Pop CultureDecember 3, 2017

U2’s ‘Songs of Experience’, reviewed


longtime U2 fan Eddie Johnston (Lontalius, Race Banyon) reviews the band’s latest album, Songs of Experience.

I have two very strong beliefs:

  1. U2 are a great band
  2. Rock music has never sounded more stale

U2’s newest album Songs Of Experience leaked into the world last Monday and my initial reaction was very positive, mostly because I was just stoked I didn’t hate it. They’re a band I grew up obsessing over, and one I rediscovered after seeing them play The Joshua Tree in full on the 30th Anniversary tour this year. I think they’re a great band, but hell, they haven’t released great music in a long time. Their version of 21st century rock music is largely insufferable. Bombastic guitar riffs and uninspired “ohh ohhh” choruses taking precedence over the experimentation and nuance that made me fall in love with the band.

U2 are a band I truly believe in because, despite all of their bullshit, they’ve always made hits. Arcade Fire’s recent attempt at doing the ironic consumerism shtick was perhaps ambitious for an aging indie band, but it fell flat for the very reason U2 soared through the 90s and 00s. U2 had the hits!

Yes, they had Bono wearing makeup and devil horns calling for a cab on stage, but they also had ‘One’, a song that I detest but marked their fifth US Top 10 hit and cemented their ‘stadium rock’ status. Even when Bono was being his most Bono in the mid-2000s, they were experiencing what was arguably a career peak, winning five Grammys and selling 4.6 million tickets on their Vertigo tour. In their mid-forties! That’s the power of having songs

Songs Of Experience doesn’t really have the songs, but they’ve definitely found something that they’ve been missing. Lead singles ‘You’re The Best Thing About Me’ and ‘Get Out Of Your Own Way’ are predictable and sweet pop songs but they are low points on what is otherwise a surprising album. ‘Love Is All We Have Left’ opens the record, an atmospheric and sentimental intro which must be their most interesting opener since ‘Zoo Station’.

Mid-album highlights see Bono confusingly framing the Syrian refugee crisis into love songs. But there is a life and a conviction to this material that I’ve sorely been missing in U2’s output of the 2010s. ‘Red Flag Day’ has the energy of something off of 1983’s War merged with a more modern sensibility. ‘Summer Of Love’ is a song I’d be happy to hear stuck in LA traffic over the latest Imagine Dragons single.

‘Landlady’ is the most personal song on the album and it’s the one that’s stuck with me the most this week. The instrumentation is subtle and captivating. Bono sounds inviting, letting you overlook his cheesy metaphors. The true star of U2, drummer Larry Mullen Jr, shines in the second half.

‘The Little Things That Give You Away’ is an early fan favourite. It was debuted on their Joshua Tree Anniversary tour earlier this year, and while I admire their confidence in closing a show with a brand new song, I have never seen a crowd stream towards the exits like that while a band was still on stage.

There is still a fair amount of rock here, heavy riffs and all (including one borrowed from Haim’s ‘My Song 5’) but it’s contextualised in a way that makes it easier to swallow than 2013’s lifeless Songs Of Innocence. ‘American Soul’ is an extension of the Kendrick Lamar collaboration ‘XXX’, introduced with a monologue from the man himself. ‘The Blackout’ is likely to become a live staple and has an edge (lol) to the guitar that hasn’t really been heard since their ‘90s albums.

Songs Of Experience is not without its U2 nonsense, and it’s not something that’s going to launch them into the charts again. But I don’t think it’s “another dud in U2’s once flawless discography” as Consequence of Sound called it. As a longtime fan I’m happy to sit with these songs, to see how they perform them on their upcoming arena tour, but most of all I’m excited about the possibilities of this record.

While I enjoyed seeing them play their hits earlier this year, it was the album cuts they hadn’t played since 1987 that caught my attention. They’re at their best when performing the unfamiliar. They’re a band that thrives in the new, not the old.

The future will hopefully see them continue to find their place in a world where rock music has died. They might never have pop chart success again, but Songs Of Experience confirms that if they are going to become a nostalgia act, they’re not going to go quietly.

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