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REVIEW: U2 – ‘Songs Of Experience’ (Island / Universal)

Every criticism that U2’s many detractors had ever made against the group seemed to be justified by the farcical roll-out of their last album Songs Of Innocence three years ago, where the record appeared on every iTunes user’s account automatically without the listener even agreeing to it. The breathtaking arrogance of the mentality behind such a move, and Bono’s gratingly earnest explanations in the aftermath, as if he had presumed that the whole world would reply “thank you sir!” to what he must have regarded as a great act of altruism in the digital age.

With his messianic ego at least temporarily placed in check, U2 went back to the drawing board with Songs Of Experience, the “adult” companion album to the explorations of carefree childhood and naïve adolescence in Songs Of Innocence. While the PR campaign may have been a bit more humble, the concept behind the album itself is wearyingly and typically grandiose for a U2 album. Yet again, we’re dealing with a case of The Big Music, coupled with one of the group’s occasional existential crises where they obsess over staying in touch with common trends and retaining their modernity. This goes back to their volte-face from the blues / American roots music of Rattle And Hum to the pristine, European-influenced Achtung Baby with Brian Eno in 1991, a compulsion which manifested again in 2000 when Bono said that U2 were “re-applying for the job of best band in the world” with All That You Can’t Leave Behind.

READ MORE: U2 // ‘The Joshua Tree’ at 30 years old

Songs Of Experience is the sound of four guys approaching their 60s making a desperate bid to keep rock music relevant (in their eyes at least) as well as themselves. Bono himself said in a recent New York Times profile that guitar music has gone stale and has lacked the innovation of “R&B, hip-hop and pop” over the last few years. A grand mission statement on paper, but in execution it yields indifferent results, barring a few admittedly very good individual moments where the group’s conscious efforts to move outside their field of experience pay off.

Over the years, Bono and co have become expert at repackaging contemporaneous trends in rock music, watering them down and selling them back with puffed-up presentation. Unfortunately, to this end, quite a lot of Songs Of Experience sounds like the kinds of bands over the last 15 years who have been filling arenas. Arcade Fire, Kings Of Leon, Bastille, Mumford & Sons, The Killers and Coldplay… all of whom, ironically, have taken their cues from U2 themselves.

Lead single ‘You’re The Best Thing About Me’ is a case in point; resembling latter-day Coldplay songs and prime-time Arcade Fire, its faintly motorik pulse that drives it along makes it a low-key success of sorts. ‘Get Out Of Your Own Way’ and the Haim collaboration ‘Lights Of Home’ also make conscious efforts to blend in with the sound of guitar music as it stands in 2017 – but there’s no evidence that they’re about to grab back the zeitgeist.

Much less appealing is ‘Landlady’, which sounds like an offcut from The Killers’ Battle Born that not even they would have bothered with. ‘Summer Of Love’ takes too heavily from Lana Del Rey’s doomed West Coast romanticism. ‘The Little Things That Give You Away’ is an exception insofar as it actually sounds like plain old U2 – that is, it’s a bit long and not particularly interesting.

All this said, there are a handful points in Songs Of Experience where U2 strike gold, which is itself enough to elevate the album above anything they’ve recorded since How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb. The pleasingly shapeless and sombre paean to rationality and peace of the opener ‘Love Is All We Have Left’ is reminiscent of Bon Iver’s Auto-Tuned moments. The post-Charlottesville anger of stomper ‘American Soul’, which sees Kendrick Lamar pay back the favour of Bono’s appearance on ‘XXX.’ from DAMN. with a verse forming a bridge from ‘Get Out Of Your Own Way’. ‘Red Flag Day’ and ‘The Blackout’ see the rhythm section of Adam Clayton and Larry Mullen Jr. take the spotlight for a bit, and they actually sound like they’re having fun.

Despite the overwhelming temptation to talk down U2, there’s actually very little that’s wrong with Songs Of Experience – but there’s nothing great about it either. It could have done with trimming and editing in places as a few tracks simply replicate the vibes of others, and playing a game of ‘spot the contemporary musical reference’ is entertaining for a while. However, in the context of the last 25 years of their output, it’s a qualified triumph. Perhaps it will go on to mark the beginning of a new era in U2’s long and storied history, as they enter the fifth decade of their existence. (5/10) (Ed Biggs)

Listen to Songs Of Experience by U2 here via Spotify, and tell us what you think below!

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