virtually indistinguishable from the album cut. The radio mix is “hotter” than the album track, with more dynamic range compression, presumably because the latter is pretty quiet compared to most songs on the radio. There are some other subtle differences to the mix. Song for Someone has also received professionally designed cover art featuring Ali Hewson, whom Bono has indicated is the inspiration for the song. A music video/short film has also been produced starring Woody Harrelson, who apparently earned an early release from his natural born killer days. Interscope Records has promoted Song For Someone as a single on Twitter, but similar to Universal Germany’s promotion of The Miracle, the iTunes link directs to the album.

One would have to assume that this album cycle’s single release strategy is the new normal. Digital downloads and streaming are the present and future of music distribution, and physical singles no longer make fiscal sense. Like U2 has done with Songs of Innocence, many bands now include tracks leftover from album recording sessions as deluxe edition bonus tracks rather than releasing them as traditional b-sides. Demand for limited Record Store Day releases of Ordinary Love and Songs of Innocence, not to mention the hundreds of dollars paid for a scarce “white label” release of the new album, demonstrate that there is still an active U2 collectors’ market, but the music-buying public at large has moved away from buying physical singles. While it is nice to see U2 still being conscientious about producing high-quality music videos and new arrangements of album tracks, for a collector and discographer, the lack of tangible goods is certainly disappointing. A few seemingly legitimate promotional CD-Rs have hit the secondary market, but most of the promo singles allegedly produced in the EU seem to be nothing more than bootleg album track rips burned to a CD-R. Buyer beware if you are trying to continue with a singles collecting habit. A radio push, a music video on YouTube, and perhaps some digital cover art seems to be what constitute a single release in 2015.

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