Album: Songs of Experience
Genre: Alternative Rock
Put-it-on-a-playlist: “The Little Things That Give You Away,” “Landlady”
There are two ways you can choose to judge latter-day U2—as a once-great band still kicking it despite the changing times, or an overly self-important band still dicking it to spite Father Time. Genuine attempt at artistry or all-too-easy self-parody? Songs of Experience is a bit of both.
U2 are never going to recapture their Joshua Tree glory days, let’s face it. Yet they can still fill an arena…and bring the big, inspirational rock sound to fill it with. Remarkably consistent Bono’s bunch is, and they have remained remarkably contemporary. Say what you will, but Songs of Experience is the sound of a 2017 pop-rock record.
“Love is All We Have Left” opens the album with Bono, ambient orchestral synths and a bit of Auto-tune. It may be off-putting for the Irish die-hards who’ve been fans since Slane Castle, but I appreciate this non-rock beginning. Ever since the turn of the century, U2 has altered their sound ever so slightly to successfully adapt. This alternapop intro almost sounds like a complete metamorphosis, but the band unfortunately doesn’t explore this new direction until the final song (the beautiful “13”).
What immediately follows is a massive disappointment—radio-friendly rockers with all the elements of U2 clichés that lend credence (and laughs) to the jokes— “Lights of Home,” “You’re the Best Thing About Me,” “Get Out of Your Own Way” and “American Soul” are all terrible. The old Irish die-hards would rather U2 stop trying to recreate “Beautiful Day” ad infinitum. The melodies are as faux-inspirational as 2014’s failed Songs of Innocence, while Bono’s lyrics are among his least memorable. I’d offer a quote but I’d disprove my point.
This four-song stretch is one of U2’s worst, and even Kendrick Lamar comes across as a schlockmeister in his guest “verse.” And not far behind Lamar is “American Soul,” the origin of DAMN.’s “it’s not a place/this country is to me a sound/of drum and bass” feature.
“American Soul” is one of the most dreadful in the band’s entire catalogue—when do we get the Imagine Dragons remix? Perhaps I can pinpoint the low point of their entire career: “Refu-Jesus.”
Luckily, U2 restores my faith in their continued existence by backloading all the good songs toward the end. Once they let loose and stop trying—or rather, stop trying too hard—U2 fulfill the promise bestowed by the title.
Their experience is adaptation, and U2 prove they can craft pretty-good very-2017 rock-pop. Adam Clayton gets the bass pumped up to electro-dance levels, and The Edge seamlessly blends guitar and synths into his signature arpeggio. Larry Mullen Jr. even flirts with indie meet-cute in his processed drumbeats. All we’re missing is a millennial whoop (which these guys practically invented, by the way).
It’s a musical setup that shouldn’t work for U2, but they’ve always been millennials at heart anyways. Ever since the ‘80s, U2 were anticipating the turn of the century. They finally recapture some of that All That You Can’t Leave Behind millennial magic, putting it all together for a fantastic stretch of delightfully hooky tunes.
“The Showmen” is schlockier than anything from tracks 2 thru 5, but it defies odds. We’ve heard melodywise 2010s-pop like this hundreds of times before, but not once was it sung by a singer with as much talent and bravado as Bono. Say what you will about the self-baptized mythmaker, but there are few rockers today that still possess this style of Robert-Plant-charisma.
While the opening portion of the album is U2 at their worst, every song that follows—save for the penultimate “Love Is Bigger Than Anything in the World”—is latter-day U2 at their best. The blend of rock and pop is seamless, and some of these songs are quickly becoming favorites of mine.
“The Little Things That Give You Away” is an arpeggiated slow-burn in the same vein as “Bad,” while the following “Land Lady” follows suit perfectly. This isn’t U2 at their absolute best, but Songs of Experience features several moments that match the peaks of No Line on the Horizon.
The Edge is the album’s unsung hero, even though his performance is more understated and subtle than anything he’s done. On Experience, The Edge shows that the guitar can still play an integral part in 2017 pop, and the atmosphere he conjures up is a new career benchmark.
So, where does this album stand in the U2 canon? Songs of Experience contains some of the worst music of U2’s career, but it also contains several songs that contend among their best of the new millennium.
If anything, it proves that U2—even though they’ve reached media oversaturation a long time ago—are still capable of making worthwhile music 37 years into their career. Some say they are coasting on a Legacy Pass they never quite earned, but I say coast on. They “coast” so well that they could fool you into believing anything. Fooled me into forgetting tracks 2 thru 5 (and 12) even exist.