Album: Songs of Experience
In Brief: While the message on several songs is more vital and relevant than anything U2’s done in years, and the callbacks to tracks on Songs of Innocence are much appreciated, the music itself feels tired and restrained, even sometimes on the tracks that are supposed to have a darker mood or a heavier crunch. For a band with the enduring ambition to keep reinventing itself four decades into its career, U2 still hasn’t managed to shake the overly clinical production and instrumentation that plagues a lot of their 21st century output. I’m always thrilled to have something new from these guys, but this one feels more like work and less like joy each time I try to process it, and that’s coming from someone with a high tolerance for U2 trying to subvert the sound of classic U2.
Three years out from the surprise release of Songs of Innocence, U2 has opted for a more conventional release strategy for the planned sequel, Songs of Experience. That’s a pretty short gap, as the time between U2 albums goes, but considering that we knew the sequel was coming from the get-go and it was originally set to be released in 2016, it still feels like it’s been a long time. There’s a part of me that’s glad Bono and the gang held back their new collection of songs, opting to expand and rework what they were originally planning to put out after Bono went through some sort of a health scare and the band reacted to dramatic political changes both in America and back home in Europe. This is a band that was known in its heyday for being both strongly political and deeply personal, so these were good reasons to delay an album. And considering the backlash they got for dropping Songs of Innocence into everyone’s iTunes library whether they wanted it or not, they were wise to roll this one out more conventionally. Still, it made the release of Songs of Experience in December of 2017 feel a bit more like “Okay, well, that happened” compared to the landmark cultural events that it felt like they wanted most of their previous album releases to be. I think U2’s well past its point of peak popularity by now, but they’re still undertaking massive tours and not exactly hurting for fans. Album releases in general just aren’t as big of an event as they used to be. This has to hurt a lot of old-school bands who remember riding that high in the pre-streaming days. But it is what it is, and sometimes I think it’s better for a band to be graceful and let the devoted fans come to a new album as they are ready for it, even if it doesn’t translate to huge sales right away, than it is to try to force the entire world to pay attention to you. That’s got to be a tough lesson learned for Bono in particular. He’s tasted what it’s like to be the frontman of the biggest band in the world, and rock music just isn’t leading the cultural conversation any more, and thus that status isn’t likely to return within his lifetime. I personally don’t care if the entire world is still listening, so long as it’s rewarding for those of us who are. But I know he cares, and it can bog down a new album of theirs with a nagging sense that they’re trying a bit too hard to be too many things to too many people.
Songs of Experience, as its title might suggest, trades in some of the upstart passion that characterized many of the songs about Bono’s youth on Songs of Innocence, and instead finds him addressing his current status as a famous entertainer and advocate from more of a reflective standpoint, while still having at least some passionate and urgent things to say about the state of the modern world, and particularly the role America plays on the world stage. U2 is, of course, an Irish band, and that’s led to criticisms over the years as they’ve commented on American politics from the outside looking in. But now in 2018, where the entire world seems to be looking at America and going “Seriously dudes, WTF?”, the commentary from foreign-born artists who have spent more than enough time here to know something fundamental has changed doesn’t feel out of place at all. The overall message of several songs on this album is perhaps the most endearing thing about it, because I feel like Bono hasn’t been this direct and opinionated in his lyrics for quite some time. If I were judging this record solely on its message and its timeliness, most of it would get an easy A.
Unfortunately, this is U2, a band which established an iconic rock sound in the 80s that ended up being a template for a ton of bands to follow, only to then subvert it in the 90s in a way that sort of became a template in and of itself, for bands that seemed to go off the deep end while radically reinventing themselves, with the ensuing art being worthwhile for those who dug deep into it, but for the most part baffling the rest of the world. They weren’t the first band to do either of these things, but they’re one of the most well-known examples of both. And the sigh of relief breathed by a lot of the older and/or more casual fans when they went back to their earnest old selves at the turn of the century was well-documented, too. Ever since then, they seem to have been stuck in this weird middle ground between wanting to come up with something that presents a startling new side of themselves, and pandering to the base that just wants to hear soaring pop/rock anthems they can sing along to in a huge arena. I’ve liked all of their albums since then, but haven’t truly loved any of them like I love their classics and a couple of those experimental 90s albums. That pattern continues with Songs of Experience, which certainly has a lot going for it within its 13 tracks, but which comes across as bloated overall, not quite delivering on its promise, and honestly just not as fun or as soul-soothing to listen to as the rest of their catalogue since All that You Can’t Leave Behind. It feels downright tedious in places, and even when the songs are more in your face and have these raw instrumental parts, there’s some nagging element of the production that seems to flatten it or hold it back in some way where I feel like “This should be awesome, but it’s only marginally cool.” Long story short, U2 kind of punts in the studio these days, even when their songs set you up to expect something more rowdy or subversive, or even a bit nostalgic. They’re playing it safe even while they’ve got the superficial appearance of kicking against that tendency. It makes a lot of this album super frustrating to listen to.
And I mean, it’s still a pleasant enough album. It might be their most immediate and pop-friendly album in several places, if you’re just looking for catchy choruses and toe-tapping melodies. At times I hear a glimmer of the younger, more carefree U2 that was more intentionally echoed on Songs of Innocence, or even a hint of how the band actually sounded in the old days. But if what you remember most about the time you first fell in love with U2 was how much the rhythm section popped, or how gloriously one of The Edge‘s riffs could resound with just a few simple notes and a hell of a lot of guitar delay, then… well, you’ve been drawing the short straw for a few decades now, the occasional throwback track notwithstanding. Don’t expect any of that to change here. If you’re willing to dig deep into the lyrics and contrast the mood of Experience with its companion album, then this one will be an interesting study. But I think that’s the problem. My interest in U2 at this point is more academic, in the sense that they’re an interesting band to talk about, than it is on a gut level, in the sense that they’re enjoyable to listen to. For an album about the very concept of “experience”, it honestly isn’t much of one.
1. Love Is All We Have Left
The opening track may well be one of the riskiest moves U2 has ever made. We’re so used to U2 albums starting off with these big, immediate anthems – which are often the first single released from the record or else the follow-up – that it’s downright weird after all these years to hear them open with such an introverted, ambient ballad. (Zooropa‘s title track is probably still the least accessible thing they’ve ever opened a record with, but this is the slowest and sparsest.) I guess the idea here was for Bono to begin with sort of a “torch song” that puts him upfront with little in the way of accompaniment – it’s backed by some glowy keyboards that just sort of hang in the air, and a little bass to indicate the chord changes, but it honestly feels more like the kind of thing you’d find deep in a Bono solo record than an effort by the full band. Things get even stranger when a vocorder effect is applied to his voice in the second verse. I’m not sure this is something I ever wanted to hear from U2, especially years past the point where even bands claiming to do the Auto-tune thing for artistic reasons are really pushing their luck. But I can’t deny that this throws me for a loop enough to keep me vaguely interested for its brief run time. It signals that the road map has more or less been thrown out for this album, which intrigues me as to what’s coming next, even if the idea of this song fascinates me more than the actual song. There are some good lyrical snippets here – especially the line “A baby cries on a doorstep” that follows the song’s title in the chorus, hinting than love is an unexpected life-changing responsibility dropped into the lap of someone who least expects it, but comes out grateful. Most of the sentiments here seem a little too disjointed for me to get a full picture of what Bono’s trying to say. I feel like this one’s meant to be oblique and just hint at ideas rather than coming right out and declaring them.
2. Lights of Home
The second track opens with a subdued, kind of moody riff from The Edge that nagged the hell out of me the first time I listened to it, because I knew I had heard it somewhere before. Finally I put my finger on it – Haim‘s “My Song 5”, an edgier track from the darlings of throwback indie pop that delighted me a great deal on their debut album a few years back. I guess Haim co-wrote this song with U2, or at least got a co-writing credit for letting them borrow the riff. It’s a good riff, though it doesn’t come across quite as cathartic here as it did in its original context. U2 wavers between wanting to be edgy and wanting to stick to a light, mid-tempo groove here, which is all kinds of awkward, and threatens to squander an intriguing opening that hints at Bono’s undisclosed health scare which delayed the album’s release by a good year: “Shouldn’t be here ’cause I should be dead/I can see the lights in front of me.” And then, paradoxically: “I believe my best days are ahead.” Optimism and pessimism continue to clash throughout the song, taking on an almost confrontational tone as Bono snarls, “Oh Jesus, if I’m still your friend/Then what the hell, what the hell you done for me?” I can only guess that these words were written during a dark hour of either personal or political turmoil, and it’s an interesting tone for U2 to try on, or at least it would be if the song could muster up some real energy. The chorus wants to be a big sing-along moment, as does the vamp at the end of the song, but neither one quite gets enough momentum going to really take the audience there, largely due to how limp the rhythm section is. Really, I’m feeling a lot of goodwill toward this song because of the lyrics that catch me off-guard and the Haim riff. Without those elements, this would probably be one of U2’s most forgettable songs.
3. You’re the Best Thing About Me
Some reasonably solid singles are up next. I wouldn’t call any of them potential classics, but they get the job done. it starts off immediately with vocals and a dirtier guitar riff – it’s still a pop song at its heart, but at least there’s a bit more volume to the guitars and Adam Clayton‘s bass, and Larry Mullen, Jr. – who I seem to always pick on for playing it way too safe on drums compared to the band’s heyday in the 80s – actually manages a halfway danceable rhythm here. Ultimately I still feel like they’re approaching this one too cautiously, but that’s not as big of a complaint here. Bono’s lyrics here are a mixture of self-effacing humor and genuine admiration for his wife – the title kind of gives away the punchline, which annoys me for the same reason a lot of long U2 titles annoy me. And the phrasing in the chorus just bugs me – “The best thing that ever happened a boy.” Did you forget a “to” there, Bono? Nevertheless, the overall charm of the song wins me over, and I love that Bono can make fun of himself: “Shooting off my mouth, that’s another great thing about me.” Bit of a weird thing to point out in a love song, but I don’t mind U2 trying to be quirky every once in a while.
4. Get Out of Your Own Way
This is one of the songs that likely got a lyrical overhaul after Trump got elected. I’m not mincing words on that, because Bono makes it pretty clear that the woman he’s trying to encourage in this song is none other than Lady Liberty herself – the personification of America. You could assume it’s just a general ode to whatever resistance you want to fight for, along with a healthy reminder to not let over-inflated egos get in the way of making an actual positive change, right up until the second verse hits you with a lyric you just can’t ignore: “The face of liberty’s starting to crack/She had a plan up until she got a smack in the mouth/And it all went south.” Up until that point, the casual listener’s probably getting a “Beautiful Day” sort of vibe from this song (it’s the drum programming, which feels a bit pedestrian, though Larry does bring live drums in for the chorus, just not as powerfully as the song it’s reminding us all of), and then suddenly, at least for a brief moment, shit gets real. This might be another one of several cases where the song needs a bit more power behind the statement it wants to make. I’m feeling the breezy, radio-friendly pop/rock approach, right up until they get to a chorus that isn’t as strong as the vocal hook that drops the title at the beginning of the song. This one really needs to spill over its borders a bit to be the most effective, which means getting off of the comfy grid and doing something a little more raw with the rhythm section, and delivering the hook in a more forceful manner, which I think the band could accomplish if they really set their minds to it without sacrificing the pop appeal of the song. At least there’s some classic Edge guitar delay in the chorus a decent guitar solo in the bridge. Staple U2 elements at this point, but always welcome ones.
5. American Soul
As the guitar outro from the previous track bleeds into this one, Kendrick Lamar shows up to deliver a striking spoken-word twist on the Beatitudes (which I really thought was Kanye West at first due to how it starts with “Blessed are the arrogant, for theirs is the kingdom of their own company!” – I mean, doesn’t that sound like the kind of thing Kanye would say?) I quickly realize we’ve got another “One Tree Hill”/”Exit” sort of situation here, where the bridge between the two songs is probably going to end up at the end of track 4 on some pressings and the beginning of track 5 on others. It sure as hell makes picking either of these tracks to put on a playlist awkward, because there’s no good way to transition in or out in the middle of that speech. It at least shows some forethought in terms of the track order on the album, so I can’t complain too hard. And when The Edge’s crunchy riff shows up, I’m genuinely stoked that U2 has come up with a compelling rocker for a change. Sure,a younger and fresher band would probably get a lot rowdier with the crashing cymbals and scratchy palm-muting in the chorus, but there’s still something joyous about hearing U2 cry out “You and I are rock and roll!” with a real sense of purpose in the chorus. This is, of course, a callback to the bridge of “Volcano”, though for my money, this song has much more compelling subject matter. For me this is the crux of the album, declaring America to be more of an idea than a place, calling on the people to be the “American soul” that new arrivals to the country are looking for, where the actual elected leadership of the country has let them down while the world watches in embarrassment. As much as Bono gets slagged for going on political rants, and I’ve been guilty of that myself in the past, there’s a part of me that missed hearing the guy get genuinely pissed off about stuff in his lyrics like he did in the 80s. The final lines of the bridge are about as pro-immigrant as they come: “Let it be unity/Let it be community/For refugees like you and me/A country to receive us/Will you be our sanctuary?/Refu-Jesus!” Awkward pun aside, I like that Jesus is invoked here, not to get easy cheers from Christians (and it’s been a long time since U2 was comfortably accepted into the insular world of “Christian rock”), but instead to challenge a country – whose current leadership sure likes to pay lip service to Christ for the sake of keeping Evangelical voters happy – to actually put its money where its mouth is in terms of what Jesus actually taught. I can’t pretend to be neutral on this one. It gets me fired up, and I’m happy that they took a real position here instead of defaulting to a vague “peace, love and tolerance” sort of message.
6. Summer of Love
I get a real “campfire” vibe from this mellow, but lightly groovy song. The Edge is playing electric, but it still feels like the kind of thing the group might have improvised unplugged, just letting a simple chord progression loop for several minutes and building some basic melodies and riffs around it. Even though this is a more easygoing song, I feel like it has enough momentum to see through the mood it wants to create, particularly when the strings are added in later. The lyrics are more personal, expressing a desire to get away from dark and depressing wintry weather to a special sun-drenched vacation spot that Bono and his wife keep a secret from the rest of the world. “I’ve been thinking about the West Coast, not the one that everyone knows”, he sings in the chorus, as if to deliberately contrast the previous album’s “California (There Is No End to Love)” by making sure we know it’s not about a place in America. This one reminds me pretty strongly of “A Man and a Woman”, a personal favorite of mine from How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb that I think is criminally underrated, and while I wouldn’t quite put this one at the same level in my list of all-time U2 favorites as that one, it gives me similarly warm fuzzies.
7. Red Flag Day
Edge and Adam totally rule this song. It’s not trying to be a heavy rocker, but there’s a bit of funk to Edge’s riffing (not so much the actual genre… it just pops out in a meatier, groovier sort of way that meshes extremely well with the prominent bass). Edge’s backing vocals are really prominent here as well, in a way that brings back good memories of the War / Unforgettable Fire era. This feels like a joyous song about taking risks, wading out deep into a raging ocean where unknown adventures beckon beyond the horizon. Red flags are typically posted as a warning when the waves on a beach get a bit too powerful for casual beachfront activity, and I like the air of riskiness that this imagery brings to the song. There seems to be a political undercurrent (if you’ll forgive the pun) that comes into play when you think about the pro-refugee message in “American Soul” – this could be about people escaping from war-torn places like Syria through dangerous means because it’s far better than the life they’ll have if they stay put. If so, that makes the inherent bounciness of the song slightly unnerving, but the song does acknowledge the lives previously lost by others attempting to escape, so I wouldn’t say it’s tone-deaf. It just exists in this weird space between romanticized escapism and acknowledging a hellish reality.
8. The Showman (Little More Better)
We’re just over halfway through the record, and that previous section has actually been pretty solid, but this is where I really start to feel the fatigue. This song’s trying to be upbeat and fun, telling us why Bono, the showman, feels the compulsion to constantly make a spectacle of itself. It just has no teeth to it. It’s too busy trying to be lighthearted and bouncy – the acoustic guitar is pedestrian and the electric guitar isn’t prominent enough to give it anything approaching the “glammy rock show” mood that Bono seems to be going for with his excitedly shouted lyrics. And what’s with the phrase “little more better”? Bono just isn’t the kind of guy who can pull off folksiness by way of deliberate bad grammar, and the chorus doesn’t really make it clear exactly what he’s making (or needs to make) a “little more better” when the adoring audience in front of him already looks so good. I can’t believe I’m saying this… but leave the witty commentary on the glammy rock & roll lifestyle to The Killers, ‘K?
9. The Little Things that Give You Away
The next two tracks are ballads that I’ve been quite thoroughly bored with on all of my trips through the album this far. I wanted to say that nothing stands out about these tracks instrumentally, but that’s not true – this one actually builds up quite effectively from a quiet intro with programmed drums and very gentle electric guitar delay to a decent climax that I’m imagining would be a lot more striking in concert, where the dynamic range of the song would be a lot more obvious. Maybe it’s just how this album is mixed – often feeling flat and lifeless where it should be leaping out of the speakers – that makes me not notice the peaks and valleys as much. This seems to be a cornerstone track in terms of how it hints at the mysterious near-death experience that Bono doesn’t seem to want to explain any further. He’s having some sort of an epiphany in its wake, or perhaps looking at himself from another person’s point of view, noting how he’s trying to be strong and stay silent about his true feelings, but the cracks are beginning to show. That sets the stage pretty nicely for more of an open outpouring of emotion at the end… but I don’t know man. Do you remember how emotional U2 songs used to end? I realize it’s ridiculous to expect a “With or Without You” on every record, but a song like this feels downright quaint when you consider what the band was once capable of.
Everything about this song just pisses me off. It seems like a pretty docile song, not the kind of thing that should spark any kind of outrage, but honestly, I can’t think of a duller analogy to describe the love of your life than what U2 has come up with here. Seriously, your wife is your landlady? I don’t know about you, but most of us don’t have romantic experiences – or even terribly close relationships of any kind – with the people we rent property from. We send them checks once a month and call them to come over when broken stuff needs fixing. Maybe this relationship is typically more intimate in Ireland? Look, I realize I’m giving Bono a hard time when all he’s really trying to say is that he’s grateful his lady was able to hold it down at home while he was off risking his livelihood early in his career. He never had to be a starving artist because of her. That’s kind of cute, I guess. Still, out of all the things I’d write in a valentine for my wife, I can’t imagine “Thanks for paying the rent” would be at the top of the list. It just sounds so… coldly pragmatic. Have I mentioned what U2 is doing here musically? No, I haven’t, because there’s nothing worth mentioning. At one point or another I’ve considered everyone in this band to be among rock music’s absolute best at their respective instruments. This middle-of-the-road dreck is a dull waste of their talents that shows how much they’ve becoming willing to settle for mediocrity over the years. It’s not like they were struggling to fill out a record that was barely long enough to be considered an album. They’ve got 13 tracks here! This is cutting room floor-worthy material if I’ve ever heard it.
11. The Blackout
It might be at least partially true that I get impatient with those last two songs because I know what’s coming. This album really needed a shot of energy to perk it up in the back half, and this track, released initially as a muddy live version on the day of the solar eclipse last summer, fits the bill quite nicely. I feel like there’s something that leaks well in advance of every U2 album that hints at a rawer sound than what the album, or even the final version of the leaked song, ultimately delivers. The band just did the leaking themselves this time around, and it made “The Blackout” look like a big, fun, fuzzy song to get the crowd moving, all while poking fun at the band’s own dinosaur status while alluding to the near-death of democracy, rock & roll, life on earth as we know it… whatever the audience holds dear, apparently. It’s a lofty goal, and the song doesn’t quite get there. I mean, how can you take a song all that seriously with these lines: “Earthquake, always happen when you’re in bed, Fred/The house shakes, maybe was it something I said, Ned.” I don’t know who these people are or whether they’re being named for any reason aside from convenient rhymes. But fine, U2 is just being goofy with some sort of a subversive message lurking underneath. They did this on Pop, and I loved that album, and they tried again on No Line on the Horizon‘s lead single “Get on Your Boots”, and I eventually came around and realized I enjoyed that song. I’m fine with that approach here. It’s big, stupid fun, and I don’t need it to be anything else. Well, except as raw and powerful as what that low-quality live leak had us all imagining it would be. Yeah, once this thing got done up proper in the studio, it lost something vital. It’s probably got one of the most memorable Adam Clayton bass lines of the band’s entire career. I really do mean that. I love how he leads the charge here while Edge fuzzes things up the best way he knows how. But everything else is just so evened out in the mix that I’m only lightly grooving to a song that I figure should be knocking me flat on my back if they’d just produced it right.
12. Love Is Bigger Than Anything in Its Way
Oh look, here’s another one of those songs that tells you its thesis right there in the title. I figure the title is meant as a bookend to correspond with “Love Is All We Have Left”, but I don’t know… I feel like knowing at the outset what they’re going to tell me love is makes the actual explanation of why love is like that less engaging than it would be if I got to learn what the point of the song was along the way. That’s a weird nitpick to make… and I’ll acknowledge that it doesn’t apply to “Love Is Blindness”, another one of my all-time favorite U2 songs. Perhaps I just prefer U2 in dark and mysterious mode, or in rock-out protest mode, to the breezy feel-good U2 heard in anthems like this one. This song has good intentions, but it feels very calculated, from the computerized sheen on Bono’s vocal hook to the melody that seems naggingly similar to Zooropa‘s “Stay (Faraway, So Close!)” at times. We’re digging back into a bag of tricks that U2 has employed more effectively before. The results are passable, but they don’t get me excited.
13. 13 (There Is a Light)
The album ends much like it began – with a song that is instrumentally subdued, and focuses largely on Bono’s voice. This one’s got some light piano and percussion to guide it along, and of course it’s obvious to anyone who listened to Songs of Innocence that the title references its fourth track, “Song for Someone”. While that song kind of underwhelmed me due to being a middle-of-the-road ballad that was unnecessarily coy about who its “someone” was, this interpolation of it makes it clear that it’s a song for “someone like me”. Not Bono himself, necessarily, but the people who relate the most to what he’s trying to say and who will pick up the torch for him in the event of his passing. That idea of never letting the light inside you go out comes across much more powerfully in the closing track on an album that Bono could very well have not lived to see through to completion. Even if the music doesn’t exactly thrill me here, it’s a thematically satisfying ending to an album cycle that started with a genuine surprise and mostly ended with a lack of it, so I’ll take this subdued track over the song it’s meant as a sequel to any day. It’s actually not hard to imagine that this could end up being the closing track on the final U2 album. I’m not saying the group should hang it up at this point or that I expect something tragic to happen in the near future… but let’s be honest, having the exact same lineup for going on forty years is an achievement for any band, let alone one that’s weathered this much fame, so many stylistic changes, and rigorous touring schedules throughout. If the group were to choose to end things, this song would be a fitting postscript to a mostly solid career.
The deluxe edition of this album features four extra tracks. First up is the “Extraordinary Mix” of “Ordinary Love” (a track that I’m still annoyed didn’t end up on Songs of Innocence), which makes it slightly more electronic and dance-y, but otherwise isn’t all that different from the original. Next is “Book of Your Heart”, which if you can get past the cheesy title, isn’t half-bad as U2 ballads go; it just seems to hit its climax too soon and end too suddenly to have a whole lot of staying power. Finally, we get remixes of “Lights of Home” and “You’re the Best Thing About Me”, with the former swapping out guitars for strings to reasonably good effect (I like it about as much as the album version), and the latter getting all raved up with repetitive vocal snippets but the song otherwise intact, courtesy of Norwegian DJ Kygo. None of these tracks are essential listening, but I enjoy ’em all.
WHAT’S IT WORTH TO ME?
Love Is All We Have Left $.75
Lights of Home $1
You’re the Best Thing About Me $1.25
Get Out of Your Own Way $1.25
American Soul $1.75
Summer of Love $1.25
Red Flag Day $1.25
The Showman (Little More Better) $0
The Little Things that Give You Away $.50
The Blackout $1.25
Love Is Bigger Than Anything in Its Way $.75
13 (There Is a Light) $1
Paul Hewson a.k.a. “Bono”: Lead vocals
David Evans a.k.a. “The Edge”: Guitars, keyboards, backing vocals
Adam Clayton: Bass
Larry Mullen, Jr.: Drums
LISTEN FOR YOURSELF: