Songs of Experience review: U2’s most adventurous offering since Achtung Baby, Zooropa & Pop

soeWARNING: coarse language

DOES the world need another U2 album?

Having heard Songs of Experience, the answer is a resounding “FUCK YEAH!”.

There is always a grand anticipation leading up to a U2 release.

Partly because they take so long to arrive, and partly because U2’s weight in the music industry means all eyes (even those of the haters) are squarely focused on the end result.

The pressure to release something to be proud of, that will be critically acclaimed, must be immense.

And because of the band’s status, the expectations are directly proportionate to U2’s standing in the pantheon of rock.

But the world’s biggest band has broad shoulders, thick skin and a penchant for risk.

I’m glad, and relieved, to say this much anticipated release is a winner.

U2 is back, sounding fresh, modern and on top their songwriting game.

Songs of Experience absolutely cements their greatness. Why?

Because for a group to record an album of this quality 41 years after it formed is almost unheard of.

One of the few things that can be faulted, though, is their choice to release The Blackout, You’re the Best Thing About Me, Get Out of Your Own Way and American Soul weeks before Songs of Experience landed.

It spoiled the surprise.

Listening to the whole album after becoming familiar with those songs means you tend to skip them now, so you miss out on the big picture and how the entire record flows.

Next time, just one release a few weeks before the album is on the shelves will suffice.

As with pretty much every U2 release, Songs of Experience gets better with each listen.

In this case, it didn’t take long to sink in at all. When it’s goosebumps every 10 seconds, you know it’s a winner.

So let’s take a look at each track.

Love Is All We Have Left

Initially, this song was a bit ‘meh’. And then it happened. A particular lyric hit me square between the eyes. Is Bono’s mum Iris a theme here? If you’ve read my take on the meaning of the song Iris (Hold Me Close), there are correlations here. In Songs of Innocence, Bono uses stars as a metaphor for his mother. Here, he sings:

Now you’re at the other end of the telescope

If he’s looking through the right end, then the star is close. If Iris is looking back, then her son is very far away. If you’ve ever looked through either end of a telescope, you’ll know what I’m talking about.

7 billion stars in her eyes

Is that one star for every human on earth? As in, we all have one special person up there?

So many stars, so many ways of seeing

In other words, we all deal with loss differently.

Hey, this is no time not to be alive

With everything that’s wrong in our world today, mothers offer comfort. Sadly, Iris isn’t here any more, and he needs her more than ever. Just like we need those who have left us.

Lights of Home

A confident, strutting groove lays the paving for acoustic guitar and piano to rollick along. There’s plenty of familiar, bright U2-ness, with a good dose of darkness thrown in thanks to Larry Mullen Jr and Adam Clayton. And just when you think you’ve got a handle on the melody, in comes a huge choral verse which elevates the song to a breathtaking plane. The first of many masterstrokes.

Standout lyric: I thought my head was harder than ground

 You’re the Best Thing About Me

A summer song if ever I heard one. When this song was first released, there was quite a lot of conjecture from fans. There were those who loved it, and others who just thought there was too much going on, almost as if they slapped four separate songs together. I think it holds up well. I love it’s uplifting, joyous qualities. And when The Edge’s guitar shimmers in the chorus, I go all gooey.

Standout lyric: Shooting off my mouth, that’s another great thing about me

Get Out of Your Own Way

If I could rename this song, I’d call it Get Kendrick Lamar Out of Here. U2 collaborating with other artists has never ended well. It needs to stop. That said, this dreamy soundscape is a success. It’s the first time on the album we get to hear The Edge’s trademark jangly guitar (towards the end of the song). It’s very reassuring.

Standout lyric: The face of liberty is starting to crack

American Soul

Here comes U2 in full strut. It’s never been a secret that they like to marinate their songs with a good dash of dance flavouring. They’ve done it well here, without sounding cheesy or out of touch. The beeping sound at the 3min and 26sec mark is subtle, but I look forward to that bit every time. You’ll notice the album is peppered with little one-offs like this. Songwriting mastery. Give the listener something they’ll love, but only give it to them once or twice at most. Keep them wanting more. Who would have thought an album review would become a study in human nature?

Standout lyric: Put your hands in the air, hold up the sky, could be too late but we still gotta try

Summer of Love

The opening bars have a whiff of Pumped Up Kicks by Foster the People about them. This a beautiful little number, with a sorrowful story behind the lyrics. With this in mind, Aleppo, and any war-torn country, should never be too far from our thoughts. More than anyone, those people deserve a Summer of Love.

Standout lyric: And like flowers growing in a bomb crater, from nothing, a rose. It grows.

Red Flag Day

Ok. So they’re in their mid-50s and have recorded one of their greatest songs ever. There, I said it. The energy, the tempo changes, the funky groove, the fluid bass, a drummer in total control of his powers. Everything about it is perfection. The repeat button is taking a thrashing.

Standout lyric: The one word that the sea can’t say is no.

The Showman (A little More Better)

U2 let their hair down. This could be the live song where a woman comes up on stage for a dance during the tour. Catchy, but not sure it will age as well as some of the other tracks. It goes all oompa band towards the end – an odd inclusion. Perhaps it requires more listens to understand why that’s there. It’s not a terrible song by any stretch, but sitting among all these other behemoths, it ranks a bit lower.

Standout lyric: I’ll be chasing the sunlight, that’s why I’m staying up all night

 The Little Things That Give You Away

Wow. This song revealed itself on the first listen. Such a rich sonic texture throughout. Would this rank in the top 10 best U2 songs of all time? It’s a yes from me. Bono’s performance is outstanding. Tender and fragile. No band does melancholy quite like U2. And here is the indisputable evidence. Listen to it through headphones and float away. The fluidity that kicks in at the 50sec mark is quite possibly the most beautiful thing I’ve ever heard.

Standout lyric: All my thoughts are so reckless, and all my innocence has died

Landlady

Slow-paced, but there’s enough emotion to carry this ode to Bono’s wife – Alison. Again, U2’s melancholy drips all over the verses and choruses. There’s nothing too complicated going on, and there doesn’t need to be. Sometimes the music needs to get out of the way of a good story.

Standout lyric: Every wave that broke me, every song that wrote me, every dawn that woke me, was to get me home to you, see?

The Blackout

So we know U2 can nail melancholy, but they’re equally at home in the seedy shadows. Here’s a killer groove, with The Edge throwing in some distorted flourishes. I can actually picture Bono dressed as The Fly here, walking down Times Square in New York, the flashing billboards reflecting off his shades and leather outfit. It has that cocksure-walk-to-the-next-club-at-3am feel to it.

Standout lyric: We had it all, and what we had is not coming back, Zac.

Love is Bigger Than Anything in its Way

There’s something familiar about this one, but I just can’t put my finger on why that is. It’s a big, layered sound. Bono singing into a coffee cup again at the start, before he pierces through cleanly and skywards. Not sure how this will translate into a live setting. Could it close out a show? Could it be played somewhere during the bottom part of a gig’s emotional arc? Will it make it to the stage at all? Time will tell. But this one took a few listens to grow on me.

Standout lyric: The door is open to go through. If I could I would come too. But the path is made by you.

 13 (There is a Light)

Why does U2 mostly finish their albums with slow tempo songs? It’s become a bit of a trademark – Shadows and Tall Trees, 40, MLK, Mothers of the Disappeared, Love is Blindness, The Wanderer, Cedars of Lebanon, The Troubles. For me, Love is Blindness is the standout among them all. A killer track. Unfortunately, 13 (There is a Light) doesn’t reach those lofty standards. A quiet end to what is an invigorating journey.

Standout lyric: I know the world is done, but you don’t have to be.

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In my opinion, and it’s only early days, I rate this as U2’s most adventurous offering since Achtung Baby, Zooropa, & Pop. It’s energetic. It’s grand. It’s minimalist. It’s bold. It’s fresh. It’s nasty. It’s loving. It’s goosebump-inducing.

It’s everything you expect a U2 album to be.

Still need to talk to them about that pending Australian tour though…

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