Arguably one of the most divisive bands to ever grace this planet, U2 are equally loved and hated across the globe. While still being one of the only bands around to sell-out worldwide tours within seconds, they’ve been on a bit of a bad run of albums with the iTunes-occupying Songs of Innocence and the dull No Line On the Horizon. Songs of Experience, their first album in three years, is a strange, muddled record that shows signs of excellence as well as times of just plain averageness.
Lead single ‘You’re the Best Thing About Me’ is an exuberant hook-laden lead single about amorous discontent. With a sturdy, wobbling drum arrangement, alongside the chorus brimming with elegant fragments of inflection from The Edge’s guitar. Additionally, Bono displays his trademark falsetto during a sailing, gleaming chorus. Likewise, ‘Get Out Of Your Own Way’ is a jubilant-sounding song reminiscent of ‘Where the Streets Have No Name’, that features a spoken word cameo from Kendrick Lamar, no doubt returning the favour from U2’s appearance on DAMN. It has the euphoric sounding, stadium-filling chorus that U2 seem to make with ease and it’s arguably the catchiest song on the album.
‘American Soul’, one of the strongest songs on the album, sees The Edge elevated to the forefront with his biting, caustic guitar line. Bono originally keeps his verses straightforward and hook heavy. It’s also a foray into r’n’b for the band, with the recurring verses of: “It’s not a place/This country is to me a sound of drum and bass/You close your eyes to look around,” which also appeared on ‘XXX’ from Kendrick Lamar’s DAMN. It’s exceptionally clever from U2 to bring in Lamar, instantly making themselves seem bang up to date. Exactly like they did back in 1993 with Johnny Cash on ‘The Wanderer’, it’s a strong song that should find them a new audience.
For every ‘American Soul’, a song that makes them feel contemporary while additionally sound like a stadium-defining, almost refreshing rock ‘n’ roll band again, there’s other songs that sound like parodies of successful modern bands and artists. ‘Love Is All We Have Left’, the opening track on the album, relies heavily on auto-tune and sounds like a wonkier, uneven Kanye West. While ‘Red Flag Day’ sounds like a poor Bastille song. Meanwhile ‘Lights of Home’ sounds like throwaway indie landfill that usually clogs up the charts and Radio 1 playlists. Think Imagine Dragons meets AWOLNATION and you’re only halfway close to the awfulness. It’s frustrating and the cynic in me seems to think that Bono’s ego has once again gotten the better of him as he desperately tries to cling onto chart success without understanding what makes a hit any more.
This is an album that will please existing U2 fans for sure – though I’m not exactly sure how hard that is any more – but it’s certainly not going to win over any of the haters. There’s still the “Bono-isms”, if you were, particularly in his lyrics which are toe curling at times. For example, in ‘Lights of Home’ he sings “One more push and I’ll be born again”. Additionally on ‘Get Out of Your Own Way’ he serenades: “Nothing’s stopping you except what’s inside” while on ‘You’re the Best Thing About Me’ he sings: “You’ve seen enough to know it’s children who teach”. It’s not quite up there with his ridiculously preachy stage-talk, but it’s getting close at this point. It’s something that U2 fans will easily glance over, but will no doubt make U2 haters shake with anger.
Crucially for Songs of Experience, though, there’s a strong spine of songs to this record. The likes of ‘American Soul’, ‘You’re the Best Thing About Me’ and ‘The Blackout’ make for a weighty, witty and epigrammatic record, but, typically for an album that has gone through over ten producers, the rest seems woolly, confused and lacks direction. In many ways, they’ve crafted a record that is typical of 21st century U2: meandering and rambling with a touch of class at times. On the whole, it’s a middling record that is better than Songs of Innocence – but only just. It seems like it’s just a case of U2 doing the bare minimum once again, which is frustrating because U2 can be so much better than this.