Another cliché from the U2 playbook.
While comeback album All That You Can’t Leave Behind was a marked attempt to win over the common listener, lately U2 has seemed to exist primarily as a media phenomenon constructed for awards programs, late-night appearances and Super Bowl halftime shows. Despite its gazillions of fans, U2 often feels like a band that has everything–except a reason for being. Its songs don’t ever seem to be about anything in particular, even and especially when they tell the listener exactly what they are supposed to be about, over and over again. What, then, of its latest album, Songs of Experience?
It does not start well. The utterly forgettable “Love is All We Have Left” features the unforgivably bad lyric, “a baby cries on a doorstep,” plus utterly gratuitous use of Autotune and related vocal effects. It is impossible in 2017 to hear Bono sing these words and feel that there is any sincerity behind them.
Along with utterly stock lyrics, “Lights of Home” features the once highly original guitarist The Edge playing licks that could have come from any guitarist in the world. Nevertheless, the last minute of the song is a pleasant surprise very much in U2 territory albeit earlier and frankly better iterations of the band. On the other hand, “You’re the Best Thing about Me” and “Get Out of Your Own Way” are U2-by-numbers, the latter with even more laughable lyrics—“Lincoln’s ghost says ‘get out of your own way’”—as well as a pointless Kendrick Lamar cameo.
There’s more, and less. “American Soul” features more inexplicable guitar playing by The Edge, who sounds like he’s auditioning for either the Black Keys or the Killers, as well as a truly terrible chorus—“You/ Are/ Rock and roll/ You and I are/ Rock and roll/ Came here looking for American soul.” Sure, rock lyrics don’t need to be poetry, but come on! Bono’s faux-activist lyric reach new heights as he dares to make a passing reference to “refugees”—another cliché from the U2 playbook—in the context of a song that is as devoid of content as it gets.
And it goes on. Skipping over the equally unbearable “Summer of Love” and the bland “Red Flag Day,” we get to “The Showman,” the most mind-blowing fact element of Songs of Experience: a good song! It’s an honest-to-goodness, totally decent, engaging bit of writing and performance. It means absolutely nothing, but in the way of classic rock ‘n’ roll that means nothing more than the feeling it gives you. It’s fun, pure and simple, and even swings; the band for once doesn’t sound it’s like sleepwalking; and Bono sounds like he has an actual persona for the first time this album. Oh, and it’s halfway catchy! In the context of an album that is this much of a slog, that’s manna from heaven.
Unfortunately, the fun stops here. “The Little Things that Give You Away” has more emotionally convincing lyrics, relatively speaking, but is still nothing you’d want to listen to more than once. As for “Landlady,” $100 bucks to anyone who can explain what it’s about: “It was you who always paid the rent;” huh?
“The Blackout” has dramatic touches reminiscent of earlier U2—one could envision dancing to it under sufficiently intoxicated conditions. “Love is Bigger than Anything in Its Way” is a rehash of early ‘00s U2, to no particular effect, while closer “There Is a Light,” features more Bono lyrics of the “what could any of this possibly mean to him?” variety, so full of clichés one doesn’t know where to begin. If a college student turned this in as a poem, the only logical response would be to throw it in the trash and tell them to start over.
U2 can be an intensely frustrating band that is in theory poised to make great music, yet manages to avoid it at every turn. At this point, U2 seems to be capable of doing one thing—making music that only the most forgiving, diehard U2 fans would like. For the rest of us, there is “The Showman” to remind us of what could be.