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U2: Songs of Experience

 A l b u m   D e t a i l s

Label: Island Records
Released: 2017.12.01
Category: Pop/Rock
Producer(s): Jacknife Lee, Ryan Tedder, Steve Lillywhite, Andy Barlow, Jolyon Thomas, Brent Kutzle, Paul Epworth, Danger Mouse, Declan Gaffney
Media type: CD
Web address: www.u2.com
Appears with:
Purchase date: 2018
Price in €: 1,00

 S o n g s ,   T r a c k s

[1] Love Is All We Have Left (Bono/The Edge/A.Clayton/La.Mullen Jr.) - 2:41
[2] Lights of Home (Bono/The Edge/A.Clayton/La.Mullen Jr./A.Haim/D.Haim/E.Haim/A.Rechtshaid) - 4:16
[3] You're the Best Thing About Me (Bono/The Edge/A.Clayton/La.Mullen Jr.) - 3:45
[4] Get Out of Your Own Way (Bono/The Edge/A.Clayton/La.Mullen Jr.) - 3:58
[5] American Soul (Bono/The Edge/A.Clayton/La.Mullen Jr.) - 4:21
[6] Summer of Love (Bono/The Edge/A.Clayton/La.Mullen Jr.) - 3:24
[7] Red Flag Day (Bono/The Edge/A.Clayton/La.Mullen Jr.) - 3:19
[8] The Showman (Little More Better) (Bono/The Edge/A.Clayton/La.Mullen Jr.) - 3:23
[9] The Little Things That Give You Away (Bono/The Edge/A.Clayton/La.Mullen Jr.) - 4:55
[10] Landlady (Bono/The Edge/A.Clayton/La.Mullen Jr.) - 4:01
[11] The Blackout (Bono/The Edge/A.Clayton/La.Mullen Jr.) - 4:45
[12] Love Is Bigger Than Anything in Its Way (Bono/The Edge/A.Clayton/La.Mullen Jr.) - 4:00
[13] 13 (There Is a Light) (Bono/The Edge/A.Clayton/La.Mullen Jr.) - 4:19

 A r t i s t s ,   P e r s o n n e l

Bono - Vocals
The Edge - Guitars, Vocals, Keyboards
Adam Clayton - Bass Guitar
Larry Mullen Jr. - Drums, Percussion

Andy Barlow - Additional Keyboards on [1,9], Programming on [1], Sound Design on [1], Producer on [1, 7], Engineering on [1], Mixing on [1], Additional Producer on [9-10)
Jacknife Lee - Additional Keyboards on [2-3,5,11-12], Additional Guitar on [2,5,10-12], Programming on [2–3, 5, 11–12], Keyboards on [6], Additional Backing Vocals on [12], Producer on [2-3,5,10-12], Additional Producer on [4,6,8], Mixing on [2,5,11-12], Engineering on [3]
Ryan Tedder - Programming/Additional Programming on [3,6,7], Additional Backing/Background Vocals on [4,6,7,8], Keyboards on [6], Additional Guitar on [8], Producer on [2-4,6-8,13], Original Producer on [10-11]
Brent Kutzle - Programming/Additional Programming on [3,6,7], Keyboards/Additional Keyboards on [4,6], Additional Guitar/Acoustic Guitar on [6,7], Producer on [2-4,6,7], Additional Producer on [11]
Davide Rossi - Strings on [3,10]
Kendrick Lamar - Outro on [4], Intro on [5]
Goshua Usov - Additional Keyboards on [4]
Jolyon Thomas - Additional Guitar on [4,9], Additional Keyboards on [4,9], Producer on [4,9], Additional Producer on [2,5]
Brandon Collins - String Arrangement on [6]
Amy Helman - Violins on [6]
Avery Bright - Violins on [6]
Betsy Lamb - Viola on [6]
Paul Nelson - Cello on [6]
Noel Zancanella - Additional Programming on [6]
Nate Lotz - Additional Percussion on [6]
Lady Gaga - Background Vocals on [6]
Steve Wilmot - Additional Percussion on [7]
Declan Gaffney - Additional Keyboards on [7], Additional Engineering on [4,10,13], Additional Producer on [5], Engineering on [7,11], Additional Mixing on [7]
Julian Lennon - Additional Background Vocals on [7]
Andrew Taggart - Additional Keyboards on [12]
Paul Epworth - Programming on [13], Additional Keyboards on [13]
Dawn Kenny - Additional Credit on [1]

Alana Haim - Additional Backing Vocals on [2], Producer on [2]
Este Haim - Additional Backing Vocals on [2], Producer on [2]
Danielle Haim - Additional Backing Vocals on [2], Producer on [2]

Steve Lillywhite  - Producer on [3-4,7-8], Mixing on [3,8]
Alex Bailey - Mixing Assistance on [1], Engineering Assistance on [7,9]
Matt Bishop - Engineering on [2-3,6,8,10-12], Additional Engineering on [4], Mixing Assistance on [2,5,11-12]
Tyler Spry - Engineering on [2-4,6-7,11]
Drew Bang - Additional Engineering on [2,4-5], Engineering on [9]
Dave "Squirrel" Covell - Engineering Assistance on [2,5,9-12]
Barry McCready - Engineering Assistance on [2-3,5,10-12]
Rich Rich - Engineering on [3-4,6-8,11,13]
Matty Green - Engineering on [3-4,7-8], Mixing Assistance on [8]
Christopher Henry - Additional Engineering on [3, 6–7], Engineering Assistance on [4, 8, 11)
Richard Rainey - Additional Engineering on [3]
Greg Clooney - Additional Engineering on [3]
Gosha Usov - Engineering Assistance on [3-4,7-8
Alan Kelly - Engineering Assistance on [3]
Kelana - Mixing on [3]
Tom Elmhirst - Additional Mixing on [3], Mixing on [4,6-7,9-10,13]
Brandon Bost - Mixing Assistance on [3-4,6,9-10,13], Engineering on [6,9,13], Additional Mixing Assistance on [7]
Doug Sarrett - Additional Engineering on [6]
Aleks Von Korff - Engineering Assistance on [7-8,10]
Paul Epworth - Producer on [13]
Matt Wiggins - Engineering on [13]

 C o m m e n t s ,   N o t e s

It is nearly business as usual. "Nothing to stop this being the best day ever," Bono declares in "Love Is All We Have Left," at the start of U2's sequel to 2014's Songs of Innocence. But the singer's delivery is striking in its restraint: like cautious prayer or a fragile wish, suspended over the rippled-sea strum of the Edge's guitar and Adam Clayton's bass-guitar gravity. Bono quickly straps on his bravado in "Lights of Home": "One more push and I'll be born again," he crows, framed by the Edge's skidding-blues licks and drummer Larry Mullen Jr.'s rock-grip twist on hip-hop stride.

You hear near-fatal reckoning too. "I shouldn't be here 'cause I should be dead," Bono admits in that song's first line, alluding to his recent "brush with mortality" (as the Edge put it in a recent interview). If Songs of Innocence was rock's most persistently hopeful band looking back in wonder at its punk-rock origins and unlimited dreaming in late-Seventies Dublin, Songs of Experience is U2 in late-middle age coming to grips with an inevitable reality: They no longer have all the time in the world.

That urgency binds and propels the mosaic jump of Experience: the eerie, hesitant beginning; the sunrise drive of "You're the Best Thing About Me"; the pleading psychedelia of "Summer of Love," set in a devastated Syria. As they did with Innocence, U2 made Experience with multiple producers, including veteran hand Steve Lillywhite. Earlier U2s flash by, like the streaming of a greatest-hits album: the Pop-like contradiction of boogie nights and apocalypse now in "The Blackout"; the echo of The Joshua Tree's shadows and spaces in "The Little Things That Give You Away."

The mounting effect is a charge of dynamic moods and a still-certain mission – the choral-army light of "Get Out of Your Own Way," speared with rusted-blade guitar bravura; the seesaw of punchy-funk riffing and breakneck vocal glory in "Red Flag Day" – set in candid summations of what's been gained, lost and left undone. "American Soul" is a metallic-guitar letter of gratitude to the roots and ideals that drove U2 forward (with a warning-sermon cameo by Kendrick Lamar). Other songs face home and the band's debt to family and fidelity. "I will win and call it losing," Bono pleads through the icy-guitar rain of "Landlady," "if the prize is not for you."

Songs of Experience ends like it opens – in a hush; "13 (There Is a Light)" also circles back to Innocence, reprising the chorus of that LP's "Song for Someone." But where the latter was Bono's wide-open love song to his wife, Ali, "13" renews his commitment to the purpose and sustenance he still finds in music, songwriting and performance. If experience has taught U2 anything, it is that a great new song can still feel like the first day of the rest of your life. Songs of Experience is that innocence renewed.

David Fricke - December 1, 2017
© Rolling Stone 2018

Last summer U2 toured the world, triumphantly performing 1987’s The Joshua Tree in full for the first time. Bono and the Edge made rather a song and dance about this not being a nostalgic event, but there was little doubt that the shows felt redolent of a lost era, when U2 made their unlikely passage from awkward post-punk also-rans to the biggest band in the world seem weirdly effortless. Of course, hard work was put in along the way, but U2 always gave off the sense that destiny was somehow involved in their ascent, that a grandiose masterplan was working out exactly. That was one of the things about them that seemed to annoy people so much.

Those people can obviously find umpteen other things about the band to annoy them these days, but not that. Of the many charges you could file against U2 in their later years, making it look too easy is not among them. They’ve spent much of the last decade carrying on as if they didn’t really know what they wanted to be, or if they did know – The Biggest Band in the World again – how to go about being it. Cue confused albums – No Line on the Horizon, Songs of Innocence – and ungainly PR disasters: the most polite thing you can say about getting iTunes to automatically distribute Songs of Innocence to its users is that it probably seemed like a good idea at the time.

If you were looking for a symbol of U2’s latterday struggles, then Songs of Experience seems an ideal candidate. Its completion involved nine different producers and 15 engineers: everyone has had a go, from old hand Steve Lillywhite to manufactured pop songwriter Ryan Tedder to Andy Barlow of trip-hoppers Lamb. Its recording was halted, resumed and reconsidered over three years, interrupted by both a period of reflection on the rise of Donald Trump and a mysterious “brush with mortality” faced by Bono. It is filled with self-doubting lyrics, some openly pondering whether U2 have a future any more: “A dinosaur wonders why it still walks the Earth / a meteor promises it’s not going to hurt,” opens The Blackout.

There are clumsy lunges for contemporaneity – Love Is All We Have Left’s Auto-Tuned vocals, an xx-ish guitar interlude on Red Flag Day that recalls the umpteen xx-ish guitar interludes recently scattered across mainstream pop – and moments when you can hear the effort that’s gone into trying to make the songs “bulletproof”, as the Edge recently put it, but somehow had the opposite effect. You’re the Best Thing About Me sounds weirdly disjointed, as if the chorus from one song has been patched on to the verse of another; Love Is Bigger Than Anything in Its Way is so craven in its desire to get stadium audiences’ arms waving in the air, it ends up sounding like Coldplay – not something anyone wants or needs U2 to do.

But despite its flaws, Songs of Experience is an audibly better album than either of its predecessors. For one thing, not all its errors are overwhelming – if the Auto-Tune feels a bit jarring, the song it decorates is still pretty great. And for another, when U2 calm down and allow themselves to be themselves, the results are frequently fantastic, not least Get Out of Your Own Way, which is both utterly beautiful and feels not unlike a long, relieved exhalation of breath. Often it seems as if the moments that deal with the aforementioned brush with mortality are the most natural and enjoyable, as if concerns about their frontman’s potential demise caused everyone to stop worrying about U2’s place within the contemporary scheme of things and focus on the music. Boasting a guitar part atmospheric and understated even by the Edge’s 80s standards, the concluding 13 (There Is a Light) is delicately affecting; Landlady’s extended apology to Bono’s wife, Ali Hewson, gently achieves precisely the kind of emotional uplift Love is Bigger Than Anything In Its Way nearly gives itself a hernia trying to attain; Lights of Home welds distorted slide guitar and a gospel-ish chorus to an entirely fantastic song. The Showman, meanwhile, is playful and authentically funny: a reflection on the contradictions and ridiculousness of the job of rock star that shows infinitely more self-awareness than Bono’s critics would give him credit for.

As for Songs of Experience’s flaws, U2 might understandably counter that there are worse things a band in their position could do than overthink things a little: if you were 40 years into your career and your last three tours had collectively grossed $1bn, you might be inclined not to think at all. But there’s a noticeable difference between trying and trying too hard. When Songs of Experience opts for the former rather than the latter, U2 sound more like the band you suspect they want to be than they have in a decade.

Alexis Petridis - 30 Nov 2017
The Guardian

U2 and the Rolling Stones have taught us that being the biggest band in the world is the most joyless of rituals. They record albums as excuses to tour, they embark on tours as excuses to transport massive steel structures from city to city and set world records for Largest Stage Ever. Sales and chart success aside, when bands reach this point they’re done. The problem’s less that they succumb to nostalgia, though they may, than how massive scale and routine professionalism suck the content from the music–suck the need for content from the music. U2 may not have recorded the same album five times since 2000, but they may as well have; by now U2 albums as individualities don’t matter. Of course their latter-day albums are bland, cursory collections of gargantuan arena-rock generalization. Could they really hit the road, fill the stadiums, and touch the souls of every living human in the audience with anything less?

We can make marginal distinctions, however, and their fourteenth album, Songs of Experience, clicks into place more boldly than Songs of Innocence did three years ago. Tempos are alert, riffs punchy, melodies sharp. Jacknife Lee and Ryan Tedder apply compression and electronic gloss to their signature ringing echo, covertly adapting classic U2 style to the contours of digital sound. They’ve thrown in a few genre experiments, daft as ever: “Love Is All We Have Left”, which opens the album, quavers over chilly keyboard atmosphere as Bono murmurs through a gurgly vocoder. Later, Kendrick Lamar declaims a preacherly interlude between “Get Out of Your Own Way” and “American Soul”; the latter deploys bluesy garage riffage whose distortion must be what gave Bono the confidence to bellow, “For refugees like you and me, a country to receive us/will you be our sanctuary, REFUJESUS!”

Daftness is customary on a U2 album–Bono’s howlers are funny! The question is whether minor variations on a formula make a difference. U2 albums have an odd way of flattening out stylistic particularities: deviations from a norm reinforce the norm when the band treats them as deviations. Lead single “You’re the Best Thing About Me” crackles with crunchy fuzz guitar and shrewdly integrated strings provide counterpoint, but it sounds like the usual soaringly hooky arena rock track. As with all their albums since 2000’s All That You Can’t Leave Behind, moderately harsh guitar textures softened by pealing arpeggios dominate, coated in reverb and production polish–behold once more their eternal chugging chime, gesturing at an ideal sonic essence vaguely reconstructed from what they sounded like in the ‘80s.

Songs of Experience boasts a few keepers: “Summer of Love,” a quiet stunner, builds gradually over a trebly lick and a marvelous Adam Clayton bassline; when the strings sweep in, guitars and violins reflect off each other to form a dazzling prism of aural light. On “Red Flag Day”, the Edge’s jaggedy percussive power chords and the thundering beat generate propulsion to match the sour tingle of Bono’s vocal. It’s too bad the lyrics fidget with garbled metaphors and spout incoherence about the Syrian refugee crisis. It’s also too bad the album’s second half gets stuck in pensive midtempo mode and never recovers; “The Little Things That Give You Away” instantiates a type of ponderous rumination we know to be cathartic only because the end is much, much louder than the beginning, with five empty minutes in between.

Fans will find plenty to savor on Songs of Experience–it’s their best since How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb. But distinguishing between these albums misses the point. They call one song “Love Is Bigger Than Anything in Its Way,” a platitude that suits. This band knows what it means to be bigger than anything in its way. They’re so big specific albums don’t matter. Nothing specific they do matters. They’ve swept themselves up in their own bigness; it subsumes them.

Lucas Fagen - December 19, 2017

The band who tried to make the devil’s music find religion face up to mortality and wrestle with geopolitics on their new album - so business as usual for U2 but there are fresh signs of vitality

U2, that most thoroughly un-rock`n’roll of rock`n’roll bands, are not so much shaking all over as aching all over on their 14th album. Songs of Experience is no longer a "companion" piece to 2014’s windy Songs of Innocence but a collection of thirteen new tablets of stone from the Dublin veterans, all carved with lyrics about mortality, love, and even the actual act of performance itself. 

This wouldn’t be a U2 album if front man Bono wasn’t back trying to throw his arms around the world in an over-earnest manner that threatens to smother the good work of his fellow band mates. The ongoing refugee crisis is mentioned, America’s slide into cartoon autocracy is touched upon, and matters familial take up a lot of space here. 

Bono is also facing up to mortality after a nasty bicycling accident in New York in late 2014 and, more seriously, what he calls a "recent brush with death", which he refers to on several songs here. So far, so U2 but there are also signs of life amid the naff lyrics ("For refugees like you and me/A country to receive us/Will you be our sanctuary/Refu-Jesus") and over-reaching musical bombast - the band haven't sounded this vital since their self-decreed comeback, 2000’s All That You Can’t Leave Behind.

The much delayed and much tinkered with SOE was produced by Jacknife Lee and Ryan Tedder with Steve Lillywhite, Andy Barlow (of unsung electronic music duo Lamb), and Jolyon Thomas, and the songs shimmy between traditional U2 bombast and something far deeper and self-analytical. There are cranked-up rockers like the War era Red Flag Day but there are also moments of reflection and humour like The Showman.

However, too many of these songs sound like Bono is being immolated by his self-obsession again and the listener’s interest in the singer’s private life will dictate how much room in their hearts they have for another paean from a very famous bloke to his wife and kids. The Landlady, with its pitter patter drums and clipped guitars, is a cute but slightly meandering love letter to his wife Ali and elsewhere he wonders how his children will fare as they enter into adulthood. Listening to all this is just a tad like having to view your mate’s Instagram posts of his summer backpacking in Goa. 

When poet Brendan Kenneally advised Bono to "write like you’re dead" he probably didn’t have such lines as "You are rock and roll/You and I are rock and roll/You are rock and roll" in mind. There are many other moments of facepalm naffness on SOE. You may even utter "Refu-Jesus!" several times but the alchemy of the band make up for the more mawkish moments.

The Edge has magicked up some of his more inventive and engaging riffs in years (Hendrix here, Harrison there) and the engine room of Adam and Larry stomp all over the place, reasserting themselves amid the sci-fi gospel tunes and ambient longueurs. Adam Clayton’s bass in particular prowls the precincts like a very cool cat and the nuts and bolts mechanics of Larry Mullen’s drumming often hold the over-reaching arrangements together with ballast and sheer muscle power. 

That impressive gallery of top notch producers behind the desk and in the studio means that there is much sonic messing about. Some of it is thrilling; Love Is All We Have Left is a spectral prayer in which Bono tries vocoder for the first time, and the scrappy Sweet Jane styled The Showman is among the best songs here, with its self-reproofing lyric and a surprising appearance of a brass section.

Bono’s chronicle of a death foretold, Lights Of Home, also has a strong melody with yearning guitars gnawing away at the edges and mucho tub thumping from Larry before it takes off into a heart-bursting anthem. But that talent for the lumbering and the inconsequential is also present. You're The Best Thing About Me is U2 by numbers, complete with distorted bass, exotic strings, a cathartic guitar solo, and some pretty ill-judged chord changes. It is only slightly less irksome than City of Blinding Lights.

Get out of Your Own Way is another one of those dispiriting U2 moments when U2 sound like The Killers trying to do a U2 song only with possibly less clichés and tuneless choruses while Kendrick Lemar’s satirical Old Testament fire and brimstone preaching is the best thing about the dumb stomp of American Soul.

There are many references to the past. The Little Things That Give You Away may touch on the small hours menace of Achtung Baby but it’s just another plodding verse/chorus workout that collapses after a breakneck dash to an anti-climax. The Blackout, however, bounds along with all the distortion of Zoo TV era on a bassline that would support a suspension bridge.

There are also plenty of well-meaning but top heavy clunkers like Love Is Bigger Than Anything In Its Way (flatulent heroism on a grand scale) and 13 (There Is A Light), a somewhat superfluous slight return to SOI’s windswept Song for Someone.

As is often the case with U2, they are at their very best when they are vulnerable. Questioning his very motivation after a recent volley of fresh attacks, Bono even sounds almost thunderstruck by a new sense of self-awareness on at least one song here. But even after this return to form, the band will remain as polarising as the polarised world they’re singing about.

Despite it all, U2’s staying power, self-belief and hope remains admirable after all these years. Rarely have four men with so much experience sounded so very innocent.

Alan Corr  - 6 Dec 2017
Raidió Teilifís Éireann

When U2 conspired with Apple to force their last album ‘Songs Of Innocence’ uninvited onto every phone on the planet in 2014, it was a sign of a band shoulder-deep in their own self-important backsides. Thankfully the backlash has deflated Bono’s messianic ego to the point where only people showing a modicum of interest in owning the follow-up album ‘Songs Of Experience’ will be given it, and mostly for cash.

Yes, U2 have made the ‘adult’ sequel to their semi-autobiographical ‘childhood’ album, full of platitudes about the comfort of home and the power of love. It’s just as anodyne as their previous iPhone clogger. They’re old masters at pomping up whatever the kids are buying, so hefty swathes of the album could be Bastille (‘Red Flag Day’, ‘Get Out Of Your Own Way’), and there are bits of Kanye autotune tacked onto amorphous opener ‘Love Is All We Have Left’.

Otherwise ‘…Experience’ resembles a pastiche of other bands’ tame U2 pastiches. When by-rote big ballads ‘The Little Things That Give You Away’ and ‘Landlady’ autopilot along, the untutored ear might think they’re ripping off Coldplay’s ‘Up&Up’ or The Killers’ ‘Miss Atomic Bomb’.

There are brief flashes of ‘Vertigo’ vitality, notably when they bemoan the current political s**tstorms on ‘The Blackout’. But overall, U2 have built a stadium rock cruise liner they’ve zero interest in rocking, and ‘…Experience’ is 50 minutes of very plain sailing indeed. Mark Beaumont

Mark Beaumont - Nov 29, 2017
© Copyright Time Inc. (UK) Ltd. NME is part of Time Inc. (UK)

On a warm Houston night this past May, during a stop on U2’s 30th anniversary tour for The Joshua Tree, Bono looked tired. Though the band played a wonderful rendition of one of the best rock albums of the 20th century, there was a sense of resignation. Maybe it had to do with recognizing that it had been 30 years since the band’s peak at the top of the world, or that their stage design meant that a large section of the stadium they had sold out on their extravagant 360 tour eight years earlier was left dark and empty behind their massive screen. Both in terms of the marketing and the music, U2 made a blunder in 2014, and even if Andy Samberg’s cutting parody in Popstar was less commercially successful than Songs of Innocence, the album’s reputation remained. And so, U2 spent the lead-up to Songs of Experience, their 13th studio album, in a position they’d been valiantly yet inevitably rallying against since the waning glow of 2004’s How To Dismantle an Atomic Bomb: a legacy act.

After the rollout of 2014’s Songs of Innocence overshadowed the quality of the actual album, inoffensive yet non-essential, U2’s approach towards its follow up feels conciliatory. Originally planned as a companion album, the new release morphed as sessions were scrapped, songs were re-written, apologies were made, and the band buckled down to renew good faith. In that regard, U2 does try to switch up a formula that was starting to grow stale, and even if certain experiments fail, like an auto-tuned verse on opener “Love Is All We Have Left”, it finds the band at least trying something different.

One of the key decisions U2 makes to set this album apart from their discography is to let loose on a pair of low-stakes punchy tracks. Single “You’re The Best Thing About Me” was a surprise initially, a breezy, polished love song that feels playful. There’s no grand statement or message, but rather a direct song about two people, singing from the heart instead of the pulpit. Then on “The Showman”, the band crafts an upbeat jaunt that veers close to power-pop — enjoyable and carefree. These don’t all work well, as the overproduced sheen of “Get Out of Your Own Way” and “Summer of Love” strip the life from the song.

Yet all too often, Songs of Experience finds the band retreading well-worn material. “Love Is Bigger Than Anything In It’s Way” jumps back to 2000, taking the aggressive optimism of “Walk On” but leaving out the underlying struggle and catharsis that made that a modern staple in their setlists, swapped here for treacly pathos. There’s “American Soul”, which makes its debut after being sampled by Kendrick Lamar on DAMN. earlier this year (he returns the favor with a preachy spoken word intro that plays to his worst impulses.) The song directly calls back to “Volcano” from Songs of Innocence, but its chorus and stomping blues-rock come off as an attempt to recreate “Vertigo”, only with the passion siphoned out. Even the background vocals on “Red Flag Day” recall an overproduced War outtake.

In an interview with Mojo, Bono explained that though the songs were close to being finished, they pushed it back and elected to proceed with the Joshua Tree tour first because of the changing political atmosphere. “It is a very personal album, and it’s not gonna become a political album overnight. But now it has to go through the filter of what’s happened in the rest of the world,” he remarked. The finished product has a bit of both, as songs like “The Little Things That Give You Away” and “You’re The Best Thing About Me” find romance in intimate moments while tracks like “Get Out of Your Own Way”, “Summer of Love”, and “The Blackout” aim for a political tone in ways that never quite gel, full of references that can feel shoehorned in.

Bono has admirably used his platform to speak out about the refugee crisis, but the opaque ways he addresses that on the record don’t quite connect with the power he aims for. The polished groove of “Summer of Love” sharply pivots into a string-backed message of resilience, referencing the “rubble of Aleppo” almost arbitrarily. Then on the bridge of “American Soul”, he makes a direct plea in the most strained way imaginable with the line “will you be my sanctuary refugee-sus.” On the soaring “Get Out Of Your Own Way”, he turns the lens on American history, with signifiers of a promised land, slaves and masters, and Lincoln’s ghost before proclaiming, “I can help you but it’s your fight.”

For decades now, U2 has stood as one of the pre-eminent voices in American rock history, whose music attempts to speak to the pulse of the nation. They’ve focused on mythologizing the message of the country, sometimes in grand, prescient moments like The Joshua Tree, and other times in stilted jingoistic attempts like 2002’s “The Hands That Built America” from Martin Scorsese’s Gangs of New York. While the Trump administration is never directly referenced on Songs of Experience, the record makes it clear that the band is struggling to develop a potent message in this era.

But Bono has been notably bipartisan. He works closely with George Bush on various aid projects and is even friendly with the former president, so he’s had some difficulties making a pointed political statement, one that doesn’t alienate the base. On “The Blackout”, U2’s worst song of the century, if only for Bono’s maddening attempt to force random names into the verses, the singer raves about the downfall of democracy with apocalyptic fervor resulting in a muddled mess. Granted, U2 certainly has no responsibility to write a song lambasting the American GOP, but the fact that they use so many nominally political signifiers throughout Songs of Experience without any substance behind them rings hollow. It’s like a #resist bumper sticker with no distinct ideology.

While the album as a whole is disjointed, it has moments of grandeur, like the understated majesty of “The Little Things That Give You Away”. The song, which dates all the way back to the sessions for 2000’s All You Can’t Leave Behind, had the honor of the only new song played on this spring’s Joshua Tree tour, a sign that the band believes it truly holds up alongside their classics. Bono sure knows how to call a shot, as the song finds a way to recapture the sprawling scale and momentum of their best work, full of yearning and a palpable heart, anchored by The Edge’s strongest guitar work in years. In hindsight, the band’s most moving ballads from The Joshua Tree came from wringing universal sentiments out of deeply personal statements, and that kind of message comes here from Bono to his younger self. By returning to this method of evolving grand sentiments out of simple conversations, the band makes perhaps their best song in over a decade.

It’s a rare moment, though, namely because Songs of Experience is so desperate to force one message-filled anthem after another. Compared to a deeply personal song like “Little Things”, the vague platitudes of “Lights of Home” or “Love Is Bigger Than Anything in Its Way” feel like empty gestures and motivational speeches. Bono’s lyrics are filled with bizarre non-sequiturs like images of a “baby crying on a doorstep,” devolving into self-parody like a stream of consciousness influx of supposedly moving images. Even the restraint of closer “There Is A Light” gives way to a queasy sing-along of inspirational quotes that tries and fails to be the next “One”.

For the first time in decades, Songs of Experience finds U2 confused about what kind of band they want to be. It’s not for lack of inspiration, as they can still craft stunning compositions, but rather an unintentional discord. Ryan Tedder’s production often renders the band stilted and lifeless, and the moments of carefree abandon put the self-righteous material in a harsher light. Songs of Experience is an album where the band’s best and worst songs of this century can exist next to each other, where vast rewrites make it apparent that multiple rounds of sessions went into the finished product. It’s a messier albeit more visceral affair than Songs of Innocence, one not afraid to take risks and fall flat on its face, but the triumphs are few and far between. And for a band that was once such a vital institution, that disparity is a tough place to be in.

David Sackllah - November 30, 2017
© 2007-2018 Consequence of Sound

Songs of Experience is the 14th studio album by Irish rock band U2. Released on 1 December 2017, it was produced by Jacknife Lee and Ryan Tedder with Steve Lillywhite, Andy Barlow, Jolyon Thomas, Brent Kutzle, Paul Epworth, Danger Mouse, and Declan Gaffney. The album is intended to be a companion piece to U2's previous record, Songs of Innocence (2014). Whereas its predecessor explored the group members' adolescence in Ireland in the 1970s, Songs of Experience thematically is a collection of letters written by lead vocalist Bono to people and places closest to his heart.

Songs of Experience was first conceived during the Songs of Innocence sessions and initially started with Bono writing songs while recuperating from a serious November 2014 bicycle accident. U2 began work on the album in earnest during the 2015 Innocence + Experience Tour, with the band members individually collaborating with the producers while on the road. The sessions continued into 2016 and mostly wrapped up by the end of the year. The group had planned to release the album in the fourth quarter, but after the shift of global politics in a conservative direction, highlighted by the UK's Brexit vote and the 2016 US presidential election, they chose to put the record on hold and reassess its tone. With the extra time, U2 re-recorded many of the songs as a group while remixing and exploring different production techniques. Bono rewrote his lyrics to reflect the political climate as well as a "brush with mortality" that he experienced in late 2016. The album was ultimately completed during the Joshua Tree Tour 2017.

Compared to Songs of Innocence's pervasive no-cost release through the iTunes Store, promotion for Songs of Experience was more understated, using several postal mail letters to fans to tease the album prior to its release. The record received mixed reviews from critics, many of whom believed it tread old ground for the band. Due in part to bundling with ticket purchases for the 2018 Experience + Innocence Tour, the album debuted at number one in the United States, making U2 the first group to top the country's chart in four consecutive decades. In the United Kingdom, it peaked at number five.

On 9 September 2014, U2 announced their thirteenth studio album, Songs of Innocence, at an Apple product launch event, and released it digitally the same day to all iTunes Store customers at no cost. The release made the album available to over 500 million iTunes customers in what Apple CEO Tim Cook called "the largest album release of all time." Apple reportedly paid Universal Music Group and U2 a lump sum for a five-week exclusivity period in which to distribute the album and spent US$100 million on a promotional campaign. Produced by Danger Mouse with Paul Epworth, Ryan Tedder, Declan Gaffney, and Flood, Songs of Innocence recalls the group members' youth in Ireland, touching on childhood experiences, loves and losses, while paying tribute to their musical inspirations. Lead vocalist Bono described it as "the most personal album we've written". The record received mixed reviews and drew criticism for its digital release strategy; it was automatically added to users' iTunes libraries, which for many, triggered an unprompted download to their electronic devices. Chris Richards of The Washington Post called the release "rock-and-roll as dystopian junk mail". Within a few hours of Songs of Innocence's release, Bono posted a note on U2's website indicating a companion release would follow: "If you like Songs of Innocence, stay with us for Songs of Experience. It should be ready soon enough... although I know I've said that before."

U2 embarked on the Innocence + Experience Tour in May 2015, visiting arenas in North America and Europe from May through December. The band originally began the tour with the intent to stage it in two phases, one with material primarily taken from Songs of Innocence and one with material that would eventually be from Songs of Experience. The group structured their concerts around a loose autobiographical narrative of "innocence" passing into "experience", with a fixed set of songs for the first half of each show and a varying second half, separated by an intermission—a first for U2 concerts. The stage spanned the length of the venue floor and comprised three sections: a rectangular main stage, a smaller circular B-stage, and a connecting walkway. The centerpiece of the set was a 96-foot-long (29 m) double-sided video screen that featured an interior catwalk, allowing the band members to perform amidst the video projections. U2's sound system was moved to the venue ceilings and arranged in an oval array, in hopes of improving acoustics by evenly distributing sound throughout the arena. In total, the tour grossed US$152.2 million from 1.29 million tickets sold.

Songs of Experience has received mixed reviews. At Metacritic, which assigns a normalised rating out of 100 to reviews from mainstream critics, the album has an average score of 63 based on 28 reviews. Mark Beaumont of NME found that the band are "old masters at pomping up whatever the kids are buying", comparing portions of the album to songs by Bastille and Kanye West. The review concluded, "U2 have built a stadium rock cruise liner they've zero interest in rocking, and '...Experience' is 50 minutes of very plain sailing indeed." David Sackllah of Consequence of Sound said the album too often "finds the band retreading well-worn material". He said that the lyrical rewrites to reflect the political climate resulted in the album being "full of references that can feel shoehorned in". Calum Marsh of Pitchfork said that Songs of Experience is "the shameless effort of four men in their late 50s to muster a contemporary, youthful sound." The review criticized Bono's lyrics for their platitudes and attempts to tackle political subjects, saying, "Despite the blatant bid to sound modish and rejuvenated, U2 cannot help in certain respects but sound the same." Andy Gill of The Independent said, "Rarely has a band of such stature sounded quite so enervated and bereft of inspiration as U2 do here". The review said the band had been "reduced to hackneyed cheap tricks and tired old truisms barely worth the chords they're strung on – which are themselves the limpest melodies of their career."

James McNair of Mojo called Songs of Experience an "infinitely more satisfying beast than its patchy predecessor" and "U2's strongest album this century". He praised the record for its hooks and for its final songs, on which he felt Bono was at his most vulnerable. Andrew Perry of Q said the album "will likely go down as a late-career classic". The review lauded the group for their ability to evoke a range of moods and sounds: "U2 have dug deep, yet they remain both postmodern and unpredictable. Able to assume many sounds and voices; to invoke their early-'80s innocence, but also none-more-experienced, masters of every inch of their game". Neil McCormick of The Daily Telegraph said that the album is filled with "big meaty hooks matched by singalong aphorisms". He was complimentary of the group for melding their personal conflict with the positivity of their music, saying the album demonstrates them at "their most mature and assured, playing songs of passion and purpose, shot through and enlivened with a piercing bolt of desperation". David Fricke of Rolling Stone said the group's reflection on their mortality provides an "urgency [that] binds and propels the mosaic jump of Experience". Fricke praised the group for offering glimpses of their past work, saying, "The mounting effect is a charge of dynamic moods and a still-certain mission".

In their end-of-year rankings, Rolling Stone named Songs of Experience the third-best album and "Lights of Home" the fifth-best song of 2017. "The Blackout" appeared in The New York Times' list of the 54 best songs of the year. On the 2017 Pazz & Jop end-of-year critics poll compiled by The Village Voice, Songs of Experience tied for 98th place on the list of best albums.


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