Like its 2014 predecessor, U2’s Songs of Experience is the product of a difficult and drawn-out recording process.
Much more so than Songs of Innocence, however, U2 has made an exciting, stage-ready album that doesn’t blush or blink in its use of the band’s signature sounds — The Edge’s chiming guitar, Adam Clayton’s trebly, adhesive bass, Larry Mullen Jr.’s sharp and responsive drums and Bono’s heart-on-his-vocal-cords singing.
Songs of Experience was supposed to be completed “soon enough” after Songs of Innocence, but things kept getting in its way.
From the automatic iTunes download fiasco of “Innocence,” Bono’s debilitating bicycle accident in New York three years ago and another, more recent, yet-to-be-described health scare, plus the changing political landscape and the wildly successful 30th anniversary tour of The Joshua Tree, which is barely over, sometimes the pause button was getting pressed and sometimes it was rewind or rip it up and start again.
As the band’s unavoidable frontman, Bono has worn the ensemble’s colors most brightly — the Christian zeal, the obsession with technology and its excesses, the penchant for big statements, his full immersion in the politics of the moment and his firm commitment to numerous humanitarian and philanthropic causes. Some of those themes appear on Experience.
While the last two albums — the other was 2009’s No Line on the Horizon — had some strong songs and sounds, there was a sense of erratic dispersion, of the whole being less than its components.
The new record is a thrilling listen because U2 sounds fully integrated again, a band with everyone on the same page and, just as importantly, in the same groove.
“Swan Lake”-like strings launch opener “Love Is All We Have Left,” as Bono duets with his own electronically modified voice on another of his typically zeitgeist ballads.
Breaking the musical mood if not the lyrical one, Bono seems to relive his bike crash on “Lights of Home” as the distorted acoustic guitar and cymbal splashes give way to an emotional solo from The Edge and a gospel-like, gap-in-the-clouds ending with assistance from the group Haim, who also get co-credit for the music.
“You’re the Best Thing About Me” has more of U2’s DNA of thumping drums and ringing guitars but the message is ambivalent — you’re magnificent but I’m leaving anyway.
Kendrick Lamar raps on the transition between “Get Out of Your Own Way” and “American Soul,” not really integrated in either, and Lady Gaga sings backing on “Summer of Love.”
“Red Flag Day,” a counterpart of the anthemic songs on 1983’s War, references the scores of migrants drowning in the Mediterranean Sea and “The Showman” could be a Bono mini-biopic.
Closer “13 (There Is a Light)” pair ups with the opener as album bookends of Bono’s most vulnerable moments.
Nearly every song has a different producer or combination thereof but they all seem to have been peeking at each other’s notes.
The result is the best U2 album since All That You Can’t Leave Behind. It’s not so much a return to their roots as a modern expedition across their vast reservoir of sounds and themes.
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