As a lifelong U2 fan, I’ve learned that the key to coming to grips with U2 in the 2010s is not to lower your expectations, but to allow them to be altered – not to something worse, but to something different. Granted, this can be a disorienting experience. We know, we’ve been here before. “Zooropa” and “Pop” had us wondering at the time what the heck was going on. Then “All That You Can’t Leave Behind” pulled us back from the brink. Whew.
U2’s latest album, “Songs Of Experience,” will not magically transport us back to the glory days of the 80s and 90s. Then again, not much can. Bono is far past his twenties, as evidenced by a notably adjusted vocal range and the expected physical limitations (no more climbing on the rafters, old man). The passion is still there, but it’s not screamed from the rooftops as much as it’s engaged in heartfelt conversation. “Experience” will do that to you.
“Songs of Experience” traverses the musical spectrum in a way few U2 albums have, and it provides more hits than misses. Of course, you’ll find the standard reach-the-back-of-the-arena rock offerings. And, in a nod to the current context, there’s a little quarter-kick heavy dance club music, most notably on “The Blackout.” But there are some new offerings: the fun upbeat 60s vibe of “The Showman (Little More Better),” the chill ethereal sounds of the album’s opener and closer – “Love Is All We Have Left” and “13 (There Is A Light)” – and a R&B-ish beginning that morphs into an Edge guitar extravaganza on “The Little Things That Give You Away.” And, “Love Is Bigger Than Anything In Its Way” feels like a praise and worship tune in lyrics and construct. For those who want a quick flashback to the U2 of old, check out “Red Flag Day” and Edge’s lovely descant on the chorus.
This album is a collection of songs in short vignettes that, in true U2 fashion, provide pertinent social commentary. The trio of “You’re The Best Thing About Me,” “Get Out Of Your Own Way” and “American Soul” form a cohesive unit that speaks to Bono’s struggle with the idealized version of America he held his youth, given current circumstances. This is voiced most poignantly not by Bono himself, but a guest appearance from Kendrick Lamar, whose “updated Beatitudes” seamlessly tie the latter two tracks of the trio together:
Blessed are the bullies
For one day they will have to stand up to themselves
Blessed are the liars
For the truth can be awkward
This motif is picked up later, and called out more specifically, in the second verse of “The Blackout,” which mulls the possibility of democracy’s collapse and the rise of autocracy. The chorus, though, calls us back from the brink with a word of hope:
When the lights go out, don’t you ever doubt
The light that we can really be
Even the refugee crisis in Syria is referenced in back-to-back songs: “Summer of Love” (“I’ve been thinking about the West Coast / Not the one that everyone knows / In the rubble of Aleppo”) and “Red Flag Day,” which speaks to the dangerous journey many face when escaping the horrors of their homeland through the Mediterranean Sea.
It has been said that U2 actually had this album finished and ready to go a year ago, but chose to hold off in the immediate aftermath of the 2016 election. The timing didn’t feel right, the story goes, and it seemed to Bono that some of the lyrics required further tweaking to shine an even brighter light on the message the album seeks to convey. And that message is unmistakable: love. Not only does the word appear in the titles of three songs (or four, if you count “Ordinary Love” on the deluxe edition), but the calling to embrace and live out love in the face of growing fear permeates every track in some fashion. Perhaps no song says it better than the next-to-last track: Love is bigger than anything in its way.
This album is a step up from their 2014 release, “Songs of Innocence,” which provided a few bright spots but felt like the band was trying too hard, the metaphorical throwing-spaghetti-on-the-wall-and-seeing-what-sticks. They crammed “Innocence” down the throats of every iTunes user (remember that?) and immediately regretted the stunt. “Songs of Experience” is presented in a more thoughtful manner, providing greater focus lyrically and musically than its predecessor. No doubt, the boys from Ireland can be a bit insufferable at times, God bless ’em. But as someone once quipped, “You can’t reach for the stars without jumping up and down like an idiot.”
These idiots have put together a worthy effort in their latest incarnation. Is this the second coming of “Joshua Tree”? Hardly. Is it a solid album to add (on your own) to your iTunes? I’d say that it is. Experience, it appears, has taught them well.
When STEVE LINDSLEY is not being a pastor, or sermonizing, or songwriting/giggling, or keynoting/leading music for various retreats and conferences, or blogging, or running, or playing pick-up basketball with his two sons and letting them win, or watching music competition reality TV shows with his love wife, it probably means he’s sleeping. Follow him on Twitter at @slindsley. Visit his blog.