The word iconic when assigned to a rock band carries a certain weight and when the band is soon to clock 40 years in their existence that weight can become a burden. U2 long ago acquired their iconic moniker as they have stood atop the rock world for decades. They find themselves lately in a bit of a dilemma. They are too old to go become Nuclear Physicists or even plumbers but too young to retire from the music business. They have outlasted their initial band manager and longtime production team.
Their last album seems to have displayed the band adrift from their moorings trying to figure out the next step in their storied career. Health scares, accidents and a wrong-footed Apple iTunes instant download of Songs of Innocence left the band in a bit of an awkward situation. When the follow-up companion to Songs of Innocence did not materialize when expected; many a critic wondered if it was not the time for the band to pull a “REM” and surrender to the inevitable. In many ways, the December 1st release of Songs of Experience resolves some but not all of the questions that swirl about the band. U2 displays on Songs of Experience more focus and resolve this time around and a return to musical form. The new release is a more even effort providing agreeable predictability for longtime fans along with flashes of inspiration for the critics.
It has been a long road to the final release of Songs of Experience. The band had been working on the release with a mobile studio during 2015 touring for Songs of Innocence and thought they had it ready for release at the end of 2016. Transpiring events like Brexit and Donald Trump’s becoming president stalled the release. Due to those events, the band decided to take a beat and reconsider the entire release in the new political context. They would instead elect to go out on tour for the Joshua Tree 30th Anniversary and let Songs of Experience simmer. This allowed the band to observe the repercussions of the recent events and refine the recording adding more political relevant content.
The production process on this record saw the band cut back on the number of cooks in the kitchen. This move was made to address one of the possible reasons the last album became such an uneven release. On Songs of Innocence, the pendulum would swing too far in the direction of attempting to gain Top 40 relevance. A number of critics would characterize the release as having too much fervour and not enough work on the songs. This time around the production team for Songs of Experience would be honed down to Jackknife Lee, Ryan Tedder, stalwart early U2 producer Steve Lillywhite, Andy Barlow, and Royal Blood compatriot Jolyon Thomas. Even with this stellar group of producers, the new recording continues to support the idea that the band has not quite found the ultimate production team to replace the Eno, Lanois and Flood triumvirate. Sonically the band does seem to be going back to what they do best while walking a tightrope between rehash and revamp. Bono lyrically intends the recording to be a collection of letters written to the people and places close to his heart while providing joy and defiance over a wider scope.
Songs of Experience begins with Love is All We Have Left and offers up great promise with an otherworldly interstellar sonic. The song reminds me of the opening of Zooropa and Sufjan Stevens and Co’s latest effort “Planetarium”. The song does not contain earthshaking lyrics but is engaging. I really took to Lights of Home with its gritty vibe and hoped that much of the album would follow this sonic trail. Displayed on the selection is the brilliance that Bono has in spades when mixing religious allusions with universality. Additionally, The Edge has an excellent guitar solo bit that is so alluring.
The less said about You’re the Best Thing About Me the better. I just can not warm to this song. It comes off to me as a cynical blending of City of Blinding Lights and Vertigo with none too impressive lyrics. The whole effort comes off as rehash with a forced formula Apple commercial sound. The song probably would not bother me so much, but I know the band can do better, and they prove it by doing exactly that on a number of the songs that follow. I found myself liking Get Out Of Your Own Way even less. This song simply depresses me, I don’t like the phrasing and it seems like a song the band did not opt to include on How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb and rightly so, it is treading water and pop fodder. Just when I was really getting concerned about the direction of the recording American Soul unspooled and suddenly there was the proof this band can still produce one heck of a corker. There is some real brawn in this song and I really appreciate what U2 does on this track. The subject matter might not be everyone’s cup of tea but the overall theme is that America needs to extend the tolerance that is in our DNA to the next wave of immigrants. After that strong track, there is a bit of a let down with Summer of Love. I did not enjoy Bono’s stream of conscious Rhymefest, but Edge does some lovely things with his guitar play almost single-handedly salvaging the track. What is frustrating is that the song has such promise but just doesn’t quite deliver.
All joy and laud however for Red Flag Day. As a long time fan of the band, I will ever be a sucker for anything that recalls the days of War. This song accentuates what Bono can do best vocally and has this punchy sound that recalls War along with its thematic allusions to refugees and politics of the current day. The sonics are a definite departure from current pop sensibilities yet totally accessible. If the rest of the album was guided by this approach I would be perfectly happy. Following up this strong track is The Showman (Little, More, Better), which I didn’t take with the first listen but the song grew on me with each pass. It is simply fun with its “twist and shout” 60’s esque vibe and alluring chorus. The Little Things That You Give Away is a ballad which can be best described as the sibling to Kite off of All That You Can’t Leave Behind. There is a dramatic build throughout the song and Edge’s shimmering trademark guitar. It is a very satisfying U2 track that will make many fans very happy. Landlady is another grower but with this caveat, I find people either take to this track or find it dreadful; there seems to be no middle ground. I like it and think it is another grower. It reminds me of a couple of obscure b-sides U2 released in the 90’s during the Achtung Baby/ Zooropa era.
Unfortunately, I find myself not liking the singles the band has put out off of this recording. I just don’t like The Blackout. It feels forced and is a “tick all the boxes” track. There are a lot of likeable elements, like the wicked bass, but it just never gets to its goal failing to rise to the challenge. The song is so formulated yet is trying not to be, it feels like another Apple watch commercial backtrack. I do like Love is Bigger than Anything in its Way, which has a nice change up with the piano-heavy sonic and dramatic feel. Bono again provides a fantastic vocal and really conveys the earnestness needed for a song with this title. I felt like I was transported to the All That You Can’t Leave Behind era and for me, that is a good thing. The final song on the standard release is There is A Light which is a delightful benediction to the album. The organ gives the song a celestial touch and displays U2 doing what they do best; providing encouragement and uplift.
Songs of Experience, in the end, buys U2 breathing room to figure out where they go next. It is not a complete slam dunk but a worthy and credible recording that displays the band once again on the upswing. It is a must for U2 fans and has many songs that should win over critics if they are being honest. There are a few missteps where the production team should have held the band to a higher standard and required just a little bit more effort to bring a song or two to resolution, but overall it is a strong effort. It is obvious the band is still trying to find their footing in the shifting sands of popular music circa 2017. Songs of Experience seems to indicate they have re-corrected their course and just need the determination to rise above relevancy concerns. My advice for longtime fans is to forget the management mess ups and ticket purchasing nightmares and enjoy the new music this iconic band continues to release.