A new U2 album is not the earth-shattering event it might once have been. The biggest talking point around 2014’s Songs of Innocence was that it was bunged, unsought, onto the hard drives of 300 million iTunes users — the music forgotten in the ensuing furore.
With Songs of Experience, it is therefore understandable that the Dubliners should play things safe. Nobody is going to break into your inbox as you sleep and surreptitiously impregnate your computer with 60-plus minutes of Bono warbling. If you want this record you will have to seek it out for yourself.
In other ways, too, Songs of Experience — conceived of during the same sessions that yielded Songs of Innocence — is agreeably conventional. The too-many-cooks tag-team of producers overseeing Songs Of Innocence — including Danger Mouse and Ryan Tedder — has been slimmed down to Royal Blood wingman Jolyon Thomas, a back-to-basics stance that pays off with what is arguably U2’s finest album since 2004’s How To Dismantle an Atomic Bomb.
The big coup is the presence on album centre-piece ‘American Soul’ of rapper of the hour Kendrick Lamar. It’s the third collaboration between the Los Angeles rhymer and the Irish rockers and is once again infused with Lamar’s hyper-articulate fury. His participation has an electrifying effect, especially on Bono, whose caterwauling acquires an urgency too often absent from recent U2 excursions — blessed with a healthy competitive streak he is clearly pushing himself to hold his own against Lamar, and it makes for an absorbing listen (the number is a reworking of ‘XXX’ from Lamar’s own Damn long player).
Thematically, the new album breaks from the claustrophobic nostalgia that made Songs of Innocence heavy going. Its release was pushed back so that U2 could rework the lyrics in the context of a Trump presidency. However, the personal elements of the first draft of material endures, with many songs addressed to people close to Bono.
That intimacy is reflected in the cover — an image by long-time band photographer Anton Corbijn, of Bono’s son Eli and The Edge’s daughter Sian holding hands. Their vacant expressions seem to explicitly reference the sleeve imagery of U2 foundational LPs Boy and War — attesting, perhaps, to a desire to hark back to the spare elegance of their early 1980s incarnation.
Which brings us to the ultimate irony. Where Songs of Experience is, in subject matter, rooted in the present day, musically it draws unabashedly on U2’s established bag of tricks. The unfortunate exception is limp single ‘You’re The Best Thing About Me’ — belonging to that subset of U2 tunes that could one day be covered by Boyzone.
The old tub-thumbing zeal is by contrast restored on ‘Lights Of Home’, where a loping riff and a gospel-inflected vocal harks back to ‘The Unforgettable Fire’. The pedal remains pressed to the floor on ‘Red Flag Day’, where Edge is once again star, and on ‘The Blackout’, a spiritual successor to the industrial avant-pop of ‘The Fly’.
As middle-aged millionaires, U2 are perhaps uniquely unqualified to make politically relevant rock’n’roll. Revelations over the past several weeks regarding Bono’s offshore finances will have further undermined their self-appointed position as speakers of truth to power.
Indeed, for many, the gulf between U2’s status as profit generating machine and their idea of themselves as last rock outlaws standing will be impossible to surmount. Yet to those who continue to take a keen interest — and were perhaps reenergised seeing the group reprise The Joshua Tree in concert over the summer — Songs of Experience is an engaging course correction, and proof that U2 haven’t left it all behind quite yet.
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