SONGS OF EXPERIENCE by U2
Genre: Pop Rock
Favorite Tracks: “You’re The Best Thing About Me,” “Get Out Of Your Own Way,” “The Little Things That Give You Away,” “Love Is Bigger Than Anything In Its Way”
No one can dispute that the last decade of U2 hasn’t been great. A disastrous Spider-Man musical, a partnership with Apple that angered most everyone in the United States, a mid-2000s snoozer in NO LINE ON THE HORIZON, which failed to produce a hit single, and their slow transition into becoming a legacy act—one that began nearly a decade ago with their gradual inclusion on classic rock radio and has concluded with their recent JOSHUA TREE 30th Anniversary tour—have all rendered U2 somewhat musically irrelevant (even if Kendrick tried to bring them back). Minor victories (“Ordinary Love” off the MANDELA: LONG WALK TO FREEDOM soundtrack, and the actual cultural reassessment and re-appreciation of JOSHUA TREE) were buried by the fact that U2’s own self-importance as both musical icons and as a political entity had finally overshadowed the fact that they were (are?) the biggest band on the planet.
SONGS OF INNOCENCE, the album that appeared in your iTunes library that you never actually listened to but got mad about anyway, wasn’t nearly as bad of a release as it will be historically remembered as, and for that reason it’s an interesting album to dissect and analyze. Once the smoke and mirrors from the Apple partnership faded away, what was left was a comparatively small rock record with very small stakes. The songwriting, at the time, was described by Bono as “the most personal album we’ve ever written,” and that strangely didn’t feel like total hyperbole. It can’t be overlooked that SONGS OF INNOCENCE was the only album the group recorded and released during the go-go Obama years (NO LINE ON THE HORIZON was released one month after the first Obama inauguration, but recorded during the twilight of the Bush administration), and the name alone seems reflective of the state of the world in 2014. Regardless of how you view the band or their approach to politics, it has always been central to their identity and reached a boiling point during 2004’s HOW TO DISMANTLE AN ATOMIC BOMB and the subsequent years of touring.
When SONGS OF EXPERIENCE was announced initially, it was pitched as a theoretical part II: a continuation of the more personal elements that had been central to INNOCENCE. After a tentative fourth quarter 2016 release date, U2 delayed the album’s unveiling in the wake of both the UK’s Brexit vote and the USA’s presidential election. According to Bono, “the new songs were about ready to go, and then the world changed. We just had one of those moments where you go, ‘Let’s step back from this for a second.’ It is a very personal album, and it’s not gonna become a political album overnight. But it has to now go through the filter of what’s happened in the rest of the world.” And after being dissatisfied with the mixes on SONGS OF INNOCENCE, songs were even further tweaked and retooled until this recent release.
While I wasn’t in the room for the rewrites of SONGS OF EXPERIENCE, I can assure you that the political elements of this album are broad, and mostly exist within the framework of the proposed personal vision. Bono’s songwriting over the last two albums has (rightly) been scrutinized heavily, and in part because the toned-down production elements have placed his own writing front and center—boy can it be dumb. On the first-day-of-the-rest-of-your-life opener, “Love Is All We Have Left,” Bono delivers an Auto-Tuned speech that earnestly insists, “Now you’re at the other end of a telescope / Seven billion stars in her eyes / So many stars, so many ways of seeing / Hey this is no time not to be alive.” He writes an ode to sunshine on “Summer of Love,” which features a bridge just as hoaky as its title: “Oh and when all is lost / When all is lost we find out what remains / Oh the same oceans crossed / The sun’s pleasure / The sun it’s pink.” And if you were hoping you’d get songs where Bono refers to his wife as a landlady (“Landlady”), or proud declarations that the sound of America is drum and bass after a shoehorned Kendrick Lamar intro (“American Soul”), don’t worry, you’re in luck.
The Trump effect comes in the form of true optimism. While the “peace in wartime” elements of HOW TO DISMANTLE AN ATOMIC BOMB were hardly as intense as they may have felt at the time of (or in the years following) its release, SONGS OF EXPERIENCE only barely charts as active political commentary—other than being a big, dumb, happy record in a cynical world. The love songs are earnest to the point of overblown, and the political statements target migrants (“Red Flag Day,” “American Soul”) more than they do Trump or the Brexit effect, elements which are really only directly addressed on “The Blackout.” (“Statues fall, democracy is flat on its back, Jack / We had it all, and what we had is not coming back, Zach / A big mouth says the people, they don’t wanna be free for free / The blackout, is this an extinction event we see.”)
The production here is as bright, joyous, and polished as you’d expect given their approach, even if it reads as tame by U2 standards. Occasionally we get those soaring, effects-laden guitar solos that are a cornerstone of the band’s sound, notably at the end of songs like “Get Out Of Your Own Way” or “The Little Things That Give You Away,” but we see The Edge exploring a variety of tones, like the punchy adult contemporary strumming on “Red Flag Day,” or the sliding, crooked acoustic guitar tones on “Lights of Home.” Just like on SONGS OF INNOCENCE, the decision to temper their grandiose stadium ambitions that became almost a parody throughout the 2000s allows the varied sounds here to feel fresh, even if the 13 songs never quite fit together satisfyingly on either a sonic or a thematic level.
But, for any shortcomings SONGS OF EXPERIENCE has (and it has many), it perfectly showcases the band’s tremendous ability to write pleasing hooks and musically rewarding choruses, even if the music existing beyond either side of those choruses is eyerollingly indulgent and unaware. When Bono launches into, “You’re the best thing about me / I’m the kind of trouble that you enjoy” while Larry Mullen Jr. shuffles his driving snare drum patterns in the background, there is something wholly satisfying about the experience and a true validation of what has made U2 a globally recognized pop phenomenon for the last 40 years. The band’s previous two lackluster releases failed at a Top 40 level for a variety of reasons, but primarily because they lacked gratifying sing-alongs and earworm melodies. Songs like “Landlady,” “The Showman (Little More Better),” or especially “Get Out Of Your Own Way,” each gratify in their simplicity by cutting the noise and embracing gooey, schmaltzy instrumentals and easy-to-remember lyrics.
By most accounts, SONGS OF EXPERIENCE is not a great album, and you could read its decision to avoid commenting on the political landscape directly as either a missed opportunity or a failure to adequately capture a moment. But there’s a joy in seeing U2 embrace the corny schmaltz of songs like “Stuck In A Moment You Can’t Get Out Of” or “Sweetest Thing,” even if their attempts to weaponize optimism and love never truly connect. U2’s status as the biggest band in the world is neither hurt nor helped by SONGS OF EXPERIENCE, and history will rightly showcase this as one more in a line of late-career falters, but at least Bono and company seem to be having fun and, for the first time in a long time, we get to be let in on some of it.
Verdict: Do Not Recommend