Tuesday, December 05, 2017

Milquetoast 'Experience': Overproduced Earnestness Fails to Enliven U2's Latest 'Songs' -- Album Review

Album Review

Songs of Experience

I am unabashedly and unapologetically a U2 fan.

In the present tense.

The Irish quartet, still comprised of only its original members, is definitively one of my 10 favorite rock 'n roll artists of all time.

And I believe their stature as probably the biggest band in the world remains well-justified, merely as a live act.

Demonstrably proven again this year, in 2015 and across nearly four decades, U2’s concerts have consistently been thrilling, moving, galvanizing and often quite visionary in advancing the art of audiovisual presentation.

Sure, their shows typically resound around the same “tentpole” songs—"Sunday Bloody Sunday," "Pride (in the Name of Love)," "Where the Streets Have No Name," "With or Without You," "Bad," "New Year's Day," "One"— but this is rather standard for veteran superstar acts.

And in often having wished for them to dig deeper into their catalog, I relished their latest tour celebrating the 30th anniversary of The Joshua Tree album. For the first time in decades, I got to hear "In God's Country," "Exit,""Red Hill Mining Town," and more, even "A Sort of Homecoming" from the album prior, The Unforgettable Fire.

To me, Bono, the Edge, Adam Clayton and Larry Mullen, Jr. still sounded fantastic. 

So I would vehemently disagree with anyone who claims, "U2 sucks" or "They've been shite for 30 years."

2014's Songs of Innocence cover
I even defended the band when, in 2014, U2 and Apple seemingly pissed off everyone alive who wasn't a fan by providing free digital copies of the new Songs of Experience album with the latest version of iTunes, tied to the announcement of the iPhone 6.

I didn't love that album, but certainly would have bought it, so was happy to have gotten free music. I subsequently even did buy a physical copy.

But much as I believe that people can become more patriotic by chastising their country and leaders--and actually protesting--I don't think being a fan, or fanatic, of a certain band means never being critical about them.

And to those who might say, "U2's been putting out lousy albums for years," I couldn't help but concur.

I still like 2000's All that You Can't Leave Behind--though largely just for "Beautiful Day," "Elevation" and "Walk On"--and 1993's Zooropa benefited from being relatively off-the-cuff, but basically since their last masterpiece, 1991's Achtung Baby, U2's records have mostly been mediocre at best. 

Pop (1997), How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb (2004), No Line on the Horizon (2009), Songs of Innocence (2014).

Meh, meh, meh and meh.

Still, enough time had passed since Songs of Innocence--whose 2015 tour featuring futuristic video technology chronicling the band members' early days was brilliant, as was The Joshua Tree 30 outing--for me to excitedly pre-order Songs of Experience.

And since getting it last Friday I've listened and listened hoping my initial reactions would be proven premature. But, well...


Given the number of other negative or lukewarm reviews I've seen, I'm clearly not the only one who thinks so, though to be fair I've also seen Songs of Experience effusively praised by some publications.

While I'm comfortable with @@@ (out of 5), that may actually overstate my current enjoyment, abetted by some degree of expectation that--much as the 2015 tour did for Songs of Innocence tracks like "Iris (Hold Me Close)" and "Song for Someone"--next year's live presentation will heighten my regard for new tunes like "Red Flag Day," "The Showman (Little More Better)" and "Love Is Bigger than Anything In Its Way," that seem professional if not thrilling.

But right now, I would say there are only two "songs of experience" I really like, and it's likely neither of these would make a 25-song Best of U2 Spotify playlist.

"You're the Best Thing About Me" is a nice, straightforward love song that reaches for anthemic heights, but I'm not sure it equals "Mysterious Ways" or "Gloria," let alone the sonic imagination of "With or Without You."

"Get Out of Your Own Way" did make my Best of 2017 playlist, and is my favorite cut on the album, but with an overproduced sheen that lacks the sonic blast of "Wire," "In God's Country" or any of the band's truly greatest hits (like "Pride," "Sunday Bloody Sunday," etc.).

Part of me knows such comparisons are a bit unfair, or at least rather trite. For I don't think there is any major rock artist in history whose songs created past the age of say 40--obviously roughly, when it comes to bands--consistently outshine those written in younger days.

This doesn't mean I haven't liked much of what Bruce Springsteen or Bob Dylan or Paul McCartney or Pearl Jam or others have recorded on the downslope of their careers, but like U2, their pinnacle brilliance came far earlier. (Lesser-known favorites of mine like Willie Nile and Alejandro Escovedo have been better with maturity, but mainly due less familiar or more sparse earlier outputs.)

With U2, I suspect they just try too hard to create something profound, and it winds up meandering around your head rather than ever just punching you in the gut.

My guess is that if you locked Bono, Edge, Adam and Larry in a garage with a cassette recorder and said "write a song called, "Feed the Poor" in under an hour," I would like the result way more than overwrought SoE tomes like "Lights of Home" and "Landlady," or thumping rockers with nothing to say, "American Soul" and "The Blackout."

At least with Songs of Innocence, I learned--or was reminded--of U2's penchant for The Ramones, the repercussions from the death of Bono's mom when he was 14, that he grew up on "Cedarwood Road" in Dublin and has loved his wife, Ali, since childhood.

Here, any thematic "Experience" is muddled.

Bono wrote profuse liner notes, but honestly, I can't get through them.

Supposedly, Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience were conceived in tandem, but I don't know how far any of the SoE tunes date or, for the most part, their impetus.

Between being on an aircraft with a failed engine, getting badly hurt in a Central Park and having some kind of serious health scare in 2016 that I've seen referenced but not specified, Bono has certainly faced his own mortality. And a desire to loop social urgency born from the Brexit vote and Trump election into new material was said to further push back the new album.

But beyond Bono beginning "Lights of Home" with the lyric, "I shouldn't be here cause I should be dead," I'm really not gleaning much insight about his experiences, or the world's.

Opening the album is "Love is All We Have Left" and nearly closing it is "Love Is Bigger Than Anything in Its Way." Not bad thoughts, but not great songs either.

I'll take "The Three Sunrises" any day.

And while comparisons to the past may well be unfair, the real problem isn't that these songs are horrible at face value (for the most part), they're just uninspired. Especially next to what U2 once created.

"The Little Things That Give You Away" is one of the better songs on the new set, but in a similar stylistic vein I much prefer a song they've never even officially released, "North and South of the River." (Another great rarity, "Mercy," is also better than anything here.)

Anyway, I really wanted to like Songs of Experience, even if U2's track record over the past 25 years would suggest otherwise (at least in terms of songs that made it onto albums).

And I have enjoyed exploring it.

I don't think it's terrible, just forgettable. Probably even disposable.

But of course, I still can't wait to see U2 again next May.

Perhaps that will make the Experience a bit better.

No comments: