Review: U2's 'Songs of Experience' a low point for a band capable of so much more

U2 performed at Raymond James Stadium as part of The Joshua Tree Tour 2017. Catch our review this morning. [CHRIS URSO | Times]
U2 performed at Raymond James Stadium as part of The Joshua Tree Tour 2017. Catch our review this morning. [CHRIS URSO | Times]
Published December 1 2017
Updated December 1 2017

Songs of Innocence never got a fair shake.

U2’s last album caused an uproar before you could even buy it, as the band brazenly plunked it into every Apple user’s inbox for free, without warning. Some howled outrage, others were just confused. But lost in the noise was the fact that, once you gave it a spin, Songs of Innocence was actually a really good album, risky and ferocious and shockingly personal in all the ways a big rock experiment should be. That U2 followed it with two acclaimed tours — including this summer’s cinematic celebration of 30 years of The Joshua Tree — was proof they had more left in the tank than all the haters gave them credit for.

Three years later, we finally have Songs of Innocence’s long-awaited companion album, Songs of Experience, which dropped Friday.

You may now complain to your heart’s content.

Songs of Experience might be most unsatisfying chapter of U2’s four-decade career, an album that pushes no boundaries, plodding along in a stream of middling melodies and lyrical nothingness. The band has delivered letdowns before — Rattle and Hum, Pop, No Line on the Horizon — but at least those albums represented some chance the band wanted to take, and at times even stood for something grand. Not this one. This one treads water, congealing like filler between tours, the monolithic cash cows that still enable U2 to do anything they want.

The best thing you can say about Songs of Experience is that at least it’s not too heavy. Sonically, the Edge is in a real power-pop mood, judging from the choppy, snappy guitars of Red Flag Day and bright backbeat of The Showman. The bright guitars, buzzing bass and clattering tambourine of single You’re the Best Thing About Me feels a lot like R.E.M. or the Smithereens, before giving way to a traditionally soaring U2-like chorus.

There are hints of the old U2 urgency in The Little Things That Give You Away, but only hints — Edge’s churning infinity guitars are swathed for too long in downbeat atmospherics before surging to the forefront by the end. There is promise, too, in The Landlady, a song that begins with beautiful guitars and never really goes anywhere else.

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The song on this album that most sounds like classic U2 is Get Out of Your Own Way, which borrows a drumbeat from Beautiful Day and almost everything else from Coldplay (Coldplay, of course, having borrowed it all from U2 in the first place). It’s a hopeful, four-minute crescendo about self-empowerment that feels innocuous yet inspiring.

But then it ends, oddly, with Kendrick Lamar delivering a spoken-word twist on the Book of Matthew’s Beatitudes ("Blessed are the meek...") about "the arrogant ... the superstars ... the filthy rich" and segues into American Soul. It feels like a mic check for a fiery sermon on wealth and privilege, the widening gap between the haves and have-nots.

Instead, you know what Bono sings?

"You! Are! Rock and roll! You! And! I! Are! Rock and Roll!"

It’s not like Bono hasn’t written dumb lyrics before. But in 2017, rallying the troops by shouting "You are rock and roll!" just feels so myopically sanguine. Such lazy lines drip from Songs of Experience like fat — couplets about staying up all night, chasing the sunlight, making it all right; lines about love being all we have left (Love Is All We Have Left) and love being bigger than anything in its way (Love Is Bigger Than Anything In Its Way). On The Blackout — a song that occasionally bristles with a the faint industrial edge of Achtung Baby — Bono sings about meteors and dinosaurs and rhymes lines with "Fred" and "Ned" and "Jack" and "Zack," and it is not even close to clear why.

Bono does reference pilgrims and refugees, Aleppo and, um, "Lincoln’s ghost," but it’s all so broad and benign it’s just toothless. Now compare this to Songs of Innocence, throughout which the band dug deep for some of their most personal lyrics ever — touching odes to Bono’s mother and wife, snarling songs about IRA bombings and their adolescence as punk kids in Dublin.

The closing track, 13 (There Is a Light), swipes its chorus from Songs of Innocence’s Song For Someone, but trades its intimacy and warm, beating heart for a more guarded outlook on protecting life’s light before the darkness of the world settles in. The new song’s restrained mood is actually quite lovely — but what does it say about U2 that to get there, they had to borrow so heavily from their not-much-younger selves?

Songs of Experience would be a low point for U2 whenever it was released, but its legacy won’t be helped by its inevitable comparisons to Songs of Innocence. However you felt about in 2014, right about now’s a good time to dig it out of your iTunes purchased list. It’s a much better listening experience than the new one.

Contact Jay Cridlin at [email protected] or (727) 893-8336. Follow @JayCridlin.