Review: “Songs Of Experience” by U2

Note: This review is also available on video on the Track X Track YouTube channel.

Like a lot of people, I first started listening to U2 when their iconic album The Joshua Tree came out back in 1987. Of course, they’d had four albums before that, but I’d never really given them a shot. I’d heard songs like “New Year’s Day” and “Pride In The Name of Love,” but they weren’t enough to really pique my interest as a teenage MTV watcher in the mid 80s. And to be fair, I initially bought The Joshua Tree (on cassette) mostly to impress a girl.

But never mind my motivation in buying the album. At least I was smart enough to recognize that what I was listening to was actually great music. More than great, in fact. A musical masterpiece! And I’d say the same thing about their follow-up studio album, 1991’s Achtung Baby.

So after releasing two iconic albums within just four years, U2 had set the bar pretty high for everything that would follow. I don’t think they’ve come close to the level of brilliance of those two albums on anything they’ve released since, but All That You Can’t Leave Behind was a strong contender. Regardless, I’ve at least “liked” everything they’ve put out over the past 30 years. I even enjoyed the much maligned Songs of Innocence. I mean, I’d have bought it the day it came out anyway, so to discover it was already loaded onto my iPhone… I sure wasn’t about to complain!

But it wasn’t too long after Songs of Innocence came out that the band started talking about a follow-up album to be entitled Songs of Experience. Now, I have to say, I was immediately skeptical about this news. First of all, U2 isn’t known for being speedy when it comes to putting out new music. A four-plus year wait between releases has been pretty common.

But the way they talked about Songs of Experience made it sound less like a follow-up and more like a companion album. Now, I’m all for getting more music from a great band, but I’d rather see them focus their energies on a true new album rather than theoretically polishing up songs that weren’t strong enough to be included on Songs of Innocence. It was beginning to sound like Zooropa all over again. That was a fine collection of music, but ultimately just a collection of leftover ideas from Achtung Baby.

Of course, Achtung Baby was a truly great album, so leftovers from that period of time at least had potential. Leftovers from Songs of Innocence, though? I was less enthusiastic. But here’s the thing. As quickly after Songs of Innocence as they started teasing Songs of Experience, I would have forgiven just about anything if they’d delivered that second volume with minimal delay.

But that’s not what happened. The band continued to toil over Songs of Experience for three years. In terms of U2 albums, three years may be a short span of time, but still… that’s more than enough time to reheat leftovers. As the release date drew closer and closer, I think fans were well within their rights to hope for something better than “Zooropa Two.”

And during the three years since Songs of Innocence and the band’s announcement of Experience as part two, I was actually hoping they’d abandon this sequel concept… not be constrained by that idea or feel obligated to polish up the half-baked material they were still working on when Innocence was completed. Why not just focus on delivering a whole new album? To be fair, I’ve heard a fair amount of the material on Songs of Experience is actually “new,” meaning written after Songs of Innocence rather than around the same time. But still, call it a sequel, call it “part two,” call it a companion album… this is how the band themselves have framed up Songs of Experience.

So as the album opens with the moody “Love Is All We Have Left,” I’m actually a bit surprised. This is a song that really doesn’t sound anything like what we heard on Songs of Innocence. It’s mostly an ethereal, droning soundscape with Bono singing over the top, not particularly melodic. It’s kind of like if “Where The Streets Have No Name” had consisted of just the majestic swell of synthesized strings and never lead into any drums or guitar. And clocking in at just two minutes 41 seconds, it’s the shortest song on a U2 album since The Unforgettable Fire. And I have to say, shorter is better here. It’s not a very interesting track. Sure, there’s that bit of auto-tuned effect on Bono’s voice that you’re hearing about in every review, but it’s not as if he’s gone full tilt Cher here.

As “Lights of Home” starts up, though, we start to hear a U2 that is more recognizable. If this is a holdover from the previous album, I can definitely hear it. It’s got some of that gritty, retro sound we heard on several of the songs a few years ago. I liked it then, and I like it now. What I don’t like is the fact that the guitar riff that opens the track and is central to the chorus is borrowed from indie-rock sister act Haim. In fact, it’s a carbon copy of a riff from one of my favorite songs on their 2013 debut album.

Now, to be fair, U2 did work with Haim as they were developing this album, and they give the girls credit for the music here. I just wish they’d gone with an original riff instead of borrowing someone else’s. Anyway, I still like the song… until it shifts gears in the final 60 seconds to become an affirmational sing along. It’s a left turn that I didn’t see coming and I’d prefer not to have taken. That being said, it does help make the transition to track three feel more natural.

“You’re The Best Thing About Me” was the first official single from Songs of Experience and it’s the album’s most obvious attempt at delivering a radio friendly song… as if contemporary radio was still interested in playing new music from U2. I don’t mean that as an insult, it’s just reality.

This song sounds a lot like songs that may have been hits for U2 in the past. “Beautiful Day” is one example. And maybe 10 or 15 years ago, we might have heard this track on popular radio just like we did with that song. But “You’re The Best Thing About Me” is no “Beautiful Day.” With lyrics like “how bad can a good time be” or even “I’m the kind of trouble that you enjoy” on the chorus, you can’t help but feel like we’ve heard this song from this band before, but better. And while I do like the fuzz guitar on the verses of this track, I’m actually annoyed by the drumming on the chorus and the bridge that feels like it’s been lifted off a hundred other dance-y guitar driven songs.

On “Get Out of Your Own Way,” we get another familiar U2 formula. Listen to the rhythm of the lyrical delivery on the verses here. We’ve heard this many times before, on multiple U2 records. Maybe it’s one of Bono’s trademarks, but it feels a little cliché here. But leave it to Bono to turn a mantra into a song. It’s a positive enough message, I guess, even if the song plagiarizes Mike Tyson’s famous “everybody’s got a plan” quote.

As the song fades into “American Soul,” we get a spoken word guest appearance from Kendrick Lemar. I’m not sure the sentiments expressed necessarily contribute to either song, but I’m at least grateful that we don’t get an awkward rap break. Kendrick Lemar is a great artist, but if the band had let him cut loose on one of these tracks, I have no doubt it would have sounded forced, not to mention pretentious… if you can imagine that.

Still, I do like “American Soul.” It’s got a grittiness that’s refreshing after the decidedly safer sounding previous tracks. I do wish they’d pushed it a little further, tough. Added some funk to the rock, maybe. If Lenny Kravitz was from Dublin and he’d released this track, imagine how that might have sounded. The foundation is there, we just needed these boys from Ireland to cut loose a bit more. By the way, I do want to add that I have no doubt Bono has been feverishly itching for an excuse to use the phrase “refu-Jesus” since the very moment it popped into his brain. I wouldn’t be surprised if this entire song was written for that very opportunity.

So remember how I talked about U2 borrowing the guitar riff on track two? On track six, it sounds like they’re borrowing from Foster The People. I got a distinct “Pumped Up Kicks” vibe right away. If you know that song, when you hear “Summer of Love,” you’ll know exactly what I’m talking about.

Still, I do dig the feel of this song. It’s got a haunting ambience to it, driven predominantly by Adam’s subtly funky bass line. There’s some strings that kick in later that I think are a bit unnecessary, though, and they kind of take away from the cool band vibe we had going.

On “Red Flag Day,” we’re back to that retro sound again… retro like pre-Joshua Tree. I think most longtime fans will appreciate that, and this may be one of their favorite tracks on the album. But then again, I know there’s a lot of those early fans that abandoned the band years ago figuring they’d never see U2 go back to the sound of Boy, October or even The Unforgettable Fire. Well, if they’re still listening… here it is.

I’ve used the word “retro” to describe several songs on this album, and I’ll use it again to describe “The Showman.” But with this song, I don’t mean retro U2, I mean retro rock and roll. Retro like Buddy Holly retro. At its core, “The Showman” is an old school rock and roll song. Sure, it’s updated to sound like, you know, U2. But if you strip it down just a little, this song could soundtrack a late 1950s sock hop. And don’t take that as an insult, because this is actually a really cool track! I could totally hear this song on a Vampire Weekend album, too, so maybe this is U2 trying to appeal to hipsters, I don’t know. Anyway, it’s one of the best songs on the album.

Following that high point, we get “The Little Things That Give You Away,” the only new song U2 played live on their recent Joshua Tree tour. This is a solid, downtempo track, featuring Edge’s trademark echoing guitar riffs on the chorus. As the song builds and swells, you can see exactly why they were anxious to play it live. The quiet, easy going beginning is deceptive. This is an arena filler, make no mistake. Again, another album highlight.

From there we move on to “Landlady,” another downtempo number that finds Bono in top form vocally. That being said, this song is the very definition of album filler material. There’s nothing remotely interesting or memorable about it. It’s just… there.

Next, buried all the way down at track eleven is “The Blackout,” the song that served as our first introduction to Songs of Experience a couple months ago, although as a live version rather than the album version. The funny thing is, I think the live version did a much better job delivering a sense of energy and urgency than the studio version on the album does.

Still, I really like how Adam’s bass takes the melodic lead on this song, complimented by the stomp of Larry’s percussive drumming. That’s not to say Edge’s guitar work isn’t good. On the contrary, I think he recognizes its rightful place in the song, and that’s filling in the background textures rather than being in your face. I do have to admit that I get a little distracted by Bono’s name-game lyrics. It’s like he had “Fifty Ways to Leave Your Lover” on his brain. We get Fred and Ned, Jack and Zack instead of Paul Simon’s friends Jack, Stan, Roy, Gus and Lee. It could be the same Jack in both songs, though. I don’t know. At any rate, “The Blackout” still ends up being one of my favorite tracks on the album.

I’m gonna use the R word again to describe “Love Is Bigger Than Anything In Its Way.” This time, we’re talking retro as in 80s. And I don’t mean 80s U2. I mean 80s like St. Elmo’s Fire soundtrack. I can tell the guys are shooting for anthemic here, especially on the sing along ending. And while that trick didn’t feel quite right back on the second track, it’s a natural fit here. But that doesn’t make this a good song. It’s not a bad song, either. Just a formulaic one.

Finally, we reach track 13, titled… 13. Subtitled “There Is A Light.” Earlier in this video, I talked about this album being setup as a sequel to Songs of Innocence, and this final track is exactly that. Basically, this is “Song For Someone, Part Two.” The track features a call back to the chorus of the original song from Innocence. Only now, we’re able to identify who that someone is. “Someone like me,” Bono sings. I guess that’s the knowledge and self-awareness that comes from Experience. Or something. I don’t know. This is very much a bookend kind of song, though, and to that end it would have worked better if it had actually been paired up with “Song for Someone” on the same album. Three years later and lacking as much melodic drive as that original track, I don’t think “13” delivers the kind of satisfying conclusion to the two album “Songs” cycle as the band intended. Songs of Experience just sort of ends with a shrug.

Going into this new album, I was not feeling optimistic. I consider myself to be a pretty big U2 fan, but it just wasn’t looking like Songs of Experience was shaping up to be one of the band’s better albums. And to be honest, it’s not. But I was preparing myself for something… I don’t know… “bad” is too strong a word, really. But I was ready to be let down. I thought the first few songs the band shared from the album were OK at best, which wasn’t a good sign. But after digging into the rest of the music, I think it is safe to say that the best songs are the ones that probably won’t ever be singles. And tried and true U2 fans know that’s been the case more often than not on many of their albums. This is a band that’s at its best when they’re not aiming for airplay.

I have to say, though, that I’m still not sold on this album being “Songs” volume two. I don’t think it effectively delivers on that concept. I know I said I didn’t want them to do a volume two in the first place, but if they’re going to do it, I’d rather see them be successful at it. With Songs of Experience, I don’t think they are. The problem is, I don’t think it quite gels as a cohesive, independent album either. Had they gone with a different title and not tied it directly to its predecessor, it still would have felt like a bit of a disjointed affair. But “Zooropa Two” it is not. It’s better than that.

So I’m giving Songs of Experience by U2 a rating of 6 out of 10. It’s a respectable effort that thankfully manages to avoid collapsing under the weight of expectations and self-importance. And along the way, the band cranked out a few really good songs, too. Hopefully, when they reconvene in a couple years to work on album 14, they’ll start with a truly fresh perspective. Timing-wise, that may align with the 30th anniversary of Achtung Baby in 2021. If that event serves as their muse, we could get some very exciting music indeed!