If you were to somehow travel back 40 years in time, the world of music would almost certainly be unrecognisable from what it is now. Music in the 70s and 80s had a certain vibe to it, with dance and pop music dominating the charts. Rock legends Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd were at their peak. There is one constant though – U2 were still churning out classics as they have done throughout the 21st century.
To be active for 40 years is one thing, but to be on the absolute summit of rock music and to be the self-proclaimed ‘biggest band in the world’ is quite another. And this has probably been U2’s undoing in recent times – they’ve raised expectations so high that they’ve themselves found difficult to fulfil. Publicity debacles haven’t helped either – the album Songs of Innocence was almost universally hated – thanks to the release strategy as much as the music itself.
So where do they as a band who’ve been at the top for the absolute longest, go from a point where they are struggling to keep themselves from becoming obsolete in the age where rock is dead? In 1989, drummer Larry Mullen, Jr. told Bono he worried the band was “turning into the world’s most expensive jukebox.” The rebranding that followed delivered arguably U2’s greatest album, Achtung Baby. The pursuit of relevance has driven U2 to heights untouched previously, and the band were at the crossroads again following a lacklustre decade of creation.
Songs of Experience was to be the adult follow up to the much-maligned Songs of Innocence, a supposed autobiographical look upon their humble beginnings as an Irish band awed by the punk rock blaring from a Ramones concert. Initially penned for a 2015 release, the album took three years to finally produce and release as Bono had a mysterious ‘brush with mortality’ and the band felt the need to review their direction in light of the US Presidential elections and Brexit.
The album opens with the song ‘Love Is All We Have Left’. Bono optimistically claims there’s ‘Nothing to stop this being the best day ever’, while doing his best Justin Vernon impression with a generous use of autotune and editing, whispering all this while about the power of love and how ‘this is no time not to be alive’. The sudden change in theme is thus unexpected, as the lyrics go from celebrating the power of love and life to realising how fragile it is. Bono reminisces the incident that made him realise they no longer have all the time in the world as ‘I shouldn’t be here ’cause I should be dead’ in ‘Lights of Home’.
‘You’re the Best Thing About Me’ picks up the tempo, even though it sounds disjointed at places and the chorus feels misplaced. The Edge’s vintage guitar work is the saving grace here, and the song is enjoyable if the palpable awkwardness is overlooked. A Kygo remix is featured in the ‘Deluxe Edition’ of the album which is best avoided. ‘Get Out of Your Own Way’ follows as the first genuinely good song on the album, reminiscent of the U2 we’ve known all this while, with a certain ‘Beautiful Day’ flavour to the song. The lyrics turn quickly political, with ‘the slaves are lookin’ for someone to lead them; the master’s lookin’ for someone to need him’ the message. Kendrick Lamar features on this song returning the favour as U2 made a cameo on the song ‘XXX’ in one of the best albums of the year, DAMN.
‘American Soul’ is a throwback to the times of punk of sorts, a rock anthem with Hendrix-esque guitars and a chorus to match with the ‘sound of drum and bass’ of which The Ramones would be proud, and rightly so. A thought is spared to the plight of Syria in ‘Summer of Love’, as Bono has ‘been thinking about the West Coast, not the one that everyone knows’ but that follows more as a footnote than an actual appeal to hearts. The Edge is again excellent, and the song makes for a very good listen.
The theme of the album takes a turn with the deeply personal song ‘The Little Things Give You Away’ and a letter to Bono’s wife, Ali as ‘The landlady takes me up in the air; I go, I go where I would not dare’ – by far the most emotional statement on the album. The rock flavour is then reprised with the song ‘The Blackout’, as the band wonder what the future holds for them in a self-realisation – ‘A dinosaur, wonders why it still walks the earth, yeah; a meteor, promises it’s not gonna hurt, yeah’. The album ends on the same note as it started, with ‘13’ – a mellowed replug of ‘Song for Someone’ from Songs of Innocence.
The album fails to deliver a clear message, as the songs go from political to personal to declaration of age-old clichés. Rudderlessness is perhaps precipitated by the number of producers recruited for the project, a total of 15 in number. What it lacks in songwriting is made up by the sheer effort and concern U2 have put into the album – they now look like a band that genuinely cares about their future and the direction they want to proceed in, that was lacking in their previous recent efforts. One can only hope it is a sign of things to come, as the world is long overdue an album which restores the faith of the masses in the band that has always delivered when needed most.
Essential listens – ‘Get Out Of Your Own Way’, ‘American Soul’, ‘Summer of Love’, ‘The Little Things That Give You Away’, ‘The Blackout’