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U2 Songs Of Experience   Print  E-mail 
Written by Mark Reed  
Tuesday, 28 November 2017

Well, Now We’re Here… Where Next?

In a late career rebirth, U2 appear to have become keenly aware of the passing of time. Three years between albums is a long time – but also – it’s the shortest gap between U2 records since 1988-1991, and the band have also toured most of the world twice since then ; not, this time round, four year gaps of absolute silence. Maybe they’ve been listening. Maybe they can stop navel-gazing endless mixes and variations, and just feel, not overthink.

After 2014’s “Songs of Innocence” which was parachuted into your iTunes library, and therefore avoided the need to count chart positions, they now have to work – and are risking meeting the same low sales that everyone else has to live with. U2 are now back at working hard for this. And “Songs Of Experience” was always described as the older brother of that preceding album – and it is all in here.

Cleverly, the band take existing motifs from a small number of songs from that album (lyrical themes, brief moments), and expand on them ; the closing lines of “Iris” are reprised here in “Lights Of Home”, and one that will clearly pull a link between both albums. A throwaway line in “Volcano” becomes the chorus of “American Soul.” The chorus of “Song For Someone” becomes the closing reprise of “13”. And the end of “Walk On” is practically reprised with new lyrics for “The Landlady”. It’s a clever move that ensures this album is not just connected to, but an integral part of a wider whole. In effect, they are designed to work well together ; you could also argue that Bono has run out of lyrics.

Whereas 2014’s “Songs of Innocence” was the best album U2 had made in a long time, this may just better it. “Innocence” was all around the context of then, and now, tracing where we came from to where we are now. Looking back, in your fities asking… Well, How Did I Get Here? This seems a different beast, focused on Now and not Then. It’s easy to be lost if you don’t know where you came from. Songs like “Get Out Of Your Own Way”, “American Soul” and the brooding “Blackout” are subtle evolutions of the U2 template ; and lyrically seem far less insular, more outward facing, connected to the wider world and the divisive politics in it.

“Experience” also draws on mortality : the march of time drips through every moment, including Bono’s 2014 hospitalisation following a cycle accident and another, unspecified 2016 health incident. The shadow of what is coming sits heavy here. From the opening line of the second song - I shouldn’t be here, I should be dead – to the last, “Songs Of Experience” is a tougher, more mortal, beaten up band. It’s less abstract, and sees the band writing fearlessly rather than with an eye on not-being-embarassed as such. A straightforward love song like “You’re The Best Thing” would always have been hidden in bluster and irony years ago, and its refreshing to see the band being sincere but not being tediously preachy about it ; as well as having some of the best riffs I’ve heard from Edge in years.

On the downside, there’s a lot of mid-paced, airy rock with lots of backing vocals ( some of it that sounds a lot like Coldplay, to be honest), and a couple of songs that could, in years to come, be seen as lightweight filler. Time will tell. Certainly “Book Of The Heart” is b-side level, and “Summer Of Love” is somewhat forgettable ; but considering the inessential choices they have made for some of their albums, this is a better strikerate than they have achieved consistently since 1993.

Deluxe Edition fans get an extra four songs, including an unexpected reappearance for “Ordinary Love” (making it the biggest gap between first release in 2013 and first studio album appearance four years and six weeks later), and a handful of alternate mixes and versions.

Overall, “Songs Of Experience” is certainly the best and most consistent album U2 have made – with the possible exception of “Songs Of Innocence”- in the past twenty years, and no band at this late stage, really tries as hard as U2 to be really good. U2 have been guilty of complacency and indulgence on record in the past ; not here. The end is coming – and it may even be here. But this isn’t clearly the result of a hard battle to stay in touch with their artistic vision. The future is now. Where next?

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