Like about 500 million others with the unfortunate distinction of possessing an iPhone with iTunes app, this showed up on my device a couple weeks ago and started downloading itself (as far as I could tell). I am not a fan of iAnything; I object to their claim to the pronoun or initial, and I don't like their products much, their business practices even less. I do have two devices that have been given me by my employer, and, while my iTunes app was previously devoid of downloaded music, the downloads to iTunes did at least work properly (and the music sounds great with earphones, I will admit).
I don't recommend this mode of distribution, in general; there will be few words of praise for something that is free (as it is generally expected, when it comes to Internet), while the intense wails of invasion of privacy, unwanted use of a lot of megabytes (for those who have to pay by the gig), and pushback against this push marketing approach would proliferate if coming from your ordinary popster, rapster, etc. This, though, is U2, whose motives are beyond reproach, and as far as I am concerned, they can send me free music anytime they want.
I can think of three possible reasons for their unorthodox approach:
1) To gain the maximum distribution to set up a massive worldwide tour. Nowadays, the money for top rock bands is in touring, not in the record release.
2) To get back at the record company (Interscope Records) that will release the disc in a week or two, and possibly make a bunch of money on the side from Apple (which is gleaning positive publicity--and, I note, showing ads when you play the music). Interscope will be the producer of this album; it also released their previous studio album, No Line on the Horizon, five years ago; previously they had been on Island Records. I don't know much about record companies and could basically not care less whether they live or die, individually, but I do oppose stealing intellectual property (let me clarify: the property is U2's, and they have the right to control it, regardless of contractual obligations to provide product), and I would like the flow of new creative product to continue somehow. This mode may be counterproductive to the latter.
3) They are so rich they can do whatever they want and don't give a fig for the economic aspect.
I am not well-informed enough or close enough to the band to be able to guess which of the three, or which combination, applies. I will repeat that I think this approach may be OK for those on top (Radiohead did something vaguely similar with their excellent album In Rainbows, which initially they put out there for people to buy at whatever price they wanted, including $0.01), but the big bands have to think about what impact that will have on those one step, or many steps, down the ladder. I will say that U2 has always been good about bringing along excellent up-and-coming artists to play as openers for them on tour, something which works to the benefit of all.
Now, the music. As I indicated, it's been five years since U2's last studio album, and I would guess it's been a bit of a struggle to get this one out (I would be little surprised to see a set of B-side releases in a few months, the ones that didn't quite make the final cut). There is a lot of homage in the content--I would note in particular the dedication to Joe Strummer (on "This is Where You Can Reach Me Now", for my $0.02 the best song, by a good stretch), the one to Joey Ramone (more about that in a moment), and the Beach Boys (the "Ba-ba-ba-Barbara, Santa Barbara" intro to their song "California...." could hardly be mistaken as being other than an homage to the B-Boys' "Barbara Ann"). Bono has always said that his inspiration as a young musician was punk, so Strummer/Ramones are almost obligatory references. Personally, I hardly find The Ramones to be miraculous, and I ridicule the idea that they "made some sense out of the world"--I find U2's commentary a lot more persuasive than "I Wanna Be Sedated".
Mostly, though, I would say their album is an homage to U2 itself and their extensive catalog of inventive intros, guitar riffs, chord sequences, and sonic variations. The new element in the mix is the mix itself, with Danger Mouse leading the production, and supplying some new things like prominent keyboards and even--horrors!--female backing vocals. (I am being ironic in the last comment; I like it; though this may cause some problems on tour).
So, when I listen to this album, I am taken down Memory Lane--I hear bits of "Miss Sarajevo" (the "Iris" song), of "Unknown Caller" (the opening to "This is Where..."),the nod to Bono's boyhood home ("Cedarwood Road"), and a lot of bits which call back various songs of Achtung Baby. This makes a lot of sense to me; that is their monumental, career-defining release, and they should re-create its conditions as much as possible. That is where Danger Mouse comes in, taking the place of Eno, who drove their production of "Achtung!"
I think that there is plenty of arena-friendly material in the album which will fit well with their huge variety of older songs for concerts. I can see "The Troubles" permanently taking the place of "Sunday Bloody Sunday", which I think they were tired of playing. "The Troubles", of course, was the indirect name for the war/insurgency/occupation in Northern Ireland that the British Army had with the IRA in the '70's and '80's, the subject which inspired that U2 song (U2 had a particularly emotionally-involved, though politically-detached view of it, growing up as Protestants in the Irish Republic). This new song "The Troubles" seems to have a different subject, of a love breakup. The Ramones/Miracle thing is certainly a good, catchy rocker to kick off the concerts (a la "Vertigo", "Elevation"), and I find "The Volcano" and "Raised by Wolves" to be intriguing songs, with interesting styling and mysterious content. I am fine with this album's contributions to the big show, as long as they don't overdo it and they do include "This is Where You Can Reach Me Now", hopefully explaining what it's all about. I would put this album at about #4 to #6 of their 13 studio releases, which still puts it in pretty good company.
I'm thinking the endgame scenario to be this album, the B-side release, and one more, in which they give their farewell to their fans and to the record, and a last opportunity to express themselves politically more overtly. Maybe two more tours, altogether, before they call it a career as a band. Bono is a very intelligent, well-informed individual who has a lot to say but is reluctant to be viewed as "preaching" (The Edge, maybe, as well, but he seems extremely shy). Well, I think we need some more of Bono's wisdom, expressed more directly in the medium that is his most important one, his songs (not just his NY Times editorials, which I find to be pretty good), and I am hoping that at the end, when all thought of commercial impact is over and it's all about their legacy, he will stop holding back.