"In my pidgin English, Bono means good egg. He is my big brother and I love him."
-- photographer Anton Corbijn
@U2 Staff Review: Songs Of Experience
December 05, 2017
Songs Of Experience has unleashed the usual flood of critical praise, punditry and potshots from U2 fans and detractors. So after a few days of intense listening, how have ATU2 staff members experienced these songs? Here are some of our initial thoughts:
I usually like to take some time to form an opinion about an album. However, what I can say now about Songs Of Experience is that I love it! U2, indeed, show themselves as an experienced band, with a mature sound. You can clearly identify classic elements from albums like The Joshua Tree. At the same time, new components remind me of Achtung Baby. That is the real U2! They are not afraid to risk, while keeping their essence.
I think this album contains very powerful messages. Bono’s words are similar to a poet’s, and all these songs can touch your heart in an instant. The themes are the usual ones: love, faith, doubt, family and politics. But they’re not repetitive; instead, they’re very current and fresh. I usually say I was lucky to grow up with U2 teaching me about everything going on in the world. I’ve learned from their songs before I could I learn from the books. And I assure you that I’m still learning. Whether it’s a sentimental problem or a worldwide issue, love is the answer. In these crazy and hard times, U2 prove which things are essential to our lives — and they’re not things. A modern band represents what we need, and what we should do to have better days. Don’t take for granted your family and friends; give hope; and share love with everyone. Songs Of Experience is definitely U2’s best album in recent years.
Favorite track: I can’t decide yet. “Lights Of Home,” “The Showman” and “Book Of Your Heart” are among my favorites, but at this moment I’ll choose “Love Is Bigger Than Anything In Its Way.”
It’s freeing to listen to a U2 album for a while and not feel like I have to defend or explain it. I feel U2 are giving me this permission. The time for critique will come, but for now I’m just enjoying it, which seems to be one of the bigger themes on Songs Of Experience: Enjoy this music. Enjoy this life. Rise above all those points of worldly comparisons that trap you into worrying if you are faster, smarter, stronger, better. Be in the moment of now and bring more of your eternal self to bear on right now. That’s about all you can do to make things better. I like that U2 are confident enough to grab from all that is good music to make that point. These are grown men — very grown rock star men — who know yelling and stomping accomplishes little, but a soft word spoken through a song turns away wrath. This is an album by grown men saying yes to auto-tuning, blues riffs, strings, sharp beats, kick drums and boys’ choir effects. It’s a powerful mix that takes experienced hands for it to turn out right. It’s U2’s love supreme.
Favorite track (right now): “Love Is Bigger Than Anything In Its Way”
For me, deciding whether a new U2 album passes the test is how it sticks with me. Each new era of the band feels a little foreign at first, but now, after three listens through, I find myself constantly referring back to the hooks of these awesome songs. What’s more, it makes me want to go back and dive into SOI and see more connections beyond the first wave of obvious tie-ins. For any music I listen to, when I develop a natural curiosity into the rest of the artist’s music, that’s a sign there’s depth worth exploring. Songs Of Experience promises plenty of that depth. It was hard at first admitting this, but many of the songs are catchy in the vein of today’s modern rock. I’m a bit more at peace with that realization because the soaring, guitar-driven U2 still prevails. My standout track right now is “The Showman” because it’s the song that surprises me most from a group that never stops surprising me.
Favorite track: “The Showman”
Back in 2014 I described how U2 had released a concept album with Song Of Innocence. And with the release of Songs Of Experience, they continue that theme. Initially, having heard a few of the tracks either live or in recent weeks as isolated song drops, I struggled with even liking them. But now, hearing them in the environment of an album, in sequence, in context — wow, do they sound different. It’s certainly the most pop-sounding album they have released in their long and illustrious history, and that’s hardly surprising given the number of producers who worked on it and have been associated with various crossover chart acts, but that doesn’t take away from what are very well-crafted songs. The lyrics are very clearly written from the heart by Bono, much more so than on recent albums, and clearly his health concern has had a profound affect on them. It’s extraordinary that 41 years into their career, the same four Dublin guys can have such an effect on us. It may have taken a while for this album to be released, but the wait has been worth it. Long may they continue to record. We are lucky to have them.
Favorite track: “Lights Of Home”
When a U2 album is released, fans scramble to analyze it like a child desperate to crack their secret decoder ring. Some believe it’s all Bible; others assume literature. With Songs Of Innocence and Songs Of Experience, both elements surely factor in, but I think it’s much simpler: “Innocence” was about the past and “Experience” is about the present. If Songs Of Ascent ever materializes, it will presumably be about the future.
Perhaps that’s why I think “Innocence” is superior — because the band have literally lived and processed those themes thoroughly enough to thoughtfully reflect. “Experience” to me is more shell-shocked, like a deliberate work in progress. Bono’s health scare and the political uncertainty of our world today permeate both the lyrics and melodies. It’s as if they wanted to try everything all-of-a-sudden because time could indeed be running out. This urgency results in daring stunners (“The Blackout”), gorgeous hymns (“13 [There Is A Light]”) and alternately, a few tunes that sound like they’re trying too hard to appeal to a younger audience (“Red Flag Day”).
If the Blake connection wasn’t necessary for continuity, perhaps another one-word title would have been more appropriate for this album: Mortality.
Favorite track: “Lights Of Home”
Simply put, Songs Of Experience is potent, powerful and personal. It is the rawest Bono has ever written. No pretense. Typical of the rest of the U2 canon, the songs can be interpreted in a myriad of ways, but at the core of these 13 tracks is the same theme: Agape. These songs are filled with care and love toward all in Bono’s life. The instrumentation built around the lyrics solidifies that brotherhood these four men have had for decades. This album takes us on Bono’s solo journey, with his friends and family pulling him back among the fray.
There is not a heartbeat at the album’s start: no drum and an ever-so-faint bass line. The next 11 songs take us from a conversation with St. Peter at the Pearly Gate through the accounting and confession to determine admission through that gate. By the album’s end, “13” has a muted drumbeat that becomes stronger as the song concludes — that heartbeat has returned. It’s a journey not many come back from, which makes this album sacred to me.
U2 also sample themselves, and the art of the callback is intentional. Blake did the same with his Songs Of Innocence and Songs Of Experience, so it’s no surprise. For me, this album is as good, if not better than, Achtung Baby. I look forward to defending that statement in the weeks and years to come.
Favorite track: “Lights Of Home”
There are a lot of words I think of when I listen to U2. “Brilliant.” “Perfect.” “Geniuses.” Another word is “growth.” During my fandom, I have watched them evolve as they created new chapters during their 40-year musical journey. U2 has also been my voice when I’ve faced crossroads in my life. For example, How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb helped me when I had no clue what I wanted from college. Songs Of Innocence gave me the hope I sought when dealing with an unexpected diagnosis. These albums have added many layers to my existence.
“Growth” is how I feel about Songs Of Experience. Currently, I’m at four full listens since its release. While I’m truly enjoying it (and grateful we have new music), I admit I’m not head over heels yet. This happened with SOI. I played it out for about a month, then tucked it away into my iTunes library. Only when I was desperate for guidance did I happen to rediscover it. I fell in love instantly. That’s what is so beautiful about growth. You appreciate the path and the experience so much more to get to the destination. I’m so intrigued for the road this album will take me on.
Songs Of Experience was, to paraphrase Bono, born into a world on fire. For me, as a person who’s trying his best to not get burned by the flames, this album couldn’t have come at a better time. U2’s 14th album is one of their best, delivering hard truths and heartfelt confessions in an almost painfully honest way.
However, I must admit that I am torn over the inclusion of “Summer Of Love” and “Red Flag Day.” The tunes are perfectly fine on their own, but the lyrical contents and musicality feel incredibly out of place. Stopping down to talk about refugees in the middle of an album dealing with personal apocalypses and complex relationships is hard for me to wrap the critical part of my brain around.
Overall, Songs Of Experience is a soaring achievement and serves as proof that the band’s insatiable hunger isn’t going away anytime soon.
Favorite track: TIE: “Lights Of Home” and “Love Is Bigger Than Anything In Its Way”
I see U2’s new album as the pinnacle of past efforts. Songs Of Innocence was a reflection on Iris’ death; SOE is the felt experience of Bono’s own mortality. No Line On The Horizon told the stories of other people; SOE is autobiography that confronts all of our stories. How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb exposed the band’s faith; SOE infuses every song with divine urgency. All That You Can’t Leave Behind replaced the playful decadence of the ZooTV and Pop tours with simple messages of love and grace; SOE is the completion of those ideas, refined by age.
On SOE, the concept of love is a major motif, along with other key themes including seeing/looking, light, goodness and knowledge. But for all the positive metaphors, we only understand them fully by tripping through Bono’s own frail mortality, wandering with him through doubt, darkness, fear and loss, finally emerging from the shadowland with a new appreciation for how inconceivably radiant we all are. I’ve wept listening to this album. Are they tears of grief or gratitude? I’m not quite sure, but I do know this post-punk band’s message is still one of love, and that SOE is an album for someone like me.
Favorite track: “The Showman”
A week into experiencing a new U2 album, I typically “label it,” mentally, based on what I’ve heard. NLOTH was “the ‘oh-ooh’ album.” SOI was “the mature sounding album.” So far, SOE is “the sparkly, shimmery album.” There is an enormous degree of expansive, wide, glistening, shimmery sparkle throughout this record, driven by keyboards, guitar shimmer, vocal layering and highly thought-out reverb wash, serving as backdrop for the rest of the parts and instruments. And I like it.
Some folks have said, “Best since Achtung Baby,” or “Most cohesive set since ATYCLB.” I can’t bring myself to make those net comparisons so early. However, I believe this new album shares a lot with each of these previous releases: It’s a blend of the unbridled joy they tried to create with ATYCLB, and the heavy desperation they so successfully created with Achtung Baby, still my favorite album of all time. Bono’s recent health scare is pervasive in both the lyrics and feel of the songs.
U2 succeed the most when they create simultaneous feelings of gripping sadness and hopeful longing — songs that make you clutch your heart. I’ve done that a few times with SOE, so so far, so good.
Favorite track: Impossible at the moment. Throw a rock in the air, you’re bound to hit one that’s been bouncing around my head at some point in the day.
Songs Of Experience, U2’s 14th studio album, has had a long gestation and a host of producers, at odds with the occasionally expressed desire to make a simpler record. The result is a strange contrast: Lyrically, it’s possibly their darkest album, yet musically it’s one of their most radio-friendly. Six of its songs land at less than four minutes, and subtracting the bookends, every track has a significant chorus that should bring an entire arena to its feet. There has been a lot of news coverage about the relationship between Songs Of Innocence and Songs Of Experience, Bono’s “brush with mortality” and other influences, but it may be the written-letter format of “Experience” that serves as the strongest creative backdrop. The setting has served U2 well, providing much for fans to dig into. Hopefully this is not the last album we will see from the band, but if it is, they have something to be proud of, as it is their strongest and — importantly — most consistent album since 1993.
Favorite track: “The Little Things That Give You Away,” with its slow-building, cathartic ending
I doubted U2 still had an album like this in them. There would have been nothing wrong with them making albums as the biggest niche band in the world. Their releases would have certainly been my favorites of their respective years, even if they didn’t make a huge cultural impact. But Songs Of Experience taught me a lesson.
This is the best album since How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb, without a doubt. Along with The Joshua Tree, Achtung Baby and All That You Can’t Leave Behind, Songs Of Experience is one of their touchstone albums. The bridge of “Love Is Bigger Than Anything In Its Way” is the most U2 moment ever. “The Little Things That Give You Away” is much more beautiful with Edge’s guitars than on the piano he played live. “Red Flag Day” captures all the energy of a War track and is right at home next to “The Refugee.” “Book Of Your Heart” is so ’80s B-side and kind of creepy, which I love. And Kendrick Lamar, Lady Gaga and Haim are all perfect backing acts for the music.
If All That You Can’t Leave Behind is about your parents’ mortality, Songs Of Experience is about your mortality. Their fourth masterpiece.
Favorite track (currently): “The Little Things That Give You Away”
Listening to SOI and SOE back-to-back made the first-time listening experience of SOE that much more meaningful and complete. I definitely see this as one whole album, separated by three years, but no less a singular project. The callbacks are extraordinary and the soundscapes are massive and far more satisfying than on the mostly bland-sounding SOI. Sonically, it feels more connected to No Line On The Horizon than SOI. That being said, SOE helps make SOI a better album now that some of the songs have a newfound context. It almost feels like a farewell album, like the end of Abbey Road stretched out.
As I listen to new U2 albums over the course of the first week or so, I eventually begin to notice the cracks and flaws. There are flaws here, certainly (Bono isn’t quite the great wordsmith he used to be and I’ve come to accept that; his songwriting has become more and more awkward and clumsy over the years), but I haven’t found a track that I will skip over yet. Even the seemingly disposable “Best Thing” and “The Showman” have earned their place.
Favorite track: “Lights Of Home” (How many albums actually peak at Track 2?)
The right to be ridiculous, Bono has told us, is something he holds dear. So to start out, I’ll just say I feel building an entire song (“American Soul”) around one of the laziest, hackneyed lyrics of his writing career — and one that’s recycled from another dud (“Volcano”), no less — is a mistake not even Kendrick Lamar’s deft turning upside-down of the Beatitudes can save. And even if it turns out to be a brilliant album after a dozen listens, it doesn’t erase the taste of the Verified Fan system disaster and Live Nation’s soulless specter hanging over the band. I wish I could separate that fiasco from the album itself, but I just can’t yet. Despite those negatives, it seems there’s a lot of quality here. The second half, in somewhat of a departure, seems stronger than the first. It’s going to take some getting used to, as I’m not blown away like some longtime fans seem to be. But the studio version of “Little Things” is as good as anything U2 have done this millennium. Like Yer Man, though, I reserve the right to change my mind. In either direction.
Favorite track: “The Little Things That Give You Away”