I miss the old U2, the rock ‘n’ roll U2, chop up the soul U2, set on their goals U2.
My thoughts turned to Kanye West’s “I Love Kanye” as Bono switched into autotune halfway through “Love Is All We Have Left,” the opening track on the band’s newest album. But, fortunately, this was one of the few self-indulgent moments on the 13-track menagerie.
U2’s “Songs of Experience,” their follow-up to 2014’s iTunes-invading “Songs of Innocence,” is the adult companion to the previous album’s reflections on childhood. Inspired by poet William Blake’s poem collection “Songs of Innocence and Experience” published in 1794, U2’s 14th album reflects on love and mortality.
While the band fiddles with modern sounds, featuring artists like Haim and Kendrick Lamar, it only tweaks old formulas. Listening to a new album should not make the listener crave its predecessors. But that’s exactly what happens with “Songs of Experience.”
Before embarking on such a confusing journey, listeners should know U2’s newest work is one of their better efforts since 2000’s “All That You Can’t Leave Behind.” The direct companion to this album, “Songs of Innocence,” sounded almost too modern for the band, and its popularity came in part from a publicity stunt after iTunes customers criticized it for downloading automatically to their libraries. On the contrary, “Songs of Experience” made a quiet Dec. 4 entrance on Spotify, bringing with it several fine additions to the band’s catalog.
Singles “You’re The Best Thing About Me” and “The Blackout” promoted the album, which features a range of sounds that echo the band’s previous work. Deepcut “Red Flag Day” has backing vocals reminiscent of 1983’s “War,” while the synths first made famous on their 1987 “Joshua Tree” album’s “Where the Streets Have No Name” appears on new tracks like “Get Out Of Your Own Way.” This song also has the pounding bass of 1997’s “Pop,” recalling the tail end of the band’s most experimental phase.
The problem here is that the list goes on. Fans can almost see the lines drawn from the tracklist to the band’s dozen albums prior to the “Innocence + Experience” tour. Is this creeping sense of nostalgia appropriate or a buzzkill? As a collection of U2 songs, perhaps an EP, this album is a good listen. Taken as an official release, it feels like a tour of the sounds that once made the band popular.
For fans, this is generally entertaining, but for listeners who, like the band, are questioning its relevance today, it only gives them more questions.
The tracks on the album sound like a playlist of different eras rather than a single U2 album. Some of the touches of previous albums are chilling, others merely distract the listener from the album itself. A few songs have unnecessary instrumental changes as conclusions, and the Kendrick Lamar appearance that connects “Get Out of Your Own Way” with “American Soul” ruins the former while adding to the aggressive sound of the latter. Despite collaborating with the rapper, Bono’s lyricism suffers, especially on “The Blackout” where he lazily rhymes Ned with Fred and Zach with Jack.
Yet there are several truly enjoyable tracks on the album. Critics will relentlessly compare this project to its 21st century predecessors, but it produces songs that stand out even in the band’s 40-year catalog.
The vocalist brought renewed energy to the project after a door on his jet fell off mid-flight, almost killing him. “I shouldn’t be here ‘cause I should be dead,” Bono sings on “Lights of Home,” which earned the fourth spot on The Rolling Stone’s 50 Best Songs of 2017. He also returned to music amidst speculation that he couldn’t play the guitar after a 2015 bike accident. The album, despite its flaws, is a sort of homecoming for U2.
Although this project barely pushes the band’s sound any further than its previous efforts, if U2 intended to touch on all their previous sounds and set a capstone on a long career, it succeeds. Nevertheless, if the band isn’t calling it quits yet, this is their first album to offer almost no indicators of where it might progress next.
“Songs of Experience” feels more familiar with each listen, as most albums do, but it plays like a collection of songs rather than a concerted effort. The songs are good, but the sum of their parts is a confusing menagerie.