People who can’t stand U2’s earnest, heal-the-world side may want to turn elsewhere right now. The word “love,” unironic and high-minded, recurs all over “Songs of Experience,” the band’s long-gestating sequel to its 2014 album, “Songs of Innocence.”
Where “Songs of Innocence” was full of youthful biographical specifics, both euphoric and grim, from the group’s lead singer and main lyricist, Bono, “Songs of Experience” has an adult’s broader, more general perspective. It favors lessons and archetypes, not stories. Like “Songs of Innocence,” the new album employed multiple producers, and U2 has clearly pondered every nanosecond of sound, whether polishing its reverberations or administering calibrated amounts of distortion. It’s not an album that courts new fans by radically changing U2’s style; instead, it reaffirms the sound that has been filling arenas and stadiums for decades.
The album is also a return to the standard commercial market. Apple made “Songs of Innocence” a giveaway that suddenly appeared in the iTunes libraries of both fans and non-fans worldwide. Many greeted it as a corporate intrusion rather than a gift, generating a backlash that threatened to eclipse the album’s worthy songs. “Songs of Experience,” U2’s 14th studio album, is having a more conventional release.
Bono has described “Songs of Experience” as a collection of letters to family, fans and America: messages and advisories from a globally minded public figure. And for most of the album, U2 sets out to counter the anger, despair and cynicism of 2017 with insistent optimism.
That’s a temptation to preach, and some songs are unabashed homilies. Bookending the album (before a bonus track) are songs titled “Love Is All We Have Left” and “Love Is Bigger Than Anything in Its Way.” The opener is a celestial benediction over tremulous strings, declaring, “Nothing to stop this being the best day ever,” while the finale is a grand crescendo of a march, an arena anthem declaring, “When you think you’re done, you’ve just begun.”
But in between, there’s more ambivalence, humor, self-questioning and openly political intent. “You’re the Best Thing About Me,” with an exultant leap in its melody and the Edge’s quick-strummed guitar at its core, is a love song that shades into a warning: “The best things are easy to destroy.” The cheerful 1950s-style beat of “The Showman (Little More Better)” gives Bono a springboard to mock the artifice of his role as a pop singer: “Making a spectacle of falling apart is/Just the start of the show.”
Meanwhile, U2 has been thinking hard about migrants. “Red Flag Day” — with the nimble syncopations of the Edge’s rhythm-guitar chords, Adam Clayton’s bass and Larry Mullen Jr.’s drums meshing like the Police — starts as a romp at a Mediterranean beach paradise but ends up thinking about migrants drowned in those same waters. The fuzz-toned stomp of “American Soul” begins as an Irish band’s tribute to American rock ’n’ roll but goes on to praise the idea of America welcoming outsiders from all over: “For refugees like you and me/a country to receive us/Will you be my sanctuary/Refu-Jesus!”
Yet even U2’s faith and hope face their limits in the era of “Brexit” and President Trump. “The Blackout” has a strutting four-on-the-floor beat and a guitar effect distantly echoing “Mysterious Ways,” but it’s not party music. The lyrics wonder if democracy is facing an “extinction event”: “A big mouth says the people they don’t want to be free.” The chorus goes on to insist, “When the lights go out, don’t you ever doubt/The light that we can really be.” It doesn’t sound like love — it sounds like resistance.
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