U2 are one of those bands that seem to be both universally loved and reviled. The aging Irish rockers could arguably have been described as the Coldplay of the 20th Century, and they have certainly continued that legacy of endearing pomposity into the modern day. Some fans hark back to the late 80s “biggest band in the world” era as their best days, but for me, the band’s 90s work has always stood above the rest of the pack. So when guitarist The Edge remarked a couple years ago that Songs Of Experience would bear some resemblance to U2’s on-tour experimentation from that era, I was certainly intrigued.
The album that emerges isn’t quite the breakthrough that listeners like myself might have hoped for. What it is, though, is a decisively edgier and bolder release than the band has put out for quite some time. At times the band sounds more like their early 80s post-punk selves than anything else, for instance on the track Red Flag Day, where jagged guitar riffs, gritty basslines and soaring backing vocals create an atmosphere that sounds decisively indie in nature. The opening number Love Is All We Have Left, on the other hand, represents the record’s more sombre tones, and also features some clever use of autotune, thankfully as an attempt to digitise Bono’s vocals rather than to cover up their rawness. Cheery lead single You’re the Best Thing About Me makes an appearance early on in the track listing, but one-time listeners will probably be glad to hear that its overtly upbeat chorus is about as straight-forward and poppy as the album gets.
It is hard to shake off the feeling that much of this record, like almost every U2 album, is built for the stadium. Lights of Home, with its anthemic hooks, grandiosity, and references to Jesus seems almost like it could have fit onto any release by the band since the year 2000, even though it is a catchy and impressive song. Whereas Love Is Bigger Than Anything In Its Way is an almost comically U2-ish mix of ballad and anthem, seemingly inseparable from images of the band on the big stage. The album’s best moments lie in its details and its deeper cuts. Tracks like Summer of Love and The Little Things That Give You Away display a sense of passion that any fan will be eager to hear, while The Blackout crashes around with a level of noise that sets it apart from the standard U2 fare. Each track is peppered with electronic pulses and beats that remind us of the band’s desire not to stay entirely within the defined parameters of a rock group. Yet the persistence of pop choruses and song structures indicates the restraint the modern U2 now has, unwilling to dive fully into brave and controversial new worlds of sound like they did at certain points in the mid-life crisis of their careers.
Much was made in the past year or so about Bono’s new, politically-charged approach to Songs Of Experience. The frontman allegedly rewrote whole swathes of lyrics as a direct response to Donald Trump’s election in 2016. Yet, aside from cheesy rocker American Soul, with its references to refugees and to the American dream as a beacon for wandering immigrants, the listener is fortunately not too often bludgeoned over the head with rebellious sentiment. The prevalence of the word “love” in song titles and lyrics throughout the album, though not unusual for U2, does carry the distinct whiff of some kind of peacenik form of revolt by the lyricist Bono. One is struck by a sense that this is a band that still feels as if they can “do something” about injustices the world over, and if there is anything that might turn the naysayers right off of this record, it’s probably that air of moral purpose that will do it. If you’ve never been a fan of the Band Aid era, pulpit preaching, slightly sanctimonious side of Bono, then I would advise you to keep your mind on the melody and not the lyrics of these songs.
Songs Of Experience is certainly no revolution for U2. But it is a bloody good album, and worth a listen for anyone who has some level of respect for Bono, The Edge and their gang. Throughout the record the band seem mostly unafraid and unashamed of what they are. They tread the lines between aping the sounds of younger bands and staying true to their tried and tested formulas, but ultimately, they just about pull it off. The shortcoming, perhaps, is that this sense of identity is not always clearly expressed here. Each track seems to reflect a different period of the band’s history, and each track, if listened to individually, would give you a completely different impression of what direction this album could have taken. There seems to have been a struggle to define exactly what the “sound of U2” should be in 2017. But the conclusion that has been arrived at, though a tad disjointed, is pleasing, and proves that this is a band hopefully capable of delivering memorable tunes and sell-out tours for some years to come.