Songs of Experience
Available on Google Play Music and iTunes Music
It is not easy being U2. The Irish rock band might, arguably, be the biggest rock band around (sorry Coldplay, live with it!) but it is also one of those rare acts in music that makes news no matter what it does. So much so that it sometimes overshadows its own music. A classic example was its previous album, Songs of Innocence, which made news because it got automatically downloaded to a number of iPhones. Lead singer Bono had to apologise for the download, and tech sites were carrying advice on how to disable it. The music itself was sort of lost in all this brouhaha. The successor to that album, appropriately titled Songs of Experience, has also had its share of off-music events – the album had as many as nine producers, and recording was stopped for periods of introspection. And then there was Bono’s revelation that the album’s songs were like letters written to his closest people following a “brush with mortality” during the recording.
So Songs of Experience clearly has a lot to overcome. And in the course of its 13-song, 51 minute journey, it manages to do so. Mind you, it begins with a stutter or two. “Love Is All We Have Left” has an eerie, echo-ey start with Bono sounding more like a preacher on a pulpit, than a rock star in the arena. Some of the vocals are auto-tuned which does not help matters, and you keep waiting for the song to pick up tempo, which alas it never does. “Lights of Home” follows, and although more edgy and percussion and guitars driven, there is once again, a feeling that something is being held back – it almost sounds like a Coldplay number, and the climatic “Free yourself to be yourself, If only you could see yourself” is a tad too patronising.
Things get better, however, with “You’re The Best Thing About Me”, when the band gets back to its basic guitar driven sound, and Bono lets his voice drag and wrap around lyrics like a sonic serpent. And as the drums roll in, you finally feel you are listening to a U2 song. It is not as anthemic as “With or Without You”, but normal business seems to have resumed. And this is confirmed with perhaps the best section of the album that follows – the outrageously brilliant “Get Out Of Your Own Way”, hot on whose heels comes “American Soul”. Both numbers are going to be remembered for different reasons. “Get Out of Your Own Way” is like a recitation with a chorus, and Bono’s lyrics get poetic:
“Love has got to fight for its existence/ The enemy has armies of assistance/ The amorist, the glamorous, the kiss, a fist/“. And as the song fades out, in comes Kendrick Lamar in a fierce monologue that ends the song and moves into the next zone. As he concludes : “Blessed are the bullies/ For one day they will have to stand up to themselves/ Blessed are the liars/ For the truth can be awkward,” drums roll in, and Bono roars into his tribute to America: “You are rock and roll/ Came here looking for American Soul.” He slows down in Summer of Love, but the trademark drawl remains in place and the lyrics fall into place again.
Things middle out after that, although “Landlady” will make the sentimental wipe a tear as Bono thanks his wife in a manner that is gentle, although the song has a distinctly “Lights Will Guide You Home” touch to it (not a bad thing). “Red Flag Day” is perhaps going to be the most asked for song in concerts for its sharp guitar and uptempo beat, while “The Little Things That Give You Away” is more soft rock, with riffs in the background that will remind you of “Where The Streets Have No Name”. “The Blackout” is an odd creature. It starts out threatening to be a rock anthem and then suddenly becomes something that would not be out of place in an eighties discotheque. It all ends with 13 (There is a Light), a surprisingly quiet number, but which is very unlike “Love Is All We Have Left”. This is Bono not talking from a pulpit, but gently asking you to not give up, “Are you tough enough to be kind?”.
All of which makes Songs of Experience a mix of the odd, the middling and the exceptional. Barring the slightly awkward start, there is nothing to really dislike here. No, there is no militant new ground being broken by U2, like in Achtung Baby, The Joshua Tree or Zooropa. This is not a classic rock album or even a classic U2 one. And barring “Get Out of Your Own Way”, we cannot see any numbers making it to a Greatest Hits set. But that does not make it any less listenable. Notwithstanding its frequent changes of tempo, Songs of Experience is not the work of an ageing band meandering in music, dodging mortality (no matter what Bono says). There is magic here sandwiched between the relatively odd and mediocre. You will realise it when you find yourself humming “13”, reciting “You’re The Best Thing About Me” (and tapping your feet as the drums roll in), or feeling a mild adrenaline rush at the beginning of “American Soul”.
They might be old, they might be eccentric, and inconsistent as heck, but U2 are (still) Rock and Roll.