Album: Songs of Experience
Released: December 1st, 2017
Highlights: Get Out of Your Own Way, Summer of Love, Red Flag Day, 13 (There Is a Light)
In their never-ending quest to be perceived as the biggest band in the world, it seems that – somewhere along the way – U2 completely lost the ability to reinvent themselves. Gone are the days when the Irish were able to take weird and productive stylistic turns, such as the one that gave birth to the excellent “Achtung Baby”. And, likewise, ambitions and the passing of time have apparently eroded their ability not to take themselves too seriously. As such, “Songs of Experience” is not different either in spirit or purpose from “No Line on the Horizon” and “Songs of Innocence”, its two immediate and bland predecessors: it is a record clearly written with the purpose of being listened by as many people as possible. Consequently, U2 runs away from production and songwriting choices that have the slightest possibility of throwing the average listener off, settling for what is safe, familiar, and – ultimately – insipid.
Seeing mass appreciation as a starting point for the album, rather than a natural consequence of writing great tunes, causes the band to be stuck in the meandering land of soft adult-oriented rock. “Songs of Experience” is a work where the guitar, drums, and bass are stripped off their power, making the bed on top of which Bono’s voice and lyrics, by all means the stars of the show here, stand feel lifeless. Directing the spotlight towards these two elements is somewhat ambivalent: while it is a move that highlights the fact Bono can still magnificently belt an emotional tune, it also makes the flaws of his lyrics greatly apparent. Throughout the record, and perfectly aligned with the work’s title, he wears the mantle of a wise spokesperson on the hardships of life; however, his pep talks do not carry the revelatory wisdom he seems to think they posses: what he says, as evidenced by the titles of many of the tracks, is quite mundane.
For all the criticism it deserves, “Songs of Experience” is not without qualities. At this point in their career, the members of U2 know a solid melody when they see one, and through the length of the album the melodic hooks are plentiful, both in the poppiest side of the spectrum (“Lights of Home”), in the touching quiet moments (“Love Is All We Have Left”), and when the group rocks out (“American Soul”); all of those moments, however, come with the caveat of occasionally veering towards the cheesy and commonplace. The pieces that are enjoyable without any sort of warning labels are, unfortunately, not numerous: “Summer of Love” is a nice percussive tune with a Caribbean sway to it; “Red Flag Day”, by a large margin the best track of the bunch, could have been written by U2 during the recording sessions of “War”, as it carries the aggressiveness and heart of that period; “Get Out of Your Own Way” blows up into a cathartic chorus (which instrumentally recalls “Beautiful Day”) where The Edge’s guitar, for a moment, puts the band back on its track; and “13 (There Is a Light)” achieves gorgeousness in a non-forced way, a rare achievement for U2 these days.
As a whole, “Songs of Experience” will undoubtedly fulfill the plan U2 held for it when they entered the studio. It is easy to picture how many of the cuts contained within will be the soundtrack to gargantuan stadium concerts that will continue to build upon the band’s mythological aura; its success and sales will keep one of rock’s longest-running institutions away from being at the risk of living the twilight of their career as an act that leans on the distant past for survival. It punctually refreshes the setlist to what will be the greatest concerts of the lives of thousands of people, and keeps the group’s creative juices flowing. At the same time, from an artistic standpoint, it carries little value, because not only is it devoid of unexpected twists, but it is also mostly unremarkable.