By blending a dazzling array of musical influences and directions for more than 4 decades now, Irish band U2 has come to represent one of the boldest rock bands in both genre-blending style and lyrical impact. 40 years since U2 was formed, the band continues to develop and refine the template they essentially created with surprisingly positive results. Several decades forward and U2 remains the world's preeminent rock band. There is literally nobody else in rock music these days that can generate a massive frenzy of excitement and speculation with the prospect of a new release as this band. Never content to repeat themselves or to fall into a lane that would permanently define them what they are supposed to be, over the decades the band has constantly pushed forward with new sounds, concepts, and ideas in order to challenge their own music and in return to challenge the notion of rock music's limits. Songs of Experience,
U2's 14th studio album, comes 4 years since the release of the previous Songs of Innocence.
While both releases are conceptually bounded together they couldn't be more contrasting in practically everything. On the previous release, Songs of Innocence
the band dived deep into its youth and crafted an intricate cosmology that explored subjects from their adolescent period and how those occurrences have shaped and contributed to their worldview and work. Deceptively simple, U2's songs are crafted on melodies and arrangements that don't always reveal the songs' depths upon first listening but only after several more. Songs of Innocence
was more criticized for its marketing strategies rather its content which clouded the music's own impact. The album's outcome revealed a new and potent world to mine.
But restlessness has been a defining characteristic of U2's musical trajectory. Although SOE
is recognizably U2, the album is very different from anything they have done previously even when compared to its sister record (SOI). The prevailing characteristic of this album is the intimacy and the warmth on most of these songs as it's starting point are love letters in the shape of songs to people from the band's closest circles or anyone who recognizes himself in these songs. Having largely eschewed the heavy guitars that dominated much of U2's output, the band has made what is arguably the most refined record they have ever released.
The first song from this album that was premiered was "The Little Things That Give You Away" during the Joshua Tree Revisited tour in 2017 when the band toured the world with songs from this watershed album. Never a historical act, the band decided at the very last minute to do a past album tour at the expense of supportingSongs of Experience,
firstly citing the political situation in the world (with the election of Donald Trump and Brexit and the surface of right-wing conservative movements) but it was afterwards revealed that singer Bono has had an unspecified "brush with mortality." "Little Things That Give You Away" is a potent love song with champion vocal deliveries by Bono. The man hasn't sung this way in years. It truly is one of the standout songs on this album. It's built on simple keys and beats who keep it flowing perfectly but it soon builds into a powerhouse with Bono's voice carrying the main melody. Another standout, in the same manner, is the album's opener "Love is All We Have Left." Opening the album in a beautifully understated fashion this song features a gentle inflow of ambiances with gently circling, vacillating synths. Again it's Bono's voice that carries the song's emotive melodies. The way the voice is processed and the little details beneath it make it even sound more poignant. Both the synths and the voice slowly dock together as the whole thing builds to a unified whole. Never has the band in its entire career had such a quiet song as an album opener.
U2's career has been a long and winding one that has seen the band repeatedly shed its skin and begin anew. The band has already done this many times before but the barring of the songs to its basic essentials was done previously on All That You Can Leave Behind
when it left all of the wild experimentation and diverse textures from the '90s behind. And in order to sound appropriate for today's market that is dominated by pop and R&B stars, they have employed the talents of a plethora of modern-day producers -people like Jacknife Lee, Danger Mouse, Paul Epworth, Declan Gaffney, Brent Kutzle, Andy Barlow (Lamb), Jolyon Thomas, Ryan Tedder, and Steve Lillywhite. This army of producers truly helps the band's songs to go deeper into melodic variations, interesting structures, sparing arrangements and lyrical potency. As a result, the record's carefully considered aesthetic and meticulous production bear very little of the band's past oeuvre. What they deliver on this record is a sparkling repertoire of neatly crafted pop songs. It represents a collection of very strong melodies on every level where the tunefulness plays a central a role and where everything is subordinated to it.
"Love is All We Have Left" is followed by "Lights of Home" which is driven by jangling warped guitars and urgent melodies and ends with a gospel choir-like vocals. The storytelling in his lyrics jumpcuts into something darker. Probably the lyrics were inspired by that "brush with mortality" which many celebrities in the past two years have certainly faced with. It's an interlude song and is one of the weakest moments on this record. The deluxe issue has another version of this song (St. Peter's String Version) which is actually the way this song should be arranged and performed. This version is much stronger and more at home than the one on the album's regular edition. With a few exceptions, most of the music on this record throughout is cheerful and joyous, sweeping up with its melodies and lulling into singing along. "Get Out Of Your Own Way" sounds like it has arrived from somewhere and with its singalong chorus it goes straight into the heart. It's a fast-paced track with the same kind of rhythm and urgency as an older song in the band's oeuvre, "Invisible." Bono's voice, hushed in one moment and soaring in the next, lends itself to the wide range of emotions that exist on this song. The song's lyrics elaborate on life's ability to throw curves and the importance of resilience and understanding.
This song is followed by the upbeat and playful little rocker "You're The Best Thing About Me" and is one of those songs that usually get a heavy rotation in car stereos. It's ignited by Stones-like riffs but its propelled by bumpy yet playful and shuffling beats. This cheerful song has a recitation by rapper Kendrick Lamar on the outro and it serves as an ironic antidote to people's perception of superstars. This speech soon morphs into the start of "American Soul." Much of the album overall feel pleasant and inoffensive one. It's largely thrilling, fun and intimate affair with only a few songs creating much- needed disturbances in its flow and delivery. In addition to flashing off some much-needed cheer, Bono also sings about the pressing issues of the day like the issue with the floods of refugees ("Red Flag Day"), the post-truth world of Donald Trump ("American Soul").
"American Soul" has that much needed biting edge and fierceness. Based on heavily processed and hammered out riffs this song borrows plenty from two songs"Volcano" (from SOI
) and "Get on Your Boots." (from No Line on the Horizon
)The energy is almost jarring, especially when Bono reaches the song's chorus which reappears from the previously mentioned song "Volcano." In the song's lyrics, Bono introduces his thoughts on America from his viewpoint, as a longstanding NY resident, that is opposite to the xenophobia that the current US administration is spreading towards immigrants and refugees:"It's not a place/This is a dream the whole world owns/The pilgrim's face/It had your heart to call her home/" or "For refugees like you and me/A country to receive us/Will you be our sanctuary."
"The Showman" is one of the most Beatles-esque songs the band has ever written. It's a cheerful and bouncy song much in the manner of "Wild Honey." (from All That You Can't Leave Behind
). That song has a bounce and swing and is pure joy. "Landlady" has that same shimmer and cheer. These songs benefit from a brighter production and the singer/songwriter who feels invested in sculpting his melodies with the same care that he gives his lyrics. Edge's guitars on most of these songs have been put into a subordinate role and his guitars serve to add textures and accent, but nothing more. Another song that disrupts the nice flow is the glam rock stomper "The Blackout." Ever since HTDAB,
U2 has been having songs with glam rock styled moments as on songs like "Peace and Love or Else" or "The Miracle." With its pumping drums and juicy bass lines "The Blackout" just barrels forward while Bono sings about modern dark ages that the post-truth era really is: "Statues fall, democracy is flat on its back/ We had it all and what we had is not coming back."
The very quiet yet emotionally very strong and loud "13 (there is a light)" is what closes the album. The first part of the song closely resembles the melody of Paul Simon's classic "Mother and Child Reunion" that U2 often played snippets of during the I+E Tour in 2015. The second part is a rendition of "Song for Someone" from SOI
and with these reflective, nearly spoken words Bono manages to shift the subject of this song which was about his wife to their four children. The deluxe version of the album has also a beautiful remix of "Ordinary Love" that adds something else to the original song, a remix of "You're The Best Thing About Me" (U2 vs Kygo) and a gem of a song "Book of Your Heart" which evokes a different U2 era with Edge's chiming guitars. Songs of Experience
is musically meticulous and closer listening reveals a strong and deeper album. This is beautiful music which is all the better for its intimate and gentle soul. Sometimes it feels beautifully warped and sometimes minimal. The songs are a result of smart songwriting that is full of memorable hooks, top musicianship, and warm, organic sounds. With each new spin, there is always a detail you have overlooked before. It hooks you and it won't let go. It will be interesting to see how these songs will further develop in a live setting. The songs on this record are searching for humanity in these largely inhumane times. Like any other art form, the music should always aspire to do that.