U2‘s last album, 2014’s Songs of Innocence, was overshadowed by the PR stunt that accompanied the record’s release. Seems a lot of people weren’t so happy about finding a free U2 album in their iTunes accounts.
Lesson learned, but the controversy pretty much steamrolled over everything else about the album. Like, if you actually bothered to listen to it, Songs of Innocence wasn’t as lousy as all the negative press let on. A proposed companion LP, Songs of Experience, was to quickly follow, but plans were scuttled and the album was retooled in light of the iTunes debacle and singer Bono‘s subsequent health issues.
There’s no telling how the restructured Songs of Experience, U2’s 14th album, compares to the original vision, but as it stands, it’s pretty much a sequel. In other words, it sounds an awful lot like other U2 albums from this century.
“Shooting off my mouth, that’s another great thing about me,” Bono sings on the anthem-sized “You’re the Best Thing About Me.” Maybe so, but he keeps the politics and moralizing to a minimum on Songs of Experience, instead keeping the focus on issues of mortality and matters of the heart. It’s more All That You Can’t Leave Behind than The Unforgettable Fire, and U2 know it, opting for general uplift over deep purpose. That leads to some broad emotional checkpoints throughout.
The thing is, All That You Can’t Leave Behind found purpose following Sept. 11; the sentiments here are so blah that a personal connection almost seems unreachable. “The Showman (Little More Better)” isn’t too far removed from the deadwood Imagine Dragons produce, and the revisiting of old standbys – big choruses, shimmering guitars, musical flourishes designed to fill stadiums – does little to distinguish the album from the last one or the one before that. Songs of Experience, like the past few U2 records, is another U2 album that U2 think their fans want.
So, it’s little surprise that the best songs are the most familiar sounding: “Lights of Home,” “You’re the Best Thing About Me,” “The Blackout, “Love Is Bigger Than Anything in Its Way” and even “Get Out of Your Own Way,” which features rapper Kendrick Lamar repaying a favor to U2, who appeared on his album from earlier this year – the way better Damn.
Still, the opening (“Love Is All We Have Left”) and closing (“13 [There Is a Light”]) tracks attempt to elevate Songs of Experience into something grander than it is, and offer a hint at what the album might have been if it didn’t take the expected route so often. Both songs go deeper, lyrically and musically, than almost everything they bookend.
That doesn’t mean Songs of Experience is a terrible or even a bad record. It just isn’t very memorable. Besides a couple songs, chances are none of these will go on your playlist alongside band classics like “Sunday Bloody Sunday” or “One.”
The emotional reach and payoff, key elements to U2’s success, aren’t there for the most part – even though everyone, including the album’s long list of producers, works overtime to polish the 13 songs to modern-day specifications while still nodding to the band’s past. After all these years, there’s simply too much baggage for U2 and any new music they make, and lightening the load seems moot at this point.