“Songs of Experience,” the 14th studio album by U2, comes on the crest of something never before associated with the mainstay Irish rock troupe — low expectations.
Hitting us three years after what was far and away its worst album, “Songs of Innocence” (yep, weaker even than 1997’s techno misfire “Pop”) and a totally botched ad campaign that sent the recording to everyone’s iTunes account for free whether they wanted it or not, U2 had become unfathomably blasé.
It wasn’t that “Innocence” was dreadful by design. It would have been a solid effort for many bands. But given U2’s storied history it sounded purposeless — a project striving for the anthemic status that used to come to Bono and his mates so naturally. No wonder when they hit the road for a stadium tour this year, their repertoire largely excluded songs cut after 2004.
“Songs of Experience” isn’t a full recovery, but it does possess the sound of a band finding its way again. More importantly, that way doesn’t translate into trying to recapture old glories.
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Such an avenue, with all four members now in their late 50s, would be a dead end. Sure, there are echoes of the past, most obviously on “Get Out of Your Own Way,” where Bono’s singing bounces against a hearty Adam Clayton bass line in a manner that recalls “Beautiful Day” (but with a more bountiful backbeat from drummer Larry Mullen Jr.).
Mostly though, U2 chooses to either modestly modernize its sound, as with the ambient cool dominating the album-closing “13 (There is a Light)” or simply strip it down, as in the refreshingly elemental “Red Flag Day.” There are out-and-out surprises, too, like the retro-inclined power pop party piece “The Showman (Little Bit Better),” which places the band in the middle of Beatle-esque fancy.
“This screwed up stuff is the stuff of dreams,” Bono sings in the latter, which reveals a sense of lyrical conflict that nicely distinguishes the narratives fueling “Songs of Experience.”
On one hand, the album is packed with affirmations. The first line of its first song, “Love is All We Have Left,” spells out the sense of hope still at the heart of U2 music: “Nothing stops this from being the best day ever.” But any excess optimism is combated within the same verse “I wanted the world, but you knew better.”
Such conflict, however, plays out best when the music darkens. On “The Blackout,” a dance song for the Trump era, a scorched earth guitar intro from The Edge gives way to a hearty groove as well as topically uneasy sentiments. “We had it all,” the tune goes. “And what we had is not coming back.”
On the surface, U2 seems to be referencing the U.S., but on subsequent listens, one can’t help but sense Bono might just be singing about his own band.
Read Walter Tunis' blog, The Musical Box, at LexGo.com