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.
“Songs of Experience”
Two and a half stars (out of 4)