This year marks the long-awaited second part of Irish rock mainstay U2’s album duology, Songs of Experience. While the album was released much later than anticipated, listening to the socially relevant songwriting makes it clear that the band wanted to soak in the rapidly changing world around them and reflect it with the new album.
The first major difference with this new album was its method of distribution. The album’s predecessor, 2014’s Songs of Innocence, was controversially downloaded automatically for free on millions of iPhones, much to the confusion and annoyance of some Apple users. This unprecedented launch also hampered the album’s sales, making it the first U2 album since 2000’s All That You Can’t Leave Behind to not top the Billboard 200 album charts, and the first since 1984’s The Unforgettable Fire to not make the top five at all.
Learning their lessons from that misfire, U2 opted instead for a more traditional album release. That decision alone started the album off on a better foot with the fans and public than previously. Compared to the last album’s abrupt launch, the band gave its fans a chance to experience a taste of the album before its release with two new songs over the summer.
A few months back, U2 staged a brief but successful stadium tour to celebrate the 30th anniversary of its breakthrough album, The Joshua Tree. For a lot of these shows, the last encore of the night was a song called “The Little Things That Give You Away.” The decision to add this song to the tour was a fitting one, because musically, it sounds like a track from that particular era of the band, especially at the end.
Earlier this September, the second new song, and the album’s lead single, was released for download, “You’re The Best Thing About Me.” Musically, it is a shining example of U2’s pop sensibilities, something that the last album’s lead single “The Miracle (Of Joey Ramone)” was sorely lacking. The lyrics also augment the upbeat nature of the music, reminding the listeners of the best parts of American compassion and liberty. In fact, modern American society has really provided a major amount of influence on the album’s lyrics. This album was actually fully finished and ready for release last year.
Global shifts toward conservatism that were defined by events such as the election of President Donald Trump and the Brexit vote led to the band scrapping the entire album and rethinking its tone and lyrics. While the last album was a nostalgic look back at the band’s youth in 1970s Ireland, this album is more of a look at the people and places important to lead singer and lyricist Paul Hewson, also known as Bono.
While current events are mentioned, like the Syrian refugee crisis and the Trump administration, these take a backseat to love and morality. In a way, it is a sort of throwback to the aforementioned All That You Can’t Leave Behind album, which aimed more toward uplifting listeners rather than giving a deep sense of purpose. But, while that album’s objective was able to work due to events like the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the sentimentality of this album seems kind of forced at times, even when taking into account what is going on globally.
Whenever U2 is not treading old ground, they are trying to craft songs that fit more within the mold of contemporary acts like Imagine Dragons and The Killers. This could largely be attributed to the band hiring up to nine different producers to polish the album to modern standards, while still holding on to its past. But, while it may be more of the same, the best songs on the album are really the ones that sound like traditional U2 songs, namely “Lights of Home,” “Love Is Bigger Than Anything In Its Way” and the previously mentioned “You’re The Best Thing About Me.”
One of the songs on the album, “Get Out of Your Own Way,” features a guest appearance by rapper Kendrick Lamar, as a way of the band repaying him for letting them appear on his latest album, Damn.
The only songs that really seem to get the album’s pseudo-concept across are the bookending tracks, “Love Is All We Have Left” and “13 (There Is A Light),” giving fans a clue of what the album might have been like if they did not take the easy route with a lot of the songs.
While this album is a noticeable improvement compared to Songs of Innocence, Songs of Experience is still off the mark compared to the band’s best works. It is not a terrible album by any means, just an unmemorable one. Hopefully, future efforts see the band go back to trying to hone into its own style rather than try to keep up with a world that has really moved on from them.
The band will promote the album with its continuing Innocence + Experience Tour next year, with stops at Nassau Coliseum on June 9 and Madison Square Garden on June 25.
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