Album of the Week: U2, 'Songs of Experience'

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U2, 'Songs of Experience'
U2, 'Songs of Experience' (Courtesy of Interscope)
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Driving my 11-year old son Jameson back from hockey practice last night, I turned up the car stereo CD player (how '90s!) rocking my advance copy of the new U2 album, Songs of Experience. The track was "Get Out of Your Own Way," which starts with a chord progression evocative of "Where the Streets Have No Name" before exploding into a chorus fitting a Bollywood dance scene. Formerly sitting quietly in the seat beside me, Jameson pipes up, "Hey, I think I know this song."

"I don't think so, it's not out yet."

"But it sounds so familiar. This is U2? I thought they were old. Whoa — is that Kendrick at the end? Cool!"

And suddenly it's revealed to me — it's time to give up my expectations of what a U2 record should or shouldn't sound like, and try to listen like someone who's never heard of this band. Which isn't easy. Since their breakthrough in the early '80s, U2 have been as ubiquitous as oxygen, with albums, tours, millions of spins on radio stations from Top 40 to classic rock, and an uber jetsetter-humanitarian-inspiration-annoyance in lead singer Bono.

Here's the deal with the new U2 album, Songs of Experience: It's not a singular sonic vision or statement of purpose like The Joshua Tree, Achtung Baby or The Unforgettable Fire. It's a mess, but a beautiful, chaotic mess, a human mess.

With sessions that were stopped and started and spread across three years, multiple continents, and a mind-boggling 9 producers, it's an album by committee, overthought and overwrought, struggling to break free. And sometimes it does, and these moments are what makes it fascinating and alive, more political and interesting than anything they've done in decades. Bono reveals more of himself lyrically, while Edge and the band keep pulling tricks out of their bag — many you've heard before, some to the point of cliché, as in, you know when other bands have a song that you think, "Oh, that sounds like they're trying to rip off U2"? Well, U2 should probably be allowed to, you know, sound like U2 if they want to.

But it still evokes an eyeroll in some music fans — having lived with U2 now for nearly 40 years, the band is trapped — damned when they sound like U2, and damned when they try to not sound like U2. Little wonder they hit the reset button in 2017 to take us back to when sounding like U2 was still cool and new, touring nostalgically behind the 30th anniversary of The Joshua Tree before launching the Songs of Experience now. Those stops and starts in the studio allowed for a re-evaluation and re-write of the 50 song ideas they had begun, lyrically informed by the political shifts of the past two years and what Edge has called Bono's "brush with mortality." You've got anger, sadness, inspiration, beauty, wisdom, and a bit of bad poetry and sloganeering — sometimes within the same song.

Musically there are references to their past &mash; bits of The Joshua Tree and The Unforgettable Fire, rockers, ballads, and atmosphere, and then those stabs at 2018 pop relevancy that will probably cause polar reactions depending on your view of the band. For Jameson, maybe it's an entry that will widen to an appreciation of one of the most important musical legacies in rock history. For others, it might be a travesty, a desperate sellout.

Will any of these songs make their setlists past the upcoming tour? Tough to say, but the risks inherent in moshing this album together can't be unknown to U2, and while the tension created by this variety might prohibit it from being the best album of their career, it's a far more interesting listen than anything they've done since 2000's All That You Can't Leave Behind. Given how difficult it is to maintain freshness as an artist 37 continuous years into a career, Experience teaches us this is a thing to be celebrated.

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U2 - Official Site

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