If there’s one thing that U2 always had in their corner, it’s sincerity. The Irish quartet have always worn their hearts on their sleeves with almost every project they put out in their nearly 40-year career. They had earnestness is the 80s, swagger in the 90s, and unabashed hope in the new millennium. However, the 2010s have had trouble dealing with U2 and vice versa. After coming off the mega-successful U2 360° Tour in 2011 from their late-career peak No Line on the Horizon in 2009, the new decade doesn’t seem to need or want the stadium rock legends anymore.
Not that it’s stopped U2 from trying be relevant, with their Oscar-baiting Nelson Mandela biopic anthem “Ordinary Love” and the surprisingly-unwelcomed intrusion of their last studio album Songs of Innocence. Botched promotional rollout aside, Songs of Innocence was somewhat distressing it was the first time it felt like U2 were phoning it in. And when one of the biggest (and last) rock bands on the planet start slacking on a record, there’s a problem.
The good news is that Songs of Experience, U2’s long-delayed 14th studio album, is chock-full of the band’s trademark sincerity, social awareness and actual interest in music entirely lost on Songs of Innocence. The bad news is..well..there is a such a thing as trying too hard. At 51 minutes through 13 tracks, Songs of Experience sacrifices any sonic cohesion and flow for the sake of U2 throwing random musical ideas at the wall to see what sticks.
This probably comes from having a collection of producers on the album, including Ryan Tedder of OneRepublic fame and Jacknife Lee on his second album collaboration with U2 after 2004’s How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb. In fact, Songs of Experience has a few tracks sonically similar to U2’s second millennial comeback album. “Get Out of Your Own Way” sounds like a sequel song to “Miracle Drug,” “American Soul” is like if “Vertigo” had less energy and drive to it and “The Little Things That Give You Away” could be something nice to fade into during live shows after playing “City of Blinding Lights.”
These could still be considered positives to the listener, in that at least these songs have slivers of what makes U2 songs likable. The album does build momentum at the start with the atmospheric “Love Is All We Have Left” and the fuzzed-out “Lights of Home,” with The Edge’s distorted guitar and Larry Mullen Jr.’s Zeppelin-like drum stomp. Then “You’re the Best Thing About Me” and “Get Out of Your Own Way” combine for a solid pair of stadium-ready singles. It’s clear U2 still know what they’re doing together as band, further exemplified on “Love Is Bigger Than Anything in Its Way” and the moody closing track “13 (There Is a Light).” But then there are the moments when U2 tries mixing things up to an effect more awkward than impactful.
“American Soul,” featuring an opening sermon from Kendrick Lamar, is a Black Keys ripoff that tries to get a pump-up chorus of “YOU! ARE! ROCK AND ROLL!” despite Bono delivering flat vocals in the verse. While “Summer of Love” does have a more convincing vocal performance from Bono, the low-key guitar plucks of The Edge don’t crescendo into a powerful chorus but stays trapped in mid-tempo. “Red Flag Day” is a confounding, embarrassing reggae song and “The Showman (Little More Better)” is some sort of electric folk song that keeps trying to turn into something more but never gets there. Even in the passable songs, something feels off about the mixing and the elements, like the vocoder in “Love Is All We Have Left” or the awkwardly-timed group chorus of “Get Out of Your Own Way.”
Again, U2 has always been the band that lays on sympathy and world issues so thick that it can be preachy. Songs of Experience is the lyrical equivalent of first-year philosophy professor reenacting Dead Poet’s Society, right off the bat from track one (“Love and love is all we have left/A baby cries on a doorstep”). Instead of being a descriptive storyteller, Bono instead goes for weird generalities on “Get Out of Your Own Way” (“The face of liberty’s starting to crack/She had a plan up until she got smacked in the mouth/And it all went south”) or baffling metaphors on “The Showman (Little More Better)” (“Walk through the room like a birthday cake/When I am all lit up, I can’t make a mistake”).
Sentiment is U2’s bread and butter, but they seem to be losing their touch on saying why they love America so much on “American Soul” (“This country is to me a sound/Of drum and bass/You close your eyes to look around”) or the inspiration it gives on “The Blackout” that starts with “A dinosaur, wonders why it’s still on the earth, yeah/A meteor, promises it’s not gonna hurt, yeah” and ends on “When the lights go out, don’t you ever doubt/The light that we can really be.”
If U2 haven’t already been declared dad rock, Songs of Experience all but confirms it. While it’s nice to hear that U2 are putting effort back into their music especially after volunteering to be the world’s shoulder to cry on for the last three years, but it seems like U2 doesn’t have anything new to say beyond generalization. If anything, Songs of Experience is U2’s official confirmation of being a legacy act. Their tour for the anniversary of The Joshua Tree last year went over like gangbusters and the band’s previous tour for an album that nobody wanted also did ridiculously well. So the good news is that U2 can tour for the rest of their days and be loved by all. The bad news is, they probably shouldn’t make any more music.