At some point, U2 became everyone’s favorite band to hate. I suppose there is something irritating about Bono – he wears sunglasses all the time and does more for global charity and international philanthropy than almost everyone on Earth. Definitely irritating. All the while U2 has managed to keep its core lineup for more than 40 years while releasing a total of 14 studio albums in three decades, and still regularly getting nominated for Grammys, winning international awards, and reaping accolades while doing so. Talk about a group to hate, right?
In all honesty, I don’t fully understand U2 hate, and I especially don’t understand it in the context of 2017 when there are so many more people in the music industry who suck right now. It was only three years ago that U2 generously dropped their album Songs of Innocence into everyone’s iTunes for free, which created major backlash despite the fact that the record was pretty damn good. And while Songs of Experience – U2’s latest effort – isn’t free, it’s the best record the band has released in over a decade.
Despite its name, Songs of Experience is a far cry from the classic William Blake poems of the same name. While Blake’s poetry collection Songs of Innocence and of Experience from 1789 focuses on the rise and fall of humanity, the Industrial Revolution, and existentialism, U2’s albums are much more grounded. Innocence is quite evocative of Bono’s youth in Ireland, and Experience feels undeniably current and American. In fact, it wouldn’t be wrong to call this record U2’s most American album since The Joshua Tree, the record the band spent the last year touring and celebrating for its 30th anniversary.
Throughout Experience, we hear mentions of Lincoln’s ghost, the West Coast, plucky guitar reminiscent of the desert and Old West, and even verses of spoken word by one of America’s most political rappers: Kendrick Lamar. In a world where so many musicians – even modern rock bands – are moving away from traditional rock sounds, U2’s full-on embrace of gritty, American rock ‘n’ roll is damn near refreshing. After the unfortunate and underwhelming opening “Love Is All We Have Left,” the remainder of the record is damn-near perfectly curated with every track genuinely more impressive than the one before it.
The first single “You’re the Best Thing About Me” is both catchy and certain to play well in stadiums across the world while “Get Out Of Your Own Way” has well-constructed harmonies and guitars reminiscent of How to Dismantle An Atomic Bomb. “Lights of Home” is rye with Beck-ish guitars and even features the HAIM sisters singing along in an uplifting choir. All these tracks are solid, sure, but they aren’t what make this record interesting. At one point, the songs take on a greater meaning when you realize what U2 is doing. Along the way, they subvert expectations and quietly reveal what Songs Of Experience is all about.
The fifth track “American Soul” is not only the best song on the record, but its thesis statement. When Bono sings, “You are rock ‘n’ roll / you and I are rock ‘n’ roll / […] We came here looking for American soul / it’s not a place / this is a dream the whole world owns,” it’s immediately clear not only what America represents for a band like U2 that is so distinctly Irish yet cosmopolitan and of the world. The American Dream is alive and well for them, and steeped in good ole fashioned rock ‘n’ roll. Backed by sexy, groovy guitars and fun drums, Bono admits, “This country to me is a sound / of drum and bass.” Music is so powerful that it provided opportunity and possibility for four lads from Ireland – why can’t that still be true?
The crazy-catchy and memorable “The Showman (Little More Better)” pokes fun at possibility in music when Bono addresses his own self-awareness as a frontman. Not unlike The Killers’ 2017 hit “The Man,” Bono mocks the very rock star schtick he’s been notoriously pulling off since the 80’s. The tongue-in-cheek opening lines “Baby’s crying cause it’s born to sing / singers cry about everything” immediately gives the audience a wink-wink-nudge that never dissipates. An infectious chorus and satisfying horn section beg you to dance as Bono admits the irony of confidence and needing an audience: “It is what it is but it’s not what it seems / This screwed up stuff is the stuff of dreams / I got just enough low self-esteem / To get me where I want to go.” Who knew Bono had such a sense of humor?
U2 has never shied from the political, so it was interesting to see how they’d approach it in a year when no one can talk about anything else. “Red Flag Day” pairs punk rhythms and thumping bass with harmonies and choirs repeating the song’s title in a unique and refreshing way. Referencing the red flags erected on shores with dangerous waters, the song captures the fraught tension of the European refugee crisis.
“Summer Of Love” completely subverts expectations with its easy-breezy beachy sound; Bono’s voice seems to be echoing in a large empty space despite everything feeling so intimate. Plucky guitars and percussive shakers evoke a fantasy shoreline and tropical getaway yet backtracks its own mood with lyrics like, “I’ve been thinking of the West Coast / not the one everyone knows.” It’s not until the final verse do we realize this need for a summer of love refers to needing hope “like flowers growing in a bomb crater” or in “the rubble of Aleppo.” The melodies are smooth and easy, but there’s nothing nostalgic about its tone of social awareness.
“The Blackout” takes a more aggressive approach to the political in both sound and lyrics. With thick guitar distortion, heavy synths, and groovy bass, Bono sings, “Statues fall, democracy is flat on its back, Jack / We had it all, and what we had is not coming back, Zach / A big mouth says the people, they won’t wanna be free for free / The blackout, is this an extinction event we see.” Words are not minced in this undeniable jam. The song’s proximity to softer ballads like the sweet “Landlady” and dreamy “The Little Things That Give You Away” show the depth and range U2 is willing to go on such an ambitious record.
The album closer, “13 (There Is A Light),” is the quintessential U2 track for the ages. With sweeping metaphors of light and darkness, hope and fate, and ships setting sail, this song is why these guys are still selling out stadiums around the world. Bono sings, “Cause this is a song / a song for someone / someone like me / I know the world is done / but you don’t have to be,” crafting the perfect anthem for the times. It is sung with such heart and soul that you can’t deny its authenticity and earnestness.
Bono’s calm, guiding voice in the final track brings the album full circle in light of what came before it; Songs Of Innocence shows us the singer as youthful and introspective while Songs Of Experience presents him fully realized and hopeful. The world might feel scary right now, but we still have rock ‘n’ roll, the possibility of the American Dream, and we still have each other. Because every song is a bit better than the one before it, you realize that the passage of time – or having a bit of experience – is all you need to appreciate what’s good. I see what you did there, U2. I see what you did.
Songs Of Experience Rating: 8.8/10
Highlights: “American Soul,” “The Showman (Little More Better),” “Blackout,” “13 (There Is A Light)”