Naked and not afraid: U2’s Songs Of Innocence cover

September 26, 2014 |  by  |  Design, Songs Of Innocence

Songs Of Innocence cover

“Songs Of Innocence” is U2’s most reflexive album to date. It reveals their influences, their innocences, and their loss of both. The band is offering an astounding amount of personal insight with the songs themselves, but Bono’s historically revealing liner notes and stories shared in interviews are especially illuminating. How much does that knowledge, insight and contextualization influence our appreciation for the album? Do I love “Iris” because I know it’s about Bono’s mother, who died suddenly when he was a teen—an event that birthed Bono? Or is it objectively a great song with powerful sound and poignant lyrics? A similar challenge exists with the now confirmed cover art.

Controversy is already underway, even within the fan base, about the album’s provocative front image. I see people upset about multiple (mis?)interpretations of the “Songs Of Innocence” cover and possible readings of same-sex love, homoeroticism or pedophilia. But, in reliable U2 fashion, the image is intentionally ambiguous. For the vetted U2 fans, it is a father holding on to his son, perhaps trying to protect him, perhaps lamenting the loss of his own innocence. But most people don’t know U2 has any other members besides Bono. They don’t know who Larry Mullen Jr. is, much less what he looks like. They don’t know he has an adult son. Objectively, the cover image presents a grown man (specifically the most youthful-looking one of the bunch, with the most defined muscles) embracing a younger-looking male whose age we can’t discern—he has a prepubescent hairless chest, but he also has adolescent facial hair. Only the uber fans know the older man is Larry. And none of us would have known the younger man is his son, Aaron Elvis, if Bono hadn’t given it away in the “Time” interview. Without that contextualization, we cannot define the relationship of the two people in the image. It could be a father and son. It could be two lovers of consenting age. It could be an inappropriate half-embrace between an adult and a minor. The latter interpretations are absolutely fair and justified, and are wrong only if we know the backstory.

The cross around the younger male’s neck loads the image even more. The necklace has a very deliberate prominence in the photo. It’s an homage to U2’s Christian foundation and religious leanings, but it’s also an iconographic representation of a religion that is under attack, especially from within, as illicit, appalling acts of pedophilia and bigotry committed by church leaders become more prevalent. And the Church tries to play the innocent, despite not only knowing, but covering up these acts. An “innocent” reading lets the cross symbolize the Christian foundation for this loving relationship between an emerging adolescent and his father/Father who has tried to guide him spiritually and protect him. But the cross could also be viewed as looming over the scene with the sinister tone and theme explored in “Sleep Like a Baby Tonight.”

The cover art speaks to the rest of the album: your understanding and appreciation are fostered by the background information. (Is this a good thing? Is U2 determined, through interviews and liner notes, to make sure we all know the backstory? Does the work hold up in the absence of these contexts?) This isn’t a cover or a group of songs for a the casual fan or passive listener. This is an album for fans, whether longstanding members of the U2 church, or the converts this album is seeking. Bono and U2 are very much inviting us in.

boy war cover

The “Songs Of Innocence” cover is an obvious homage to the covers for “Boy” and “War,” both featuring a young boy in states of vulnerability, pensiveness, angst and aggression. I applaud U2’s chutzpah in not letting the possibility of the alternate interpretations censor the release of the “Songs Of Innocence” cover, like they did with “Boy” by issuing an alternate cover in the U.S. in 1980. Then again, U2 did release a very safe, innocuous cover for the free wide-release of the album into everyone’s iTunes. Was this art just not finished? Or were they avoiding an even more livid backlash? (For the record (ha), I adored the white LP art for the Sept. 9 release.)

The photo also references the “Achtung Baby”-era still shot of Bono embracing a naked woman—an image that beautifully symbolized that album’s hyper-reverence of women. Now we have an appropriated image that represents the reverence of innocence (and the pains of losing it).

Achtung Baby Bono woman

U2 fans everywhere are floored by Larry’s presence on the album cover—the most intensely private member of U2 is exposing himself and his family to the world. And why not? U2 are exposing themselves in a newly intimate fashion this go-round, and Larry is the band’s genesis. Some of the final lyrics from the album’s final track, “The Troubles,” circle us back to the daring reveal the cover introduces:

God now you can see me
I’m naked and I’m not afraid
My body’s sacred and I’m not ashamed

Glen Luchford’s gorgeous image is layered with meaning. However, I initially didn’t like its use as a cover, and am still trying to warm to it. Not because it could imply homosexuality (Why should heterosexuality be the default?). Not because it could imply pedophilia (I don’t read that into it.). I just didn’t like it. It feels like I’m intruding on an immensely private moment, whatever the relationship. I feel like a voyeur, and I’m witnessing something I shouldn’t. But, I have no doubt all of this ambiguity and interpretation, and even discomfort, is anticipated by U2. Bono has never been about single, empirical meanings. It is a confrontational cover and it will drive conversations about the band, and perhaps drive listeners to those more intimate discoveries of the songs. And maybe that will be its redemption for me.


  1. What a load of seriously overly indulgent cobblers….but I love the band and songs.

  2. My goodness, what if this author were to review the eating a bacon sandwich? What gripping aspects to this experience could be conjured up out of such a mundane event? The above appraisal of ‘the album nobody ever asked for’ is obviously penned by the worlds biggest U2 fan ever, or perhaps penned even by Bono himself. A friend and I attended the opening 2 minutes of U2 live at Glastonbury 201 and then left, not just because he opened the show by telling us how to live our lives for the betterment of the planet (yawn yawn) but also because we could later have the simple pleasure of looking back and saying to anyone interested, Yeah, I walked out on Bono and crew before they’d finished their opening song.’ Awkward pause in conversation…………. Gasp! Shock! Horror! You did what?

    U2 are crap!

  3. Ty sooo much for your website! As a long time U2 fan myself, I can say with out a doubt, yours is the best I’ve seen. I love the way you write and express your thoughts. For the people that don’t get it, don’t read it…it’s her blog…her thoughts.

  4. the problem of being a fan of something/somebody is that religious kind of part of it… that is, that something/somebody can not do wrong as if they have a passport for uttering everything right… It’s a kind of mental North-Korea… Nobody is perfect even if they had good “moments” sometimes… people are blind in the dark, but they can’t lit their light so they want to have somebody else’s… especially music is like that, because you can have many interpretation when you listen to it (sometimes not even understanding the lyrics). I guess, art is about feeling the pain and expressing it so others can have catharsis and compassion… But the artist and his private life should be separated otherwise you end up with somebody is babysitting your own thoughts… in addition would you accept a song on love if you knew it was written by a serial killer? therefore give me the song everything else is celebrity/$… U2 has made a couple of good songs… nothing more nothing less…

  5. This makes me angry! Why not force a Christian album on I tunes. Why corrupt so many young people who might accidently see the cover and make them think homosexuality is ok. It NOT it is absolutely disgusting!!!

  6. Interesting! I’d like to add that Larry’s tattoo means “protection of innocence” and that he had it done while his son was in the womb. Source:

  7. Thanks for a great blog post! I’m definitely going to check out your blog some more now.

Leave a Reply

Connect with Facebook