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’ 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 firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @wsjrock.