Had U2 not caused a kerfuffle by directly uploading their 2014 album “Songs of Innocence” to the iTunes libraries of the world, it’s likely the album would have come and gone without anyone outside the band’s core audience really noticing. Instead, the PR stunt backfired spectacularly, coming off as the latest unwelcome symptom of Bono’s weapons-grade hubris and resulting in a perfectly fine album getting some of the worst reviews of the Irish arena-rockers’ career. The public shaming seems to have chastened the group, who, after three years of promising that the companion album “Songs of Experience” was coming soon, have finally released it to about as little fanfare as a band this huge can manage. It’s a strikingly low-stakes record that seems to mark U2’s official retirement from taking risks or trying to be the biggest band in the world — and that’s definitely a mixed blessing.
“Songs of Experience” rarely deviates from the template that 2000’s “All That You Can’t Leave Behind” established for U2’s third act; that means lots of generically motivational lyrics and arrangements that patiently build to their inevitable crescendos. When the Edge’s echoing arpeggios ring out on the chorus of lead single “You’re the Best Thing About Me,” it works on an almost Pavlovian level, making you hear all the U2 songs with similar guitar parts you’ve ever loved. Regrettably, the band rarely builds up enough momentum to achieve lift-off, instead slowing to an adult contemporary-friendly gait for much of the album’s second half. In these tepid environs, the fuzzed-out stomp of “American Soul” and bass-driven groove of “The Blackout” stand out as highlights merely for elevating the listener’s heart rate a bit.
As he did before “Songs of Innocence,” Bono has claimed that the lyrics of “Songs of Experience” are among the most personal he’s written, but by now U2 fans know better than to take him at his word on such matters. He does go deep on a few songs, reflecting on the gratitude he felt after surviving a brush with death on “Lights of Home” and detailing a late-night anxiety attack with unsparing honesty on “The Little Things That Give You Away.” More typical are “Love Is All We Have Left” and “Love Is Bigger Than Anything In Its Way,” neither of which has much to say beyond those isn’t-love-grand titles. Kendrick Lamar probably dashed off the Beatitude-flipping monologue that bridges “Get Out of Your Own Way” and “American Soul” in 10 minutes tops, and it’s still easily one of the album’s most insightful moments.
Taken as a whole, “Songs of Experience” isn’t a bad U2 album — just an uneven one. For every dull rehash of past glories, there’s something like the slinky Zombies pastiche “Summer of Love” to restore one’s faith that U2’s well of inspiration hasn’t gone entirely dry. It’ll be interesting to see where the band goes after this record: Their next album could be a hushed meditation on mortality, or it could be a collection of cloud-busting stadium anthems. “Songs of Experience” tries to have it both ways, and though it works about half the time, there’s something disappointing about seeing a band that once straddled the sublime and ridiculous so brilliantly now hedging their bets.Terence Cawley can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @terence_cawley