LP Review: U2’s ‘Songs Of Experience,’ Battling Ambition and Expectations

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Expectations can tough for anybody. I was a league bowler as a kid and I can still remember the pressure I felt when the team needed a strike to win the tournament. It felt like the whole bowling alley was watching me… The expectations and pressure were such that I rolled a gutter ball. I can’t imagine what the pressure on a band like U2 or Bruce Springsteen must be like. U2 is a group whose music is so transcendent, whose music has lifted the world up and whose music is so important to so many people it’s gotta be hard to live up to that. They are, as my friend The Accountant and I say, the soundtrack to our lives. With every new U2 album the expectations for a masterpiece rise to a dangerous level. It’s like the entire bowling alley is watching them… I know, in particular, Arkansas Joel and the Rock Chick always have such high expectations that U2 can’t possibly fulfill them. Their love for U2 is so intense that they are naturally set up for a disappointment with every new release that isn’t The Joshua Tree. 

Ambition is also a tricky thing. I love that line from one of U2’s songs, “Ambition bites the nails of success.” Make no mistake, U2 is a very ambitious band. I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard different members of the band say, “we don’t want to be a crap band,” whatever that means. Their entire career can be looked at as the conflict between their ambition for popularity and their artful tendencies. Every album is almost a reaction to the last album’s reception. After the criticism that accompanied Rattle And Hum (which was overblown, that was a great album and “Heartland” remains one of my favorite songs), they retreated to Berlin and took an artistic left turn for Achtung Baby. They were still the serious rock band they’d always been, but they painted over it with a veneer of irony. Unfortunately the irony got carried away on Pop, which was one of their few weak albums. So, they reacted – they recorded the very serious All That You Can’t Leave Behind – an album that is always associated with 911, but was actually recorded before that. It was their reaction to the death of their friend Michael Hutchence of INXS and they’d purposely stripped away the irony because of the reaction to Pop. “Beautiful Day” is one of their best tunes and they almost left it off the album because it sounded “too much like a U2 song.” Thank God for Larry Mullen, Jr who intervened and insisted it be put on the album. Every band needs a Larry Mullen, Jr.

Part of the problem with U2’s ambition is that in order to gain the popularity they seek, they try too hard to be current vs doing what they do well, which is rock. How else can anybody explain the presence of Kendrick Lamar on two tracks here. His rap at the end of “Get Out of Your Own Way” and the beginning of “American Soul” are not only unnecessary but distracting. I’m not adverse to hip hop, I’m not that old, but it just didn’t make sense here. The list of producers on this album is longer than the stationary of most law firms. One can’t help but think U2 are trying too hard. I’ve heard the sound of this album compared to Imagine Dragons (and unfavorably at that). I can also hear a little Cage The Elephant here, but that’s probably just me. That’s the problem with multiple producers – they influence the sound of the band instead of the reverse of that. I’d like U2 to lock themselves in a room with Steve Lillywhite who produced their early stuff and just rock. If I was producing U2, I’d unplug most of the Edge’s effects pedals and turn his guitar up. When he flat out plays guitar he lifts the music beyond the ordinary much as he did on U2’s last masterpiece, How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb.

Bono’s lyrics on Songs Of Experience are nothing short of remarkable. The album has that same All That You Can’t Leave Behind sense of despair, hidden under big, sing-along choruses. Bono had a brush with death and it’s informed his lyrics. I even found the liner notes he wrote to be moving. Like Leave Behind, I think Songs of Experience happens to capture the current zeitgeist of most the world. Things are turning dark out there and these ruminations fit that mood. Bono has said these lyrics/songs were written as letters to those he cared about, or perhaps more accurately described, love letters.

With all of that said, I will say this is a good U2 album. It is not a masterpiece, but it’s good, probably very good. I think time will be very kind to this album. It’s flawed, as I said. The attempts at currency are a misstep, but when he occasionally plays his guitar, the Edge drives the music to fantastic places. “You’re The Best Thing About Me” remains my favorite song here. But I also really like “American Soul,” Bono’s love letter to America. “The Blackout” is a rocky, slinky affair that conjures thoughts of Achtung Baby. These guys are so good when they just rock out. I even like “The Showman (Little More Better)” a groovy little acoustic driven number. Its a joyful moment.

There are two great songs that address the refugee issue in Europe, “Red Flag Day” and “Summer of Love.” They are in the middle of the album and provide it with a real emotional center. There is a lot of love on this album… Of the ballads, I really like “The Little Things That Give You Away.” I think every musician whose ever made it from Motley Crue and GnR to U2, had a woman who let them sleep at her place… Bono chronicles his experience in a great song to his wife, “Landlady,” where he sings, “you always paid the rent…” I also found “Love Is Bigger Than Anything In It’s Way” to be particularly moving but I’ve always liked U2’s serious ballads.

So what are my complaints here? The album is on the mellow end. The Rock Chick, like most people, likes her U2 loud and rocking. And when they do – “Best Thing About Me,” and “American Soul” she was all in. But for the most part these songs are rumination on love and death and they are on the downbeat side. Other than “The Blackout” I’m not sure I could play much of this album at a party, which isn’t necessarily the measure of a good album, but I think most people get what I mean. The production is a little too glossy for me. And, as I’ve mentioned, I would have liked to have heard the Edge’s guitar featured more prominently on this record. U2 shouldn’t be aiming to get played in clubs, they should be looking to get blasted out of the t-top of a Camaro. U2 need to ignore what is current, and stop grasping to compete with Taylor Swift on the charts. If they’d return to their core skills as a rock band, they’d find what they seek. I remember when Mick Jagger’s first solo album came out. Keith Richards savaged it, rightly so. Keith said Mick was throwing away his critical reputation by shaking his ass and wanting to compete against Madonna or Prince. Sage words, Keith, sage words.

U2 has all it needs to conquer the world again. And while this album probably won’t do that for them, it will fill stadiums and get people singing along. If I was U2, I’d just listen to anything Larry Mullen, Jr suggested as a musical direction. Follow the drummer, people. What I’d tell U2 is, “Free yourself to be yourself, if only you could see yourself.” If only…

 

Review: U2’s Two New Songs from ‘Songs Of Experience’

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As happens this time of year, my corporate overlords have kept me out on the road all week. Traveling has taught me one thing: Civility and good manners are dead, folks. Anyway, I wearily returned home to find the great news that U2 have made a number of announcements in regard to their upcoming album, Songs of Experience, the “sequel” to 2014’s Songs of Innocence. It’s all so very William Blake of them… “Tyger Tyger, burning bright, In the forests of the night.” We have a release date of December 1 for the full album, just in time for Christmas. And, in other great news, U2 have announced a short spring tour through the United States beginning in May and running through June. Sadly it looks like I’ll have to fly somewhere to see them. Hopefully the early dates are just a framework from which they can hang additional dates in additional cities on to.

The build up for Songs of Experience has been impressive. I think this album is going to be an important one for U2… After two rather lackluster records, No Line On The Horizon (2009) and Songs of Innocence (2014) one gets the sense that U2 is bearing down to re-take over the world. These guys are like Muhammad Ali, they always seem to be fighting to regain the World Title. One could view their recent tour to celebrate the 30th anniversary of their landmark album, The Joshua Tree, as a concerted effort to reconnect with their fans and reignite the passion they so often inspire. (That tour was reviewed in B&V, Concert Review: U2 with Beck, Kansas City, Sept 12, 2017: A “Night of Epic Rock And Roll” – Bono, #U2TheJoshuaTree2017).

They released the first single a month or so ago. That song, “You’re The Best Thing About Me” is simply put, sensational and the best first single they’ve put out since “Vertigo.” I reviewed that single (U2: “You’re The Best Thing About Me,” The Strong New Single From ‘Songs Of Experience’) and it gives me a lot of hope for this new album. Never count U2 out, especially if they feel they have their backs against the wall. The announcements they made this week were accompanied by the album art, the track list and the release of two new songs. Looking at the track list, I don’t see much on the “Deluxe” version to recommend it, the bonus material appears to be all remixes. I say new songs, but one, “Get Out of Your Own Way,” they apparently debuted on The Joshua Tree Tour and the other, “Blackout” was out on YouTube and other social media platforms.

“Get Out of Your Own Way” is a mid tempo, ballad type track. It’s got big choruses. I usually love U2’s ballads, but this one is going to have to grow on me. The track fades in a little bit like “Where The Streets Have No Name.” I think my biggest obstacle on this song are the drums. They sound tinny or metallic. I think Larry Mullen, Jr is U2’s secret weapon so I’d like to see them let that guy go a little more. He does pick it up in the middle of the track. There is some good, signature Edge guitar in the middle and a nice but brief solo. The track is more polished than “You’re the Best Thing About Me.” There’s some audio tape of someone, a rapper, a preacher or somebody at the end that I could have done without. Like I said, not a great track,  but not bad.

“Blackout” is just a great song. The Rock Chick was in the B&V Lab when I played the two tracks and she took to this one immediately. It’s catchy and has some good guitar. I especially like Bono’s impassioned vocal on this track. I love the lyrics, “In the darkness is where you learn to see…” It’s a slinky, funky affair. I think you could dance to it or rock out to it and I mean that in a good way. If “Blackout” and “You’re the Best Thing…” are any indication, this album is headed in the right direction. Although, I will caveat that by saying, it’s hard to take a handful of songs and hear them out of the context of the full album and make any kind of guess about the overall package. I only have my hope for this album to go on and I haven’t had that on a U2 album since How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb.

Keep your fingers crossed for a great U2 album! Cheers!

 

U2: “You’re The Best Thing About Me,” The Strong New Single From ‘Songs Of Experience’

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U2 has dropped their first single from the upcoming ‘Songs Of Experience’ this week. U2 are notorious for taking their time in the studio so this was a little bit of a surprise. Since they usually wait up to five years between albums, this new song is somewhat unexpected. I’d heard they’d recently gone back into the studio, inspired by the world’s current political situation, to flesh out some new ideas. They’re currently in the middle of a tour celebrating the thirtieth anniversary of ‘The Joshua Tree,’ that I am proud to say I’ll be attending at Arrowhead Stadium in Kansas City. So naturally, I wasn’t expecting anything new right now. Coincidentally, Beck just dropped a couple of songs this week and he’s the opening act (Beck: Two New Songs, “Dear Life,” “Up All Night,” And Finally, New LP ‘Colors’ Slated For Oct ). I’m hoping to hear how all of this new music translates to the stage. It’s just a great time to be alive. Well, at least musically it is…

First singles can be a tricky business for any band. U2 of late seem to have trouble picking first singles. If we look backwards perhaps we can discern how good ‘Songs of Experience’ will be. For their first single from the last album, ‘Songs of Innocence’ U2 chose the up-beat “The Miracle (of Joey Ramone).” While I’d like to give them credit for citing what appears to be an influence, I’m more of a Stooges guy than a Ramones guy. And like the Ramones, I felt “The Miracle (Of Joey Ramone)” was ok. It wasn’t awful but it certainly didn’t rank up there with some of the anthemic lead singles like say, “Pride (In The Name of Love)” or “Beautiful Day.” Maybe I was lukewarm on this tune because they had just released the extraordinary song “Ordinary Love” from a Nelson Mandela bio-pic and it is one of their best songs, ever. It’s hard to compete with “Ordinary Love.” They also had just released a song for the Bono’s RED project, “Invisible” and I liked it better than “Joey Ramone.” Listening to it again, it’s not a bad tune, but the expectations they’d set with those other two songs, released just prior to ‘Songs of Innocence” had set the bar pretty high. I thought ‘Innocence’ was pretty “meh” as a record…It wasn’t horrible but I’d hoped for more. The release strategy of putting it on everyone’s Apple device was… ill-advised.

For the album prior to that, ‘No Line On the Horizon’ they chose to release the ridiculous “Get On Your Boots” as the lead-off single. ‘No Line’ was another in what I like to call U2’s “experimental” phases. They brought in legendary producer Eno whose goal it seems is to make U2 sound inscrutable. That album was more of a mess than ‘Innocence’ ever dreamed of being. “Boots” was one of three weird songs right in the middle of the album that attempted to be “ironic.” U2 isn’t great at being ironic despite that whole Zoo Station period where they actually pulled it off. Why they didn’t choose the much superior “Magnificent” for the first single remains a mystery to everybody except U2 and maybe Eno… that sneaky fucker.

Finally, if we go back to “How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb” (the answer, “with love,” per Bono), you get a big, anthemic, kick ass rock tune as your first single with “Vertigo.” I’m guessing that’s a track they’re still playing live… at least I hope so or Tuesday will be a little disappointing for the Rock Chick. There was a time when I thought she was going to get “Vertigo” tattooed across her shoulder blades. She played the shit out of that album… “Crumbs From Your Table” was another tune she was fond of, but I digress… “Uno, Dos, Tres, Catorce…” what an opening. That whole album U2 finally revived the sound of the Edge’s guitar. He rocks all over that thing. “Vertigo” was the first salvo from a classic record.

Which all leads me to “You’re The Best Thing About Me,” the current lead off single from ‘Songs of Experience.’ My friend, Arkansas Joel, who is a bigger U2 fan than even I am, accuses me of being soft on U2 when it comes to criticism, but he’s still angry at them for ‘Pop.’ Move on Joel, anyone can make a mistake and ‘Pop’ was better than we give it credit for. Anyway, I really like this song. It’s just a rocky, straight-ahead love song. Like Randy Newman’s recent song, “She Chose Me,” I wish I’d written this song for the Rock Chick because, well, she is the best thing about me… and I’m luckily “the kind of trouble that (she) enjoys.” It feels like forever since I’ve heard this spidery guitar sound from Edge.  The track opens with Bono’s voice and a great guitar riff under him. It’s a great start. Bono’s singing is passionate and longing, which is the perfect tone for this track. Larry Mullen, Jr never gets the credit he deserves as a drummer. Adam Clayton plays an insistent bass line… I love everything about this song. It’s tight, rocking and sincere, all the things that made me love U2 in the first place.

What this portends for the new album is anybody’s guess. If the rest of the album is up to the quality of “Best Thing” then this is going to be a really special album from U2. At this point all we have is this song and I recommend buying it immediately and playing it extremely loud to someone you love… “when you look so good and baby you don’t even know…” man, I love that feeling.