‘Songs of Experience’ is U2’s 14th studio album and a direct sequel and thematic companion to 2014’s reflective ‘Songs of Innocence’. Initially set for release towards the end of last year, the record was subsequently delayed and reworked in response to the political upheavals of 2016 that saw the UK vote to leave the European Union and Donald Trump’s surprise ascent to the US Presidency, as well as frontman Bono’s own rumoured brushes with mortality during its prolonged gestation period.
Repeatedly billed by the singer during pre-release promotion as a collection of letters to various people who have made an impression on him throughout his life, the album continues the vulnerable soul-searching of the first instalment, whilst expanding upon its predecessor’s staunchly autobiographical nature to include a number of more urgent and existential political themes. The result is a fiercely ambitious collection of songs that, whilst less cohesive than ‘Songs of Innocence’, sounds more energetic and compelling than anything the band have put their name to in a decade.
Eschewing the usual by-numbers rock and roll template that had become the go-to for recent lead-off tracks (‘Vertigo’, ‘The Miracle’), ‘Songs of Experience’ opens abruptly with the short, affecting ballad ‘Love is All We Have Left’; awash with fluttering synths, lush strings and Bono’s weathered vocal repeating the titular phrase, the song is no doubt meant to act as a mission statement of solidarity and defiance in the face of the current political climate. Its subdued, minimalist aura is a welcome surprise, though the jarring use of Kanye West autotune throughout the middle eight doesn’t quite gel, sounding like a post-production gimmick grafted on after the fact that – whilst ostensibly meant to add some modernity to proceedings – only serves to date the track.
The slinky R&B-esque rocker ‘Lights of Home’, however, soon brings us back to dry land, featuring Jack White-tinged acoustic guitars and a soulful piano-led chorus. Notably, the “if only you could free yourself to be yourself” line from the previous album’s ‘Iris’ makes a shrewd reappearance towards the song’s climax, adding a thread of continuity and presenting the first in a long line of stadium-ready refrains.
Lead single ‘You’re the Best Thing About Me’ follows, full of The Edge’s trademark layered guitars and a fuzzed-out, electronica-influenced bassline from Adam Clayton that’s purposefully placed front and centre. Whilst not the band’s most ground-breaking single ever, the track’s simple, lovelorn lyrics – seemingly an affectionate nod to Bono’s longstanding wife Ali – are delivered with a knowing wink (“you’re the best thing about me”, he admits during the song’s giddy chorus, “I’m the kind of the trouble you enjoy”) that gives the song a certain charm.
Similarly, follow-up ‘Get out of Your Own Way’ is exactly the type of airy, U2 pop-rock banger that’s resulted in the band inspiring an army of imitators during their 41-year career, recalling ‘Beautiful Day’ with its “yes we can!” pep talk shtick and propulsive bassline. “Your heart’s a balloon/but then it bursts”, Bono croons, offering the listener some well-travelled journeyman advice, “love has got to fight for its existence”. The song also features a surprise spoken-word cameo from Kendrick Lamar, which thankfully works ten times better than it sounds on paper.
At this point, just as the album is hitting its stride, it takes an incongruous thematic turn with a run of three songs all discussing the refugee crisis that swept Europe in the summer of 2015. ‘American Soul’, is the least convincing of these, seeing Bono switch to full messiah mode during its clunky, half-rapped breakdown (“let it be community/for refugees like you and me/will you be our sanctuary?/refu-Jesus!”).
However, the following ‘Summer of Love’ is a swaggering little number with nimble guitar work and backing vocals by Lady Gaga that manages to carry its noble ‘one love’ message without descending into self-parody; “I’ve been thinking about the West Coast/not the one that everyone knows” its wistful, lilting chorus goes, referring to the west coast of the Mediterranean. This trifecta concludes with the mid-tempo new wave rocker ‘Red Flag Day’, which despite being one of the more melodically infectious tracks on the album, occasionally runs the risk of trivialising its migrant voyage subject matter thanks to its borderline throwaway lyrical optimism (“baby, let’s get in the water/taken out by a wave/to where we’ve never been before”).
Elsewhere, ‘The Showman’ is a bouncy acoustic-driven song that is in many ways the black sheep of the album, blowing off some steam after the last few tracks to poke fun at Bono’s own self-esteem issues, while ‘Landlady’ is a surprise highlight; carried by Larry Mullen Jr’s busy-yet-subdued drumming, the emotive lyrics again see Bono pay tribute to his wife’s dedication and understanding – “I never knew what starving poets meant/’coz when I was broke/it was you that always paid the rent”, he admits, delivering one of his greatest vocal performances ever put to record almost out of nowhere.
‘The Little Things that Give You Away’, meanwhile, is a lush, gorgeous ballad inspire by Bono’s health scares that recalls the darker moments on the band’s landmark album ‘Achtung Baby’, while the electronica-inflected ‘Love is Bigger than Anything in Its Way’ is a defiantly uplifting (and immaculately produced) tearjerker that has shades of the most anthemic moments of Coldplay’s ‘Mylo Xyloto’, bringing the U2 stadium rock formula firmly into the 21st century with stunning results.
Finally, the album’s subdued closer, ‘13 (There Is a Light)’ is a quieter semi-reworking of ‘Song for Someone’ from ‘Songs of Experience’; tying off the two-part opus together nicely, the “this is a song for someone… like me” finale brings touching resolution to what has been an intensely personal and thematically ambitious project, essentially mapping Bono’s entire life from childhood to the present day.
While ‘Songs of Experience’ manages to right most of the first instalment’s wrongs – being more musically adventurous and emotionally fulfilling – it works best when staying on message and sticking with the personal themes (as was originally intended); the album’s attempts at political commentary seem almost seemed shoehorned in and are too often painted with clumsy broad strokes, which end up diluting the impact of the more resonant autobiographical topics.
Nevertheless, amongst the occasional misfires and after 2009’s directionless ‘No Line on the Horizon’, the fact that the album sometimes appears too ambitious for its own good is an encouraging cause for celebration – and an indication that the biggest band in the world may have finally rediscovered its sense of direction.
‘Songs of Experience’ is available now on Island Records. The albums track-list is as follows…
1 ‘Love Is All We Have Left’
2 ‘Lights Of Home’
3 ‘You’re The Best Thing About Me’
4 ‘Get Out Of Your Own Way’
5 ‘American Soul’
6 ‘Summer Of Love’
7 ‘Red Flag Day’
8 ‘The Showman (Little More Better)’
9 ‘The Little Things That Give You Away’
11 ‘The Blackout’
12 ‘Love Is Bigger Than Anything In Its Way’
13 ’13 (There Is A Light)’
14 ‘Ordinary Love (Extraordinary Mix)’ (Bonus Track)
15 ‘Book Of Your Heart’ (Bonus Track)
16 ‘Lights Of Home (St Peter’s String Version)’ (Bonus Track)