One of the challenges when your band’s the second highest grossing touring band of the year, is “Getting Out of Your Own Way.” Of course, that’s a problem most working bands would love to have, but Irish rockers U2 have been such a big deal for so long, that nearly everyone on the planet has a settled opinion about the band and what to expect from their music. There are plenty of hard core fans, which explains the ability to sell out stadiums on the band’s “30th Anniversary Joshua Tree Tour,” but there are also plenty of naysayers, put off by the band’s do-gooder politics and their all around positivity and/or spirituality, or Bono’s larger than life persona, or just those high-priced concert tickets.
Of course, when you’re one of the world’s biggest rock music attractions you’re no longer just a musician playing to satisfy your personal muse, or to please a cadre of fans who love your work and its evolution, you are at the center of a business entity with brand identity, so it would almost be impossible to imagine you not over-thinking your music and its presentation. Thus, the Apple deal that put a copy of 2014’s Songs of Innocence in everyone’s iTunes account, unasked for, and the backlash against the album on principles that had little if anything to do with the actual songs.
But for a long-time listener, the actual songs of Songs of Innocence, especially “The Miracle’s” shout out to Joey Ramone, which recalled the band’s early punk aspirations, and the more personal biographical lyrics in “Raised By Wolves” and “Cedarwood Road,” together with “Every Breaking Wave” and “Song for Someone”, with their built-in wave your lighter/cell-phone and sing-along moments, recalled this band’s truly Unforgettable Fire. From the first time I saw the band on ‘83’s War tour, it was obvious that these guys – especially Bono, and guitarist The Edge – were ambitious rock stars in the making, and for a while there each album worked to broaden the band’s impact and commercial success. By the time they made that first Joshua Tree tour, 30 years ago, they were playing arenas, which rolled over into the Rattle and Hum, both the film and the live concert album.
But then, Achtung, Baby changed everything, the band shed its almost too predictable sound for an edgier, noisier, grittier urban electronic rock, and the cynicism to match the harsher 90’s geo-political climate. The Zoo TV tour filled stadiums with flying European cars, massive media screens, and images of a belly dancer. Bono grew horns and embraced his alternative personality as “The Fly,” who called the White House switchboard operator during each concert, and taunted TV evangelists like Falwell and Swaggert in the brutal reading of “Bullet, The Blue Sky.” In The Joshua Tree and Achtung, Baby the band had found creative balance, their rooted songs of uplift were given greater ballast, as their light shined brighter because on the other side of the coin, the grittier and darker reality, they saw life for all its broken complexity. But where do you go after you’re on the top of the world?
1993’s Zooropa felt like a modest follow-up to Achtung, Baby, with even more of that Euro-techno-pop grounding, more synths and guitar effects. On Pop, in ’97, they appeared to be desperate to reconnect with pop music success, embracing their inner mirror ball in the form of a large “Lemon” on their Pop Mart tour. The 2000’s gave us three albums, each with a “Beautiful Day” or a “Vertigo,” to assure us they were still a rock band driven by the idea of building us up, lifting our spirits, but by 2009’s No Line On the Horizon it was less clear that U2 had a clear path forward, even though the hard-core fans, yours truly included, continued to look to them as a north star in a night sky of various lesser lights.
So for many a U2 fan, Songs of Innocence and the subsequent 2015 Innocence + Experience tour – which used one of the most advanced high tech visual mixed media displays, shown on a large cage that the band walked and climbed though, which ran the full length of the floor down the middle of the arenas they played – found the band’s music, an autobiographical narrative and artistic vision coming together in a way that transcended traditional concerts. (If you haven’t seen it, HBO filmed the final show of that tour in Paris, and the full concert recording is well worth the effort of tracking it down.) That show worked a bit like a Broadway musical, with the band’s previous hits mingling with the newer works in a way that felt vital and relevant, and artistically pleasing both technically and by the time the band got to the lengthy final act filled with many of their best loved songs and fan favorites, it was emotionally satisfying in the best sense of the word. After that, one could begin to think that the promised Songs of Experience would be equally satisfying, especially since early reports suggested that the songs were already in place, and had the same sense of artistic immediacy that could be detected in Innocence.
But then, Bono had a bike accident, and everything got delayed. And then the 30th Anniversary Joshua Tree nostalgia tour seemed like too good of an opportunity to pass up. In the mean time (and this time they were really mean), the political climate changed with England’s Brexit vote and the election of President Trump. In the changing world, the band began to second guess themselves, which might explain the plethora of production hands and the “modern” flourishes here that include the obvious use of auto-tune on the album’s opening declaration, “Love Is All We Have Left,” and the occasional instrumental section where it’s clear that the Edge has taken in the guitar textures and synths sounds of bands like XX and Glass Animals.
In today’s brave new world, U2 wants to put its best foot forward with messages dominated by love, hope and promise, but aware of the changing climate, there’s plenty of anxiety, insecurity and doubt floating just below the surface. That tension can push the band to produce bright moments of creative resonance, and just as easily drive them down the path of the lowest common denominators, where they’re trying too hard to please. As they sing, it’s going to work out the best when they figure out how to “Get Out of Your Own Way,” and a fair amount of the time on Songs of Experience they manage to do just that.
In one of the album’s best, and most aggressive songs, “The Blackout,” Bono appears to question the band’s relevance if not existence. “The dinosaur wonders why it still walks the earth,” the song begins, echoing one of the record’s most pretentious songs, “The Showman,” where he admits “I’ve got just enough low self-esteem to get me where I want to go.” It’s the occasional moments where we see the man behind the curtain, and not just the Magnificent Oz Rock Star that provides some of the most poignant moments throughout this 14th album.
While Innocence benefitted from the autobiographical story telling about the earliest garage band connections that fueled the hunger in this intimate quartet of high school friends to make music, to escape their humble beginnings and conquer the world, Experience is less focused. Each song is described as a lyrical letter to someone of consequence in the band’s career, like “Landlady” which seems to be written to Bono’s wife, or to the world at large. In “The Little Things That Give You Away,” a song U2 introduced during the encores on tour last summer, we find Bono mourning the passing of his youth: he sings, “sometimes the air is so anxious, all my thoughts are so reckless, and all my innocence has died.” He goes on to add that there are “words you cannot say, your big mouth gets in the way.” This song comes closest to the old U2 sound, The Edge’s guitar picking up speed and building to a crescendo as Bono emotes and the tempo increases and the band falls comfortably into place only to quietly drop out at the perfect moment.
Elsewhere, like on the album’s first single, “You’re The Best Thing About Me,” we hear the band embracing a power-pop anthem with crisp guitar chords, a solid bass line by Adam Clayton, and bold dance floor beat from drummer Larry Mullins, but then there’s that awkward lyric in the middle of the song’s hook. I mean, “you’re the best thing that ever happened – a boy,” really? You left that lyric as is through months of edits and remixing?
There’s that big, bold rock groove that is “American Soul,” with its lyric so ridiculously simple that it’s practically magic: “You are rock & roll/you and I are rock & roll/you are rock & roll/came here looking for American soul.” It’s so catchy, and basic, it’s a no brainer, till we get to Bono’s more obvious political point: “For refugees like you and me/a country to receive us/will you be my sanctuary?/Refu—Jesus!” Say what? No really, what? Even if I agree with your sermon about welcoming the refugees, and am enjoying the crazy rock & roll beat thing you’ve got going, what am I supposed to do with that?
But better is “Lights Of Home” with its self help affirmation to “Free yourself to be yourself if only you could see yourself” chant in the song’s coda, not to mention Edge’s soulful slide guitar solo. “Summer of Love” offers a quieter delight, with its smooth bass line driving the rhythm and an enjoyable finger picked guitar lead. “Red Flag Day” finds the Edge playing a faster, perky chord progression that builds in really satisfying ways. These three together with “The Blackout,” and the two singles and the big rockers make this a satisfying U2 effort, even if you have to work a little to ignore the moments that are a tad off kilter.
But if you want an example of where working too hard to please is counter-productive, consider “Love Is Bigger Than Anything In Its Way,” which feels more like something Coldplay might play in their attempt to be the next U2, with all the obvious audience manipulations… oh, go ahead, break out your cell-phone flashlight, wave your arms in unison, and sing-along, I won’t tell.
But on a more redemptive note, the final song is a lullaby that reprises the lyric and melody of “Song for Someone” from Innocence, a word of light that takes the impending darkness seriously, a hope that is grounded in making a difference with our very lives, by how we treat one another. Bono sings reassuringly: “I know the world is done/but you don’t have to be/I’ve got a question for the child in you before it leaves/are you tough enough to be kind/do you know your heart has its own mind/darkness gathers around the light/hold on, hold on.” In the cold, hard world we share, it can be a balm for our hardened skin to hear a word that encourages us to live out of our best values, our kindest inclinations. Music doesn’t have to be inspirational to be good, but U2 at their best is just that, and this album has quite a few glimpses of just that.