As a personal rule, I never read reviews before listening to an album; I like to have a completely unbiased first impression of new music. But God only knows I needed some reason to get excited about U2’s new album, “Songs of Experience.”
I hopped online and did a quick search, and you’re probably as shocked as I was to learn that this time around the Irish band has earned themselves high compliments from many of music’s most prominent publications. A positively reviewed U2 album? By my calculations, that hasn’t happened since 2004’s “How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb.” My interest was piqued, and I approached this new release with a glimmer of hope. How foolish of me.
You see, U2 has the best job in the world. They’ve built such a legendary reputation for themselves that they can afford to set the bar low enough with two awfully bland albums and follow it up with a mediocre one, only to receive positive reviews in the end. Actually, they can more than just afford to do this: they’ve profited obscenely from it, having sold out stadiums around the world as if they just released “The Joshua Tree Pt. 2: Electric Boogaloo” for the past two decades. The deceptively meaningless headlines proclaiming “U2 Releases Their Best Album In Years” have only fueled the band’s level of comfort and security, and this is how we get “Songs of Experience.”
U2’s 14th studio LP is full of the classic U2 tropes: the anthemic backing vocals chiming in just in time for the outro of “Lights of Home,” the same riff the Edge has recycled countless times since “Where The Streets Have No Name” on the latest “You’re The Best Thing About Me” and Bono robbing “Beautiful Day” of its grit and replacing it with cringeworthy preachiness on “Get Out Of Your Own Way.”
I guess I have to mention Kendrick Lamar’s appearance on “American Soul,” which, it turns out, is the source of the U2 sample on Lamar’s own “DAMN” track “XXX,” but even one of the most impactful voices in music today can’t help Bono’s tired lyrics inspire any passion. It’s hard to believe that this was the guy who wrote such iconically impactful songs as “Sunday Bloody Sunday” and “Pride (In the Name of Love).”
According to Bono, the creation of “Songs of Experience” was heavily influenced by the changes the world underwent following the release of companion piece “Songs of Innocence,” including Trump’s election and Brexit. But who can tell this from the safely generic lyrics that plague the entire LP, such as “The door is open to go through / If I could I would come, too / But the path is made by you / As you’re walking, start singing and stop talking?” The triumphant, sometimes cheerful music of Bono’s State of the World Address certainly doesn’t reveal any concern either.
The most interesting part of this record is probably the most agonizing: the opener, “Love Is All We Have Left.” It would be just another atmospheric, glimmering U2 ballad if it weren’t for a cloudy Auto-Tune verse that lasts less than 40 seconds. Bono’s statically distorted voice singing alongside his crystal-clear vocals is without a doubt one of the most beautiful things he has ever produced. It strikes that coveted balance of experimentation and familiarity that so many artists strive for midway through their careers, but it is so frustratingly fleeting here. A whole album, a whole new direction could have been born from these forty seconds. But “Songs of Experience” leaves this to imagination alone.
This is probably our fault. No matter what U2 puts out, we will still pay hundreds for tickets to their “Joshua Tree” anniversary tour. Sure, we’ll make fun of them for invading our iPhones with non-consensual album downloads, but we’ll still watch when Bono sports an American flag megaphone on Saturday Night Live. And for every ounce of attention we give U2, they’ll release another decent song with the word “love” in the title. In “The Showman (Little More Better),” Bono says it himself: “I lie for a living, I love to let on / But you make it true when you sing along.”