Friday, January 5, 2018

Wednesday, December 27, 2017

Bono: The Rolling Stone Interview


In 1985, shortly after U2 broke through in America, Rolling Stone named them the "band of the Eighties." Over the course of 30 years and 16 cover stories, the magazine has forged a deep relationship with U2. The band's new album, Songs of Experience, topped the charts in early December, meaning U2 now have a Number One album in each decade from the Eighties on.

I first interviewed Bono in 2005, when we talked for 10 hours over a long weekend in Cancún, Mexico, starting an intimate dialogue about rock & roll, social justice, faith and the purpose of art. This interview picks up where that one left off, although this time the stakes are much higher. The election of Donald Trump and a rising wave of fascism in Europe had rocked Bono, as had a near-death experience he suffered while making Songs of Experience. While he still finds it difficult to talk about his "extinction event," as he calls it, Bono opened up about its profound effect on both his life and on the new album.

We conducted the interview over two sessions at the kitchen table of my New York apartment, around the corner from Bono's own place in the city. In person, Bono is warm, engaging and thoughtful, even while discussing difficult subjects. What shines through as much as anything is his ambition, which burns as brightly as ever. U2 remain hungry – for new approaches to songwriting, for finding their place in the age of streaming, for a new tour planned for the spring. Bono continues to pour his energy into global causes, meeting with world leaders and working on behalf of his ONE Campaign, which fights extreme poverty. He is the rarest of rock stars – an artist and an activist in the same measure. As always, he remains an optimist – and one of rock's greatest talkers, full of wit and candor and poetry.

You just finished the Joshua Tree tour. Nostalgia is something U2 like to avoid, so what was it like going out and playing an old album every night?

The stance that we took was [to act] as if we had just put out The Joshua Tree the week before. So there were no old Super 8 films or anything to give the sense of that time. We felt that its strength was that it had meaning, maybe even more meaning now than it did then. That was the conceit, and it got better and better. We ended with four nights in Sao Paulo, in front of, I think, nearly 300,000 people, and it was quite the crescendo.

But if I am honest – and I probably should be in this interview – I haven't quite recovered from it. I gave myself to the singing in new ways, but there wasn't a lot of going out and discovering the places we were playing, the cities that we were playing, which I really love to do. Stepping inside the songs was more of an ordeal than I thought it would be. They are very demanding in terms of their emotional – what word am I looking for . . . forthrightness. And then we were preparing for Songs of Experience. All that promotion takes a lot more work than I remember, but if you believe in the songs, you have to defend and present them.

Songs of Experience just debuted at Number One on the albums chart, which means you've had a chart-topping album in every decade from the Eighties on. Why do you still push so hard for hits?

I mean, it's not for everybody – and it can't be for us all the time. But it just felt right. These last two albums mix up the personal and the political so that you don't know which one you're talking to. That's a kind of magic trick, and realizing that of course all the problems that we find in the exterior world are just manifestations of what we, you know, what we hold inside of us, in our interior worlds. The biggest fucker, the biggest asshole, the biggest, the most sexist we can be, the most selfish, mean, cunning, all those characters you are going to see them in the mirror. And that is where the job of transformation has to start first. Is that not what experience tells us?

How did you envision Songs of Experience in relation to Songs of Innocence, its companion album from 2014?

I had this idea of your younger self talking to your older self for quite a while. It is an interesting dramatic device. [Several years ago] I was at an exhibition of Anton Corbijn's photographs in Amsterdam, and someone asked me what would I say to this photo; I think it was a shot of me at age 22. I thought about it, and then I said, "Stop second-guessing yourself. You're right."

And then the person asked what the younger me would say to the older me. I got a bit nervous. I wasn't sure. I took that hesitation as a clue that maybe I wasn't comfortable with where I am now. I was starting to realize that I had lost some of that fierceness. Some of that clarity, that black-and-white point of view.


But now it seems like you're in another place entirely. It seems like you have more clarity, that you learned more.

I'm less unsure about taking political risks or social risks. When I became an activist, people were like, "Really?" But they eventually accepted that. Then I started to be interested in commerce and the machinery of what got people out of poverty and into prosperity. And then a few people said, "You can't really go there, can you?"

I said, "But if you are an artist, you must go there." You and I have had the conversation over the years: What can the artist do? What is the artist not allowed to do, and are there boundaries? Now, I would say to my younger self: "Experiment more and don't let people box you in. There is nothing you can't put on your canvas if it is part of your life." We have this idea in the culture that came out of the Sixties and Seventies, that artists were somehow above the fray, or should be above the fray.

That they have an excuse not to participate.

I had an excuse not to participate. But I knew that some people who have regular jobs are just as valuable as the artists, maybe more valuable. And there are more assholes per square inch amongst us artists. I remember meeting Björk, and she said that in Iceland, making a chair is a big deal. Like, a song is not more important than a chair. And I went, "Well, depending on the chair, Irish people know that to be true." So if that is true, then stop this nonsense that an artist is an elevated person.

One thing this record seems to be about is survival. The survival of the world, and of our political system. But let's talk about your own survival. In the middle of recording, you had a near-death experience. Tell me what happened.

Well, I mean, I don't want to.

I understand. I had my own experience recently. People want to ask about my health, and I'm hesitant to talk about it. Why do I feel that way? Am I ashamed? Is it weakness I am trying to cover up?

It's just a thing that . . . people have these extinction events in their lives; it could be psychological or it could be physical. And, yes, it was physical for me, but I think I have spared myself all that soap opera. Especially with this kind of celebrity obsession with the minutiae of peoples' lives – I have got out of that. I want to speak about the issue in a way that lets people fill in the blanks of what they have been through, you know?

It's one thing if you were talking about it in a place of record like Rolling Stone, but by the time it gets to your local tabloid it is just awful. It becomes the question that everyone is asking.

But let's talk about it in an elliptical sense. I mean, it's central to the album.

Yeah. This political apocalypse was going on in Europe and in America, and it found a perfect rhyme with what was going on in my own life. And I have had a hail of blows over the years. You get warning signs, and then you realize that you are not a tank, as [his wife] Ali says. Edge has this thing that he says about me, that I look upon my body as an inconvenience.

In 2000, you had a throat-cancer scare, right?

No, it was a check for it. One of the specialists wanted to biopsy, which would have risked my vocal cords – and it turned out OK.

A few years ago, I visited you in the hospital with your arm in some kind of George Washington Bridge structure.

After my bike accident, pretending it was a car crash.

It looked bad, and then the latest thing. That is a lot of brushes with death.

There is comic tragedy with a bike accident in Central Park – it is not exactly James Dean. But the thing that shook me was that I didn't remember it. That was the amnesia; I have no idea how it happened. That left me a little uneasy, but the other stuff has just finally nailed me. It was like, "Can you take a hint?"

You are making the album and then all of a sudden you had to deal with your health issue. How did it affect the album and your vision of it?

Well, strangely enough, mortality was going to be a subject anyway just because it is a subject not often covered. And you can't write Songs of Experience without writing about that. And I've had a couple of these shocks to the system, let's call them, in my life. Like my bike accident or my back injury. So it was always going to be the subject. I just didn't want to be such an expert in it.

I met this poet named Brendan Kennelly. I have known him for years; he is an unbelievable poet. And he said, "Bono, if you want to get to the place where the writing lives, imagine you're dead." There is no ego, there is no vanity, no worrying about who you will offend. That is great advice. I just didn't want to have to find out outside of a mental excursion. I didn't want to find out the hard way.

So how did the idea of mortality come into play?

Gavin Friday, one of my friends from Cedarwood Road [in Dublin], has written one of my favorite songs. It is called "The Last Song I'll Ever Sing," about this character in Dublin, back when we were growing up, called the Diceman, who died at 42, five years after he was diagnosed with HIV. I realized only recently that "Love Is All We Have Left" is my attempt to write that song.

Can you be more precise? Like, what songs do you think came directly out of your near-death moment?

It's not so much songs as . . .

The mood of it.

I think . . . I mean, how about this: "The Showman" – that is a light song, a fun song, and it became a really important song. Not surrendering to melancholy is the most important thing if you are going to fight your way out of whatever corner you are in. Self-pity? The Irish, we are fucking world-beaters on that level; it's our least-interesting national characteristic. And I never wanted to surrender to that, so punk rock, the tempo of some songs, suddenly became really important.

But the second verse is the key, and it has the best line in the album, which is this: "It is what it is, it is not what it seems/This screwed up stuff is the stuff of dreams/I got just enough low self-esteem to get me to where I want to go." I wish I could say it was mine, but it was Jimmy Iovine who said it. A friend of mine was slagging him off, and I said, "Oh, a little insecure there, Jimmy?" And Jimmy turned around and said, "I got just enough low self-esteem to get me where I want to go."

That sounds like a realistic appraisal of you and your bullshit.

Performers are very insecure people. Gavin Friday, his line to me years and years ago was "Insecurity is your best security for a performer." A performer needs to know what is going on in the room and feel the room, and you don't feel the room if you are normal, if you're whole. If you have any great sense of self, you wouldn't be that vulnerable to either the opinions of others or the love and the applause and the approval of others.

The whole event enriched the album, though – talk about an experience.

But isn't that great? I thought Experience would be more contemplative, and it has got that side, but the heart of the album is the spunk and the punk and the drive of it. There is a sort of youthfulness about it. A lot of the tempos are up. And it has some of the funniest lines, I think. "Dinosaur wonders why he still walks the Earth." I mean, I started that line about myself.

Being a dinosaur?

Yeah, of course, but then I started to think about it in terms of what is going on around the world. And I thought, "Gosh, democracy, the thing that I have grown up with all my life . . . that's what's really facing an extinction event."

In an interview that you and I did in 2005, you said this: "Our definition of art is breaking open the breastbone, for sure. Just open-heart surgery. I wish there were an easier way, but people want blood, and I am one of them."

Life and death and art . . . all of them bloody businesses.

How did your faith get you through all of this?

The person who wrote best about love in the Christian era was Paul of Tarsus, who became Saint Paul. He was a tough fucker. He is a superintellectual guy, but he is fierce and he has, of course, the Damascene experience. He goes off and lives as a tentmaker. He starts to preach, and he writes this ode to love, which everybody knows from his letter to the Corinthians: "Love is patient, love is kind. . . . Love bears all things, love believes all things" – you hear it at a lot of weddings. How do you write these things when you are at your lowest ebb? 'Cause I didn't. I didn't. I didn't deepen myself. I am looking to somebody like Paul, who was in prison and writing these love letters and thinking, "How does that happen? It is amazing."

Now, it doesn't cure him of all, of what he thinks of women or gay people or whatever else, but within his context he has an amazingly transcendent view of love. And I do believe that the darkness is where we learn to see. That is when we see ourselves clearer – when there is no light.

You asked me about my faith. I had a sense of suffocation. I am a singer, and everything I do comes from air. Stamina, it comes from air. And in this process, I felt I was suffocating. That was the most frightening thing that could happen to me because I am in pain. Ask Ali. She said I wouldn't notice if I had a knife sticking out of my back. I would be like, "Huh, what is that?" But this time last year, I felt very alone and very frightened and not able to speak and not able to even explain my fear because I was kind of . . .

When you felt like you were suffocating?

Yeah. But, you know, people have had so much worse to deal with, so that is another reason not to talk about it. You demean all the people who, you know, never made it through that or couldn't get health care!

Do you feel like you lucked out?

Lucked out? I am the fucking luckiest man on Earth. I didn't think that I had a fear of a fast exit. I thought it would be inconvenient 'cause I have a few albums to make and kids to see grow up and this beautiful woman and my friends and all of that. But I was not that guy. And then suddenly you are that guy. And you think, "I don't want to leave here. There's so much more to do." And I'm blessed. Grace and some really clever people got me through, and my faith is strong.

I read the Psalms of David all the time. They are amazing. He is the first bluesman, shouting at God, "Why did this happen to me?" But there's honesty in that too. . . . And, of course, he looked like Elvis. If you look at Michelangelo's sculpture, don't you think David looks like Elvis?

He's a great beauty.

It is also annoying that he is the most famous Jew in the world and they gave him an uncircumcised . . . that's just crazy. But, anyway, he is a very attractive character. Dances naked in front of the troops. His wife is pissed off with him for doing so. You sense you might like him, but he does some terrible things as he wanders through four phases – servant, poet, warrior, king. Terrible things. He is quite a modern figure in terms of his contradictions. . . . Is this boring?

But if you go back to his early days, David is anointed by Samuel, the prophet Samuel, and, above all, his older brothers, a sheepherder presumably smelling of sheep shite, he is told, "Yeah, you are going to be the king of Israel." And everyone is laughing, like, "You got to be kidding – this kid?" But only a few years later, Saul, the king, is reported as having a demon and the only thing that will quiet the demon is music. . . . Makes sense to me. David can play the harp. As he is walking up to the palace, he must be thinking, "This is it! This is how it is going to happen." Even better, when he meets the king and gets to be friends with the king's son Jonathan. It's like, "Whoa, this is definitely going to happen! The old prophet Samuel was right." And then what happens? In a moment of demonic rage, Saul turns against him, tries to kill him with a spear, and he is, in fact, exiled. He is chased, and he hides out in a cave. And in the darkness of that cave, in the silence and the fear and probably the stink, he writes the first psalm.

And I wish that weren't true. I wish I didn't know enough about art to know that that is true. That sometimes you just have to be in that cave of despair. And if you're still awake . . . there is this very funny bit that comes next. So David, our hero, is hiding out in the cave, and Saul's army comes looking for him. Indeed, King Saul comes into the cave where David is hiding to . . . ah . . . use the facilities. I am not making this up – this is in the Holy Scriptures. David is sitting there, hiding. He could just kill the king, but he goes, "No, he is the anointed. I cannot touch him." He just clips off a piece of Saul's robe, and then Saul gets on his horse as they go off. They're down in the valley, and then David comes out and he goes, "Your king-ness, your Saul-ness, I was that close."

It is a beautiful story. I have thought about that all my life, because I knew that's where the blues were born.

Wednesday, December 6, 2017

‘Songs of Experience’ by U2 Review: Rocking Its Classic Sound

The raw, lean authority at much of the new disc’s core harkens back to some of U2’s best albums.

By Jim Fusilli
U2's new album is ‘Songs of Experience’
U2's new album is ‘Songs of Experience’ PHOTO: OLAF HEINE


As its title suggests, U2’s new “Songs of Experience” (Interscope), out now, is kin to the band’s 2014 release, “Songs of Innocence.” Because the group took a different approach to recording the latest album, “Experience” surpasses its predecessor and connects to some of U2’s earlier, superior works.

The titles allude to William Blake’s late 18th-century poetry collections of the same names. “Songs of Innocence” is Blake’s rumination on an idyllic childhood that too soon exists only in memory. Similarly, on U2’s recording, Bono explored his teen years in Dublin, his burgeoning awareness of a larger world, and his appreciation of family and the musical heroes of his youth.

But as compelling as were Bono’s narratives, some of the “Songs of Innocence” music was at a distance from U2’s best instincts. The band has long incorporated the latest techniques in music-making into its sound, but here the muddied environment was unnecessarily overburdened with additional instrumentation contributed by the album’s five producers. Played by just the quartet when U2 took them on the road, as documented in the 2016 film “Innocence + Experience: Live in Paris,” the songs hit with power.

For “Songs of Experience,” U2 again deploys a battery of producers, thus hinting it is following the previous album’s template. When it played the beefy new ballad “The Little Things That Give You Away” earlier this year on tour, the song opened with the Edge on piano and the dull huff-ting of a drum machine. But that arrangement isn’t the one on “Songs of Experience.” Instead, the track builds to a fury with the classic U2 sound under Bono’s voice.

It’s been reported that U2, not satisfied with the new album’s direction, went into a New York studio in March with longtime associate Steve Lillywhite and re-recorded the music live without additional musicians. The raw, lean authority at the core of much of the album supports that claim. Instrumentation retained from earlier sessions and appended to the live tracks distracts as often as it enriches. But “Songs of Experience” confirms that bassist Adam Clayton and drummer Larry Mullen Jr. can still create a bottom so supple and sturdy that the Edge has ample room to chug, chime and roam above them on guitar.

That rhythm section is relentless on “The Blackout,” which blends the punch of rock with the snap of funk. “Summer of Love” and “Red Flag Day” are crisp and clear with the bass and the Edge’s guitar in pleasing relief. After Kendrick Lamar’s riff on Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount kicks off “American Soul,” the song profits from the band’s heaviest performance on the disc. If “Songs of Experience” peters out with the cliché-ridden ballad “Love Is Bigger Than Anything in Its Way” and soppy “13 (There Is a Light)”—both of which seem to have been made by committee—the band hasn’t lost its instinct for clever pop: “The Showman (Little More Better),” which features the Edge’s acoustic guitar and a seductive performance by Mr. Mullen, is as catchy as can be.

In his “Songs of Experience,” Blake posits mankind as trapped and forlorn but able to transcend its dire circumstances through love and a refusal to submit to hypocrisy. Bono’s storytelling has long reflected a parallel view. Here, after acknowledging in “The Little Things That Give You Away” that “Sometimes I’m full of anger and grieving / So far away from believing that any sun will reappear,” in “13 (There Is a Light),” he sings, “You start with nothing / You start with a void / Love is all we have left.” The theme of “Love Is Bigger Than Anything in Its Way” is its title.

Bono tackles big issues, including his own mortality. Addressing his recent health problems in “Lights of Home,” he writes, “I shouldn’t be here ’cause I should be dead.” He restates his love for America: “This country is to me a thought that offers grace for every welcome that is sought,” he sings in “American Soul,” while conveying a sense of despair in “The Blackout”: “Democracy is flat on its back, Jack / We had it all and what we had is not coming back.” That Bono can be both a pontificating, steel-willed figure and a musician who opens his heart to admit self-doubt serves well a quartet whose great strength is its mastery of musical melodrama in the rock idiom.

Thus, at its best, “Experience” is in line with “How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb” and “No Line on the Horizon,” U2’s finest 21st-century albums. Now in its fifth decade, it remains a great band that works best when it’s self-reliant and rocks with clarity and determination.

Mr. Fusilli is the Journal’s rock and pop music critic. Email him at jfusilli@wsj.com and follow him on Twitter @wsjrock.


https://www.wsj.com

Saturday, December 2, 2017

‘It was like giving birth’: Andy Barlow on producing new U2 record Songs Of Experience

The follow-up to 2014’s Songs Of Innocence is out on Friday, December 1
DANIEL GUMBLE

Raising the bar: Andy Barlow
Raising the bar: Andy Barlow

Producer, mixer and sound engineer Andy Barlow has spoken exclusively to PSNEurope about his production work on new U2 album Songs Of Experience and how he also became the legendary rock outfit’s live sound design consultant.

Released Friday, December 1, Songs Of Experience is U2’s 14 studio album and is the follow up to 2014 album Songs Of Innocence. Already being hailed by critics as one of the band’s best records in years, Songs Of Experience sees U2 incorporate the many talents of some of the most revered producers in the game, including Barlow, Jacknife Lee, Ryan Tedder, Steve Lillywhite and Jolyon Thomas.

Barlow’s relationship with U2, however, extends beyond the confines of the studio, having served as live sound design consultant for some the band’s notoriously spectacular shows.

Here, Barlow tells us how he wound up hitting the road with one of the biggest rock bands of all time, what it’s like to work with Bono in the studio and why making Songs Of Experience was “like giving birth”…

You’ve been working exclusively with U2 for the past two years as producer and mixer and as a consultant on sound design for their live tour. How did that come about?

Becoming their live sound design consultant happened quite casually. I was on tour with them as producer and Bono said, There are a few things we need help on including our walk-on music, would you be interested in helping us? And a few days later he said, You’re one of the live creative team now, and that was it. Because I’m an artist as well, and been on stage lots of times, I guess I was the obvious candidate to try out for it. Bono feels that when you are in the studio and the red light comes on, you are more forced to come out with ideas because that red light is on. So writing and recording on tour, in dressing rooms, backstage, the red light isn’t on and ideas flow much more effortlessly.

Tell us about the live role. The band are known for their spectacular live shows – were their any particularly unusual requests or challenges?

I’d never done the live role before and it’s a really long show. U2’s live show is over 2 hours long, and on some gigs it would be extremely demanding on Bono’s voice. Their schedule was pretty gruelling so I needed to step in and help. I would think about set list sequencing and change keys to spare his voice, listen to his voice on every section and speak to him about which parts were most demanding on his vocal chords, change the running order and find new ways of singing parts of the song. The extremes from low baritone to falsetto is much more of a strain on his vocals than anything else, so it was about looking at that and lessening the intervals and placing them differently on the live set so that we could get through the show without his voice deteriorating. Bono needed creative ways to retain his vocal power, and he was to be able to finish the yearlong tour around the world.

You produced five tracks on the new record. What was that process like?

It was bit like giving birth. The thing about U2 is if you think you know what it’s like to produce bands, working with U2 would confuse you because they do things completely differently to everyone else. For example, usually you have to win the trust of the musicians before they let you get stuck in with directing, but Bono from the first moment was without ego. He is more open to new ideas than anyone that I’ve ever worked with. When Bono would come in, he would come in with a verse, then another verse, then another verse, and I’d record all of them and Bono would then say, It’s up to you, you pick the one you like’.

Trying to write and record an album while rehearsing for shows is hard for a band, but as we progressed, it spearheaded the whole creative tsunami that followed. When we got to LA, after the tour we started to get a lot done. We were in Rick Rubin’s studio and everyone was focussed on the record. Being on the road, you can get each member for just a few minutes at a time, and we’re in a dressing room where there is not enough space to record as a band. So I would be piecing individual pieces of a jigsaw puzzle, rather than having the overview of recording together as a band. Apart from Ireland, LA was the first time properly that we could record the band all together.

Talk us through the gear and the studio you used to make those tracks?

We had a large UAD rig, they really like everything to be plugged in and ready to play, so every morning we would sound check guitars, keys and bass, which means having a lot of inputs. I would un-mute a channel and it would be ready to record. On the UAD rig I’ve got every plugin that it comes with. Bono really loved singing in front of speakers with a SM58, this would be run into a Universal Audio 6176, into an UAD Apollo interface via a Manley Vari Mu compressor. The drums would go into Neve 5024 Mic pre amps. I’ve been monitoring on Genelec and PMC monitors. Guitars would come into me from The Edge’s amps via Royer ribbon microphones and SM57s. Bass I would take with Adam [Clayton’s] Vintage Ampeg recorded with a Shure SM7 mic via an L2 Compressor. For The Edge’s vocals, we did lots of them again handheld, with a Telefunken M80 microphone, again via a Neve Mic pre, which worked really well on his voice.

How involved were the band on the technical side of things in the studio? How involved is Bono in mic selection, mixing etc?

They don’t give a damn, they are very happy to take my lead! The Edge is very technical and is always coming up with signal path changes and effects and processing his guitar in different ways and is a genius at it. But the band didn’t get involved in the technical side of things really; they left it to me to choose the technical equipment So they could focus on the creativity

How much pressure and expectation is there going into the studio with a band the size of U2?

Everyone on their team is the best at what they do, so it does set the bar very high. The band were extremely busy, so sometimes I only got them for an hour a day, so there would be a lot of my interpretation to get a feel for how the band felt for how I was progressing when they came in for the next session. I felt some pressure, mostly from myself for wanting to excel at it and not get lost. There was a lot of heightened pressure, not so much from them, but the enormity of working with a band on their scale.


https://www.psneurope.com

U2 confronts the dinosaur within on new album 'Songs of Experience'



by Greg Kot


dinosaur wonders why it still walks the earth," U2 sings on “The Blackout.” It’s not the best song on the band’s new album, “Songs of Experience” (Interscope), but it may just be the most revealing.

It’s also an encouraging sign that U2’s latest crisis of faith — and there have been many in the Irish quartet’s storied if fractured career — comes with a dollop of “Jurassic Park” humor, a send-up of its own natural tendency toward bombast and overstatement. U2 lives in constant fear of turning into a classic-rock dinosaur, though it often behaves like one, and it’s refreshing to hear Bono and his bandmates confronting and poking fun at the stodgy old beast that lurks inside the decades-long stadium rockers.

“Songs of Experience” tries to remind listeners that U2 still has a few surprises left to unveil: It’s unusually subtle and low-key at times, it’s frequently self-deprecating, and it has one or two powerful moments that rank with the band’s better music. In sum, it’s kind of a mess, which means it’s a heck of a lot more interesting than its predecessor, the ill-fated 2014 album, “Songs of Innocence,” now best known as the dud that invaded iTunes user’s libraries in a poorly conceived marketing stunt cooked up by the band and Apple.

Bono, the Edge, Adam Clayton and Larry Mullen Jr. have made some of their finest music when they act like they have nothing to lose. That was particularly true during the ’90s, which produced a mix of noisy, jumbled, occasionally confusing and confused albums that veered between accidental masterpieces such as “Achtung Baby!” and half-finished tangents such as “Pop” and the “Passengers” side project. It was a great time to be a U2 fan, with music that was both raw and ridiculous, with bursts of unexpected poignancy, humor and why-the-hell-not? experimentation.

The ’90s, and “Achtung Baby!” in particular, also marked the first of several “comebacks” in U2’s career. It was followed by an era of more conservative albums that recycled the band’s best ’80s moves once the experiments started to lose luster with a fan base yearning for more “Joshua Tree”-style guitar anthems.

“Songs of Experience” tries to make amends for “Songs of Innocence” by easing back slightly on the slick pop production that sucked all the character out of the earlier album’s songs. The new album was initially conceived as the “adult” sequel to the childhood memories of “Innocence,” but that plan ran aground as the album churned through nine producers and several revisions. It was finally revamped for the final time after Bono’s mysterious “brush with mortality,” as described by the Edge in a recent interview with Rolling Stone.

The initial impression left by “Experience” is of a more tempered and low-key U2, with Bono delivering some unusually warm and intimate vocals that suggest a man who has indeed faced some sort of personal reckoning. The singer has suggested that several songs were conceived as letters to his wife and children in the aftermath of his near-death experience, and that reflective tone lends a haunted quality to “Love is All We Have Left” and an aura of stunned gratefulness in “Lights of Home.”

In “You’re the Best Thing About Me,” ostensibly one of several love songs on the album that Bono addresses to his wife, the band wrestles with self-doubt over Adam Clayton’s foundation-crashing bass line. Clayton’s bass, long the band’s secret weapon, was largely muted on “Songs of Innocence,” but it resumes its Godzilla-like presence on several “Experience” songs. “I have everything, but I feel like nothing at all,” Bono sings, and later wonders, “Why am I walking away.” Is he talking about his wife? His family? The band itself?

Yet the best that can be said about lesser tracks such as “Get Out of Your Own Way” and especially “American Soul” is that Kendrick Lamar’s bleakly humorous reinterpretation of the biblical beatitudes walks away with both of them. “American Soul” wants desperately to shift the perspective to world events and the refugee crisis, but it’s a heavy-handed stomp that provides a forum for some of Bono’s most face-palm-worthy lyrics: “For refugees like you and me/A country to receive us/Will you be our sanctuary/Refu-Jesus."

Yet two subsequent tracks addressing the same issue leave a far more favorable impression. There’s the nuance of “Summer of Love,” a sparse tribute to the Syrian citizen who continued to nurture his garden amid the carnage of Aleppo. And there’s the fierce conviction and melodic propulsion of “Red Flag Day,” anchored by another shattering Clayton bass line.

The album toggles between extremes, sandwiching strong songs amid ponderous throwaways. As it winds down, the missteps pile up: a lesser husband-wife love song (“Landlady”), a bloated would-be anthem (“Love is Bigger Than Anything in its Way”), and, in “13 (There is a Light),” a rewrite of “Song for Someone” from “Songs of Innocence,” apparently appended to the album to create a false sense of symmetry with its predecessor.

And yet there are also two brash tunes that sound like U2 talking to itself, and by extension its fans, about what it means to be a rock band in 2017. In the shaggy, loose-limbed “The Showman (Little More Better),” Bono suggests that all those we pay for entertainment — including, presumably, the singer in the biggest Irish rock band of all time — shouldn’t be trusted for anything. “I lie for a living, I love to let on,” Bono sings. “But you make it true when you sing along.”

Similarly, “The Blackout,” parodies arena rock with its groaning guitars and, yes, another city-stomping contribution from the irreplaceable Clayton. All doubts are extinguished “when the lights go out” and the music takes over. The takeaway: Dinosaurs really aren’t extinct. They’re alive and well and living inside Adam Clayton’s bass.

Greg Kot is a Tribune critic.

greg@gregkot.com

Twitter @gregkot

“Songs of Experience”

U2

Two and a half stars (out of 4)

http://www.chicagotribune.com

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

U2 - Songs of Experience

U2's staying power, self-belief and hope remains admirable after all these years

By Alan Corr

The band who tried to make the devil’s music find religion face up to mortality and wrestle with geopolitics on their new album - so business as usual for U2 but there are fresh signs of vitality

U2, that most thoroughly un-rock `n’ roll of rock `n’ roll bands, are not so much shaking all over as aching all over on their 14th album. Songs of Experience is no longer a "companion" piece to 2014’s windy Songs of Innocence but a collection of thirteen new tablets of stone from the Dublin veterans, all carved with lyrics about mortality, love, and even the actual act of performance itself. 

This wouldn’t be a U2 album if front man Bono wasn’t back trying to throw his arms around the world in an over-earnest manner that threatens to smother the good work of his fellow band mates. The ongoing refugee crisis is mentioned, America’s slide into cartoon autocracy is touched upon, and matters familial take up a lot of space here. 

Bono is also facing up to mortality after a nasty bicycling accident in New York in late 2014 and, more seriously, what he calls a "recent brush with death", which he refers to on several songs here. So far, so U2 but there are also signs of life amid the naff lyrics ("For refugees like you and me/A country to receive us/Will you be our sanctuary/Refu-Jesus") and over-reaching musical bombast - the band actually sound more vital and than they have since their self-decreed comeback, 2000’s All That You Can’t Leave Behind.


The much delayed and much tinkered with SOE was produced by Jacknife Lee and Ryan Tedder with Steve Lillywhite, Andy Barlow (of unsung electronic music duo Lamb), and Jolyon Thomas, and the songs shimmy between traditional U2 bombast and something far deeper and self-analytical. There are cranked-up rockers like the War era Red Flag Day but there are also moments of reflection and humour like The Showman.

However, too many of these songs sound like Bono is being immolated by his self-obsession again and the listener’s interest in the singer’s private life will dictate how much room in their hearts they have for another paean from a very famous bloke to his wife and kids. The Landlady, with its pitter patter drums and clipped guitars, is a cute but slightly meandering love letter to his wife Ali and elsewhere he wonders how his children will fare as they enter into adulthood. Listening to all this is just a tad like having to view your mate’s Instagram posts of his summer backpacking in Goa. 


When poet Brendan Kenneally advised Bono to "write like you’re dead" he probably didn’t have such lines as "You are rock and roll/You and I are rock and roll/You are rock and roll" in mind. There are many other moments of facepalm naffness on SOE. You may even utter "Refu-Jesus!" several times but the alchemy of the band make up for the more mawkish moments.

The Edge has magicked up some of his more inventive and engaging riffs in years (Hendrix here, Harrison there) and the engine room of Adam and Larry stomp all over the place, reasserting themselves amid the sci-fi gospel tunes and ambient longueurs. Adam Clayton’s bass in particular prowls the precincts like a very cool cat and the nuts and bolts mechanics of Larry Mullen’s drumming often hold the over-reaching arrangements together with ballast and sheer muscle power.


That impressive gallery of top notch producers behind the desk and in the studio means that there is much sonic messing about. Some of it is thrilling; Love Is All We Have Left is a spectral prayer in which Bono tries vocoder for the first time, and the scrappy Sweet Jane styled The Showman is among the best songs here, with its self-reproofing lyric and a surprising appearance of a brass section.


Bono’s chronicle of a death foretold, Lights Of Home, also has a strong melody with yearning guitars gnawing away at the edges and mucho tub thumping from Larry before it takes off into a heart-bursting anthem. But that talent for the lumbering and the inconsequential is also present. You're The Best Thing About Me is U2 by numbers, complete with distorted bass, exotic strings, a cathartic guitar solo, and some pretty ill-judged chord changes. It is only slightly less irksome than City of Shining Lights.

Get out of Your Own Way is another one of those dispiriting U2 moments when U2 sound like The Killers trying to do a U2 song only with possibly less clichés and tuneless choruses while Kendrick Lemar’s satirical Old Testament fire and brimstone preaching is the best thing about the dumb stomp of American Soul.

There are many references to the past. The Little Things That Give You Away may touch on the small hours menace of Achtung Baby but it’s just another plodding verse/chorus workout that collapses after a breakneck dash to an anti-climax. The Blackout, however, bounds along with all the distortion of Zoo TV era on a bassline that would support a suspension bridge.

There are also plenty of well-meaning but top heavy clunkers like Love Is Bigger Than Anything In Its Way (flatulent heroism on a grand scale) and 13 (There Is A Light), a somewhat superfluous slight return to SOI’s windswept Song for Someone.

As is often the case with U2, they are at their very best when they are vulnerable. Questioning his very motivation after a recent volley of fresh attacks, Bono even sounds almost thunderstruck by a new sense of self-awareness on at least one song here. But even after this return to form, the band will remain as polarising as the polarised world they’re singing about.

Despite it all, U2’s staying power, self-belief and hope remains admirable after all these years. Rarely have four men with so much experience sounded so very innocent.

Alan Corr @corralan

https://www.rte.ie