By Antony Lyon. Nothing I say is going to make you change your mind. You either want to listen to U2’s new album, Songs Of Experience, or you don’t. It really says more about you than it does U2. I have a long record of proselytizing about late-period U2, which says more about me than it does U2, I suppose.
Arguably, this is U2’s best album since All That You Can’t Leave Behind.
Songs Of Innocence is better than it got credit for thanks to its terrible rollout campaign. Having U2 show up on your iPhone uninvited embodies the worst of their desire to be the biggest band in the world, loved by all. I actually find those types of grandiose missteps admirable and endearing. They seem equal parts good intentions and embarrassing ambition-blindness.
U2 should not be this good forty years on. Can anyone remember the last good Rolling Stones song? How about The Cure? So few bands their age are writing and performing new material of this caliber.
There are no perfect songs here. Several songs are nearly derailed by lyrical clunkers. My appreciation for U2 and Coldplay has to accept that these awful lines are part of the same territory that these bands mine to great success. Worst lyric here: In “Get Out Of Your Own Way,” Bono sings, “The face of liberty’s starting to crack / She had a plan up until she got smacked in the mouth / And it all went south.” Ugh. I can’t even…
That said, none of the songs need to be skipped. The chorus of “Get Out Of Your Own Way” has gotten stuck in my head over the last few weeks. The closest to a skippable song for me is “American Soul.” The chorus is platitude at its worst (I just don’t believe in rock n’ roll anymore), and the song contains the much-maligned line, “Will you be my sanctuary / refu-jesus.” Turns out it’s not a Bono neologism at all, and so my poetical wincing aside, it represents an honest and admirable political stand. Anyway, I don’t skip “American Soul” because the breakdown that starts around 2:30 damn near makes me a believer, and the guitar is great. Turn it up! (See #7).
I’m not sure why some are criticizing U2 for splicing modern pop sounds to their music. That’s what U2 has been doing all along. Sure, there was a point where they seemed at the forefront and risky, but that was thirty years ago. Since then, they’ve done a good job of using pop music to add variety and color to their sound. There’s nothing here that seems embarrassing or a betrayal of why you listen to U2. I like the restrained use of the vocoder on “Love Is All We Have Left.” I suppose the snark-machine couldn’t resist the “Bono Iver” quip, so they had to hate on a lovely song.
Why is no one talking about how terrible the mastering of this album is? “Lights Of Home” should swell and throb, but I can barely hear the instruments. The St. Peter’s String Version of the song, a bonus track, has much more life.
The whole thing is over-compressed (there’s a modern pop complaint), and the guitar is buried too often. It’s as if only one element stands out at a time. One exception is “The Little Things That Give You Away.” It has a lovely interplay between Bono’s voice and The Edge’s guitar. It is, perhaps not coincidentally, the most classic-sounding U2 song. Seriously, you could drop it on the back half of Joshua Tree, and no one would be the wiser. I think of it as a tribute to their recent, triumphant Joshua Tree 30th anniversary tour.
A lot of this album is about re-contextualizing. Kendrick Lamar sampled “American Soul” on “XXX” from his much-praised Damn. As a guest on “American Soul,” you get the feeling of a conversation and friendship between U2 and Kendrick. This is much more interesting than some remix featuring a hot star. The album closer, “13 (There Is A Light),” re-contextualizes the core of “Song For Someone” from Songs Of Innocence, which was a pretty straightforward pop song. Here Bono turns it into a personal prayer—“a song for someone like me.” Many a U2 song has become a personal prayer for individuals when they need it. Here we see Bono partaking in that solace and refuge as well.
All of this is to say, while not beyond reproach, Songs Of Experience is U2’s best album in twenty years. The album is great because it’s anchored in the other U2. Take three key moments in the album’s sequence: the beginning, the middle, and the end. Those songs—“Love Is All We Have Left,” “Summer Of Love,” and “13 (There Is A Light)”—are the sound of the U2 that has, for the last two decades, existed primarily on deep cuts, b-sides, outtakes, and soundtracks. These songs have the meditative sound of great late period songs like “The Ground Beneath Her Feet” and “Cedars Of Lebanon.” The music is indebted to the Middle Eastern and North African rhythms that they’ve been playing with for ages. I like that they put that foot forward this time.
These three songs along with several sonic cousins put the anthemic pop that characterizes much of the album into an interesting context. Songs Of Experience has a spiritual backbone. The pop songs are sacred, the overflow of joy. Songs Of Experience is worship music for a life lived in love.
U2 – “The Little Things That Give You Away”