When was the last time you were really excited by anything U2 did? You could say The Joshua Tree tour, but really that was just multimillionaires hawking nostalgia at exorbitant prices. Musically, U2 haven’t crafted anything of real weight in over a decade. The last album that most people seem to unambiguously like is All That You Can’t Leave Behind, but all that should be cited as is the ultimate example of playing it safe. Consider their previous LP, Songs of Innocence. What do you remember? Odds are the only thing that comes to mind from that fustercluck of a release is the way the band drastically overestimated how much people wanted new material from them, literally implanting in everyone‘s iPhone.
Songs of Experience, never stood a chance then, really, did it? Even without the stacked mess-ups and let-downs U2 have bothered us with in recent years, Experience wouldn’t have worked. Simply put, it’s not good. It’s 13 generic stadium anthems without a happily remembered hook or chorus among them. While it is not the ultimate nadir of U2’s output – that dishonour belongs to Rattle And Hum – it does represent some of the laziest, most derivative material they’ve ever released.
What leaps out almost immediately is how unimaginative it all is. For a band of such stature, it is genuinely shocking to realise how little of the material here really belongs to them. Drop yourself almost anywhere here and you’ll instantly hear echoes of a multitude of different artists. You end up playing a little game of “U2 does <blank>”. Opener ‘Love Is All We Have Left’ is ‘U2 does Bon Iver’, ‘Lights of Home’ is ‘U2 does the Blues’, and ‘Summer of Love’ is ‘U2 does Train’. This wouldn’t be too much of an issue if the songs were at least interesting interpretations of the works of others. But these songs are utterly lifeless. They’re droll, boring and languid. They’re the kind of songs that make you want to go out and buy a thesaurus so you can find more words to describe how exceptionally humdrum the experience is.
When the band does decide to occupy their own skin, it’s no great pleasure either. ‘You’re The Best Thing About Me’ is a hollow, by-the-numbers U2 song. It sounds like a teenage band who’ve discovered delay pedals and The Unforgettable Fire trying to write a “rock” hit for Spin 103.8. It’s only Kendrick Lamar’s blistering verse at the end of ‘Get Out Of Your Own Way’ that saves it from being another ‘Beautiful Day’ clone. The only time when the pure U2-ness works is on a song like ‘Landlady’ which, though victim to Bono’s annoying lyrical quirks, still stands as a gentle and mostly pleasant little slice of pop rock. It helps to offset what surrounds it and pulls the album back from the edge.
But then you have ‘American Soul’. Sonically, it has a chorus as memorable and infuriating as ‘Vertigo’. Combine this with awful sounding production and an ill-fitting awkward rhythm and you’ve got a recipe for disaster. The Edge sounds like he’s doing his worst industrial rock impression whereas Mullen Jr. and Clayton plod along without a hint of consequence. Bono sings the lyric “Refu-Jesus” without a hint of irony.
The real problem with ‘American Soul’ though lies in Bono’s opening verse – which follows the second half of Kendrick’s, carried over from ‘Get Out Of Your Own Way’. Here is where we can capture and summarise so much of what is wrong with Songs of Experience. Earlier this year, U2 appeared on ‘XXX’, a terrific cut form Kendrick’s DAMN. It was a small appearance, where the band laid down a smooth, soulful groove while Bono Bono’d words on top. It was one of their first appearances since Songs of Innocence and it was actually an amazing surprise. The rigid parameters which had constricted the four-piece for the last decade half-dissolved in a single moment. It suggested that they could still subvert our expectations while delivering a worthwhile product. But all of this excitement is deflated after a single verse in ‘American Soul’, where Bono wraps the same lyrics he used so well on ‘XXX’ with the some of the most aggressively “U2” music they’ve ever composed. The words completely loose their grip. In one fell swoop following Kendrick’s impassioned words, it becomes apparent that the artist who could shock, awe and inspire the listener was always him – as if that was in any doubt.
Despite the glimmer of promise we had when U2 suggested they could still deliver something tasteful, when left to their own devices, the band consistently fall back into bombastic mediocrity. Experience should have taught them better. Will Murphy