U2 – Songs Of Experience (Review)
In 2014, U2 quietly placed Songs Of Innocence on every I-phone in the world and most of the world went ballistic. With Songs Of Experience, the band seeks to even the score by pissing off those of us who really enjoyed their free copy of Innocence. Restrained to a fault on Songs Of Experience, U2 has never sounded less significant to rock-n-roll.
As a band, U2 have always been at their best when they are driven by a fierce sense of urgency. In 1983, the band stared down nature and marched on stage at Red Rocks in Colorado to record one of the most visceral live concert films of all time. A few years later, the time constraints of Live Aid pushed them to create a moment of legend in under twenty minutes. At the turn of the century, the band stood on the precipice of irrelevance but stormed back with All That You Can’t Leave Behind which solidified their place in the rock canon. It is also the last time U2 have made a truly exceptional record.
The post-punk roots of Songs Of Innocence rebooted the band’s sound but the fierce backlash for its distribution may have scared U2 on the follow-up. Everything about Songs Of Experience feels overly calculating. Not surprisingly, the band can still write arena anthems in search of a hit single. “You’re The Best Thing About Me” will sit nicely alongside “Vertigo”, “Magnificent” and “Beautiful Day” on the set list but the formula has grown predictable. The verse of “Get Out Of Your Own Way” owes a world of debt to “Beautiful Day” musically before shifting into a chorus that sounds like Coldplay and Imagine Dragons working together on a U2 tribute album. It is followed by “American Soul” which borrows another trick from Imagine Dragons by including an appearance from Kendrick Lamar which adds nothing to the proceedings; unlike the beautiful appearance by Lykke Li on Innocence.
Halfway through the album, The Edge finally rears his head, guitar at the ready, and “Red Flag Day” takes us back to that cold night in Colorado and a young band hungry to prove their worth to the world. “The Showman (Little More Better)” keeps the hope alive with a bouncy, pop melody and a welcome sense of humour from Bono – “singers cry about everything.” Album highlight, “The Little Things You Give Away” finally finds U2 in complete control of their atmosphere, lyrics, and music. It’s a beautiful, understated, and emotional song that could have snuck onto The Unforgettable Fire or even The Joshua Tree. It feels completely out of place on Songs Of Experience.
Having held up the release of the album to better capture the political climate of 2017, the lyrics are the ultimate downfall of this misfire of an album. On “The Blackout”, the electronic throb and melodic hook are full of promise as Bono steps to the pulpit and sings “democracy is flat on its back.” Really? That’s it? If you are One Republic (whose front-man Ryan Tedder bears some responsibility for this lackluster effort as producer), the vague, shallow sentiment might go unchallenged by a middle of the road audience but U2 represents something far greater to those of us raised on “Sunday Bloody Sunday”. In a year when even Morrissey has managed to lasso the world with his pen, U2’s lack of urgency comes across as nothing more than laziness. In the wake of the promising Songs Of Innocence and the triumphant Joshua Tree tour, Songs Of Experience might prove to be a stumble even they cannot recover from.