Review: U2, Songs of Experience

By Landon MacDonald ,

U2 have long been obsessed with age and youth simultaneously. Their acceptance of age has led them to their greatest triumphs while their longing for youth, their biggest failures. Boy was the first record by Bono, Edge, Adam and Larry when they each were hardly older than one. In an interview after their underrated but still poorly titled How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb that he could have titled the record—“Man”. It would have been a fitting coda to a record that contained both of their best songs this century—“Sometimes You Can’t Make It On Your Own” (they were into very, very long song titles at the time) and “City of Blinding Lights”. They seemed old then, now they are ancient. U2 was once the successors to the Rolling Stones, now they are peers on literally every level, including diminishing returns.

The Rolling Stones being the biggest band in the world for a while and U2 acting like it both when it was true and when it wasn’t. They should have realized that there was no way EVERYONE would like their last record. I mean, is there a record in the world that EVERYONE likes? There is probably even some people who don’t like Rumours, I mean, I don’t want to know them, but they probably exist. But perhaps it wasn’t as much of a left turn as it seems. If Bono could have put Rattle and Hum in everyone’s mailbox on vinyl in 1988, it seems to reason that he obviously would have.

Perhaps the reverse In Rainbows that it appears now that U2 pulled three years ago was more a product of the wrong place at the wrong time with the wrong size heart by which I mean too big. Can’t you admire though, that Bono actually thought that EVERYONE would love his record? Isn’t there something universe-size beautiful about that thought? Have you ever been that confident for one second of one minute of one day? U2 continues to be a magnet to the biggest and the best—being the highest grossing tour almost every year and guesting on this year’s best record—not their own. And they get a guest spot in return.

Yes! Finally, we have arrived at the actual music on Songs of Experience. Its about half as huge as it believes it is, but as big as any rock record I have heard this year. The vocals sit uncomfortable high in the mix, to make sure grandpa can make out the words because he can’t read the booklet without his glasses he can’t find. The Edge plays like he is some spiritual successor to Jimmy Page and Jimi Hendrix when his riffs are closer to watered down Dan Auerbach.

For the better part of three records, U2 have proven that their attempts to be bombastic and quick are remarkably less successful than their somber movements. The reversal to that narrative is “Red Flag Day” which has a chorus and outro that sounds more like 80’s U2 than any single song they have written in the three decades since.

“American Soul” begins with Kendrick sarcastically rapping a reverse Sermon on the Mount, it's so potent and so immediate and Bono’s feeble lyricism following such a current talent is all the more painful. It's these songs that make late-period U2 so painful. If dadcore soft rock that acts like it has Zeppelin riffs is your favorite thing about U2 this song will surely appease that. It’s a mediocre pop-rock song that truly believes it’s a game changer. Can you read these lyrics with a straight face: “You are rock and roll. You and I are rock and roll.” Those are George Lucas-level placeholders. Even on a concept level, there is zero roll in this song. The whole vibe is so inadequate and reeks of fruitless exertion, like a farmer wearing $500 Ray Bans, it's easy to see straight through. Having Kendrick at the top of this song is like eating one bite from Morton’s and then finishing with Baconators.

Don’t read this as modernism though. U2 is one of the most important and powerful artists of the 80’s—along with Prince, the Smiths and the Pixies. They are iconic and along with Prince were able reinvent themselves to arguably even greater success. This isn’t like some guy who has always hated U2 bashing them. I LOVE U2, but this record is diet U2. Its pop-rock disguised as Important Rock and the disguise is transparent. “Blackout” and “You’re The Best Thing About Me” are the chief offenders.

Elsewhere, “Summer of Love” is as cheesy as you would expect but not as painful. “The Showman” uses the acoustic effectively and the chorus pops well holding its melody with swagger. The slower the record gets, the better it gets. The two best tracks—“The Little Things That Give You Away” and “Love Is Bigger Than Anything In Its Way” pace themselves, unfolding slowly and refusing the urge to get giant, letting their message tower over the instrumentation. In fact, the three songs with “love” in their title, these two and the opener could have made a brilliant, if short EP.

Songs of Experience ends with a surprise. In most interviews Bono has foretold the final track to be “Love is Bigger…” but we get “13” including a beautiful coda to the delightful “Song for Someone” from their previous record. In fact, looking back without the iTunes element, Songs of Innocence was a decent record overshadowed by the stunt of a reverse Grinch. Bono’s heart has always been two sizes larger than the average.

As a Christian, I hoped for “Songs of Ascent”—the promised rock and roll meditation on the ancient Jewish Psalms they sung while hiking to the temple. Perhaps that could be the end of the trilogy, here’s to hoping they give in to their more somber urges as they pay greater dividends than U2’s extended adolescence here. C PLUS

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