The tragedy of much of U2’s recent output is that it’s vaguely reminiscent of the band’s more adventurous younger era. Yet the quartet continues here to add less-than-flattering sounds—namely, the over-produced trappings of modern rock. Working with One Republic’s Ryan Tedder proves again a mistake. Songs get overly busy with perfectly crisp synthesizers or needlessly amped-up choruses. Such tricks work for Imagine Dragons, but U2 remains above them.
Now in its fourth decade, U2 has amassed a large catalog full of twists and turns. If Songs of Experience doesn’t reach the heights of the band at its best, it’s far from an embarrassment. When in need of a U2 fix, and you want something newer than Achtung Baby, this can do the trick.
While many songs nod to today’s political climate, the unguarded idealism of Bono’s opening sentiment—“nothing to stop this being the best day ever”—prevails. Imagine a big-budget Hollywood blockbuster on the level of Titanic, a James Cameron or Ang Lee-like epic set amidst the turmoil of, say, the Syrian refugee crisis. In this film, two lovers are on the run. And while set against the backdrop of a modern political crisis, the movie would mostly be a romance.
While any album from a rock giant such as U2 comes with heavy expectations, the quartet added to them when Bono stated the band was delaying Songs of Experience. This late 2017 work was initially intended to be a sequel to 2014’s Songs of Innocence, the latter of which remains a tepid ode to childlike nostalgia. Songs of Experience needed a retooling, said Bono, in order to reference 2017’s political climate. The election of Donald Trump in the U.S., as well as the Brexit movement in the U.K., resulted in a divisive moment in history that apparently necessitated a response from one of the biggest bands on the planet. Perhaps, then, Songs of Experience would possess something Songs of Innocence lacks: a sense of spontaneity.
Not entirely. The more time one spends with Songs of Experience, the more it’s likely to frustrate. Consider it a tale of two albums, one focusing on love songs that possess a tinge of uncertainty and the other looking out to the world rather than inward. There are fine moments on each half of the set, a work that sees U2 applying a heavy dose of sonic tinkering while maintaining high-quality production standards. The latter, heard on Island’s not-as-quiet-as-it-should-be albeit pretty, blue-colored analog pressing, reveal themselves via tight-as-a-fist bass lines, well-rounded rhythms, fair soundstages, and ample separation between the musicians.
For the good, take the melancholic closing of “You’re the Best Thing About Me,” which casts doubt to what had been a heartening personal psalm loaded with the Edge’s still-irresistible arpeggios and a late-song shift into disco-rock territory. Then there’s the over-the-top arena anthem dubbed “The Blackout,” full of end-of-democracy declarations, a danceable yet earth-shattering rhythm, and blown-out, heavily distorted guitars. Other songs fail to reach such peaks and fall somewhere in the middle. Listen to the catchy yet overly pop “Get Out of Your Own Way” or the blues-gospel churn of “Lights of Home.”
U2 also turns in a few full-on disasters. What else to make of the stomping “American Soul,” which wastes a Kendrick Lamar sermon on a song in which Bono tries to tell us about the refugee crisis but does so with a clunker of a phrase such as, “For refugees like you and me / A country to receive us /Will you be our sanctuary/Refu-Jesus”? Or the plodding “Landlady,” which begins tense but soon starts to lumber?
Bono was right. Songs of Experience did need a retooling, but not one centered on the topical. Rather, it required a revamp to give it a focus.
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