U2 “Songs Of Experience” Review

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U2 continue to tarnish their legacy with another half-baked, bored release.

Let’s get this straight – U2 is bad with odd-numbered decades. Is this safe to say? They ruled alternative music in the 80’s (until 91), and then got experimental and weird. While their 90’s output is light, it also wasn’t very well-received. They again ruled the 2000’s, with two highly critically-acclaimed albums and a third that (I argue) deserved to be. But this album – their fourteenth – marks their second bad album of this decade. Two of two. And much like the conceptually-related predecessor, 2014’s “Songs Of Innocence,” this album lacks any kind of humor, any kind of self-awareness, and most importantly, any kind of legacy. This is especially pertinent for a band like U2, a band who have chronically taken themselves too seriously. To put it frankly, this album is a bore.

“Songs of Innocence,” the band’s previous album, was centered around what the U2 guys were doing and listening to as kids, and how it affected them. This album sees them all grown up and doing….what they do now? The album’s concept is pretty unclear since they’ve been famous for a very long time now. Lyrically, the concept is centered around letters that Bono has written to people in his life. But after the tumultuous political events of 2016, the band delayed the album to rewrite some of the lyrics to make them more politically relevant. So, it’s not really about the letters anymore, but it also kind of is. Again, the general concept remains unclear.

Even with muddled ideas, U2 are one of the most equipped bands to persevere and release gold. But they just phone it in all across “Songs of Experience.” Blame doesn’t befall any one member. Bono’s vocals are as fine as they always are, but the words he sings are as empty as an arena on the PopMart tour. The album was derived from letters Bono wrote, but also edited when the band decided to shelve the album. If that doesn’t show a lack of commitment, then I don’t know what does. Also, even with the more political additions, Bono’s lyrics almost never move beyond a spiritual level normally reserved for a Chainsmokers B-side. The album is filled with vague songs about finding love, growing up and, I don’t know, ‘gaining experiences’ or something. The second track, “Lights of Home” becomes centered on the know-nothing phrase of “if only you could see yourself.” The word ‘love’ shows up in three different song titles, and a fourth on the deluxe edition. Other song titles like “You’re the Best Thing About Me,” “Get Out Of Your Own Way” and “Love Is Bigger Than Anything In It’s Way” sound like tone-deaf Smiths covers.

Again, as U2 are not an infallible band, this could all be saved by the music. But it just isn’t. All but one track on this album seem half-assed or, I guess worse, quarter-assed. That lone track is “American Soul,” the only song with any discernible soul or urgency. The song seems to depict the band’s journey over to America, with the same potency that the punk/new-wave scene had at the time. The track even gets intro’ed by one of music’s current heroes, Kendrick Lamar, accepting a hefty paycheck here (Lamar credited U2 as a guest on his 2017 album “DAMN.”). Otherwise, there’s just nothing interesting happening on this album. The Edge’s most interesting guitar line is wasted early on “Lights of Home,” and it ends up sounding like a rehashing of Cage the Elephant’s “Mess Around.”

The truth of the fact is, U2 know their audience, and it’s tough not to blame them for it. Many of these songs, especially early tracks like “You’re the Best Thing About Me” and “Get Out Of Your Own Way” are probably going to sound great in concert. U2 have hit the trajectory where their new music is built solely for how it sounds live. And in a way that’s fine – U2 are regularly cited as one of music’s best live acts, and music is after all, a business – but it means that the studio versions of these songs sound completely manufactured, totally soulless and capitalistic, like they exist just to exist. Bono’s lyrics say nothing, and the music never gives off any potency, asking only for casual attention. Even the album’s best ballad, “The Little Things That Give You Away,” though decent, is far from any “City of Blinding Lights.”

At the end of the day, it’s entirely unfair to say that nothing works on this album. Everything works – it works like a well-oiled textile machine trying to push through in the digital age. There are no signs of life on this album, a concept album about life. All of the components of a U2 album are present, but they’re sounding so outdated and lifeless that it demands the listener to search on Google, “Rock & Roll Hall of Fame induction revoking.”

But does this matter? Does any of this matter? Absolutely not. U2 will remain one of the highest-selling live bands, and rightfully so. Fans will sit through these songs – some eating up every word, some twiddling their thumbs. U2 transcends all of fame and reality, and their output post, let’s say 2004, doesn’t matter at all. They could wear blackface and do a full album of 2 Live Crew covers and it probably wouldn’t hurt their image much. So here’s a compromise – let’s forget this and “Songs Of Innocence” exist, and continue to enjoy U2’s golden years? We will never escape U2’s golden years, and they *did* put out some quality music, so let’s just always focus on that? And with each passing album we’ll do this song and dance about how good they once were for six months before we completely forget this new album even exists. Their new music is limp, and although they didn’t surprise-release this album by violating people’s Apple accounts, it still feels unwelcome. But as I type this finale, I’m listening to “Bullet the Blue Sky,” knowing that old U2 will never actually get old. Like it if you do, don’t if you don’t, it doesn’t even matter. U2 is here to stay. I guess I’ll just show myself out.

Grade: D+

By: Andre McNally

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